Stress is . . . oh, wait, I don’t remember

For years I was caught in the trap of overdoing everything. I took on more and more work because I felt I had to prove myself. I couldn’t let go of my responsibilities because I felt I would no longer be of value. I made myself feel more important than others because I did more than they did. I was not only creating an unhappy life; truth is I was also hurting my brain.

According to recent research based on The Framingham Heart Study, high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, leads to reductions in brain volume, memory, and visual perception. This agrees with that I have found in my life. When I am too busy, when I am overextending myself, when I have intense stress, I don’t think, remember, or see well.

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

During my recent visit to the States, I had to prepare a property for a new renter. The last renter left a lot of surprises. Almost every day we found something new to repair, a utility bill that was not paid, or some other twist that now needed untwisting. I was stressed. I was under a deadline. Much of what had to be done was outside of my abilities which made me feel powerless. Plus, I was trying to do this while still working and attempting to visit with people I had not seen in a year.  Every day I was at the rental house, I felt distracted. I was unclear as to what to do or what I intended to do next. I didn’t see things the first time I looked at them. Basically, I was not working on all cylinders.

Stuff happens and we need to deal with it. This is part of life. But there are a few ways we can minimize the effects of stress on our lives and our brains.

Stick to Your Routine

This is my current challenge. I know, believe, and see proof that when we keep healthy daily practices, we are better able to deal with the challenges of life. However when life becomes too stressful or busy, I find myself more times than not saying I don’t have time for all of my practices or I am not doing them thoroughly. Our daily practices are our foundation of our sanity and serenity. Hold true to your practices as much as possible even when things go sideways.

Phone a Friend

Whether you ask a friend for help or just have a kind, compassionate ear to share with, making connections with others can lower our cortisol level. We go from stress and victimhood, to feeling heard and supported. This can make a difference in our physiological response, our ability to handle situations, and our experience of the challenges. Remember to reach out to the right person for the support you need. Brené Brown has some good advice about this; she talks about sharing shame but it applies to sharing our challenges as well.

Don’t Make More

Life is terrific at taking a left turn. Part of life is dealing with challenges. And there can be a lot of them. That is why it is important to not create more. Are you making mountains out of molehills? Are you currently in a good spot and therefore feel a need to create an issue to deal with? Do you feel naked and exposed without something to complain about? Life is better the less we have to be stressed about. Be aware of when you are adding on instead of removing stress from your life.

Be kind to your brain. Reduce your stress.

cat in the house

Stop Chasing the Cat

My husband and I have been adopted by a street cat lovingly called Blanca. We now leave her food and water as she demands. For the most part, she sits adorably on the front porch until I serve her the “right” breakfast. She is very sweet and would love to become a house cat, but my allergies will not allow it. Blanca does not quite understand this and often sneaks into the house every chance she gets.

This week I was bringing in two water cooler jugs as Blanca sat patiently on the front porch amused by the little gringa struggling with the large blue containers. Then she spotted her opportunity and darted into the house and down the stairs. I followed her and closed all the bedroom doors to keep her range of access to a minimum and then went upstairs to store the water jugs.

I could have chased Blanca around the house to try to get her out. In the past, I tried this. The result is she finds the smallest, lowest, tightest space she can and barricades herself in there. No way to reach her. No way to get her out. Frustration and anxiety all around.

Blanca en la casa

Now, I leave her be. I go about my business and ignore her. Eventually she finds a nice space to lie down, usually in the open and near me. I can then pet her and say soothing words, then scoop her up and remove her from the house. Angrily chasing her around the house does not remove her. Accepting then lovingly approaching her does.

So it is with our crazy monkey mind. If we are triggered and immediately run headlong into our story, it grows, fights back, hides, and makes us frustrated that we can not remove it. If we quietly notice, “oh, there it goes again,” accept that we are feeling an emotion but don’t feed it, the power of the crazy mind diminishes, and we can lovingly remove it.

This week I was triggered. I had a long day at work. I love my work but due to the intense emotional nature of it, I can only do so many hours. In addition, I spoke with my manager about a new procedure to review our work. “New” and “review” can be terrifying words even if we know our work is positive. Then I learned that the invoices I put into the Mexican government database were wrong and I’d have to redo them, in Spanish and on a confusing non-user-friendly website. And now because my day job went long, I wasn’t prepared for a talk I was to give that evening. Monkey mind ensued.

Stress kicked in. My mind got fuzzy. I was focusing on the pain and anxiety of these issues not the solution to them. I was uncertain what to do next about the invoices and the talk. I was chasing the cat. I was trying to make the pain of the emotion go away which just made the pain of the emotion grow.

Thankfully, I stopped. I gave myself a time out. I meditated best I could. I went to the talk and instead of having a polished presentation, I spoke from the heart about my experience that day. Later I took a walk to clear my head. The result is that the emotional pain was removed, and I could think more clearly and act more efficiently.

Where and when do you “chase the cat”? What would it look and feel like if you stepped away from the emotion, anxiety and fear for just a little bit? How do you feel about letting go to gain control?

baby shark

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Do-ing

Baby Shark overtook our household for a while. Everything got the Baby Shark treatment. Baby spinach doo doo doo doo doo doo. Gato Blanco doo doo doo doo doo doo. It was silly and fun. When I started to write this post, I thought of a new variation, Stressy Me doo doo doo doo doo doo. When I was younger, stress was a way of life. I always overcommitted and put my work above my relationships and my health. I was always doing, doo doo doo doo doo do-ing. I thought stress was normal. It was what life was all about, right?


Thankfully through my awakening in Peru, I started to see that there was more to life than stress and that there were ways to minimize the amount a stress I experienced, such as practicing patience. This brought a brand new world to me. A world where I could choose what I committed to and what I didn’t. A world where I had the right and the responsibility to put myself first. I began to live and not to do. Instead of being a victim of stress, I used tools to minimize and prevent it. Life was wonderful. My belief became that stress is part of life, but we don’t have to let it overtake our life.

This new way of being has served me for about the last decade and my life has changed because of it. I left a high-pressure career (or what I made a high-pressure career) for one that fits my outlook on life. I simplified my life and moved to a country that moves at the speed I want to live. I thought I had made it. This was great. Then I learned that I can even go deeper. I am now learning how to stop creating any painful negative stress in my life.

I may experience the positive stress of an upcoming event like a trip or a birthday; to me this should really be called excitement not stress. And yes, there will be negative stress events in my life like deadlines, losses, and accidents. But I don’t need to make these negative stress events into more than they are. The event is stressful. My thoughts about the event are what makes it painful.

Brené Brown reminded me of this in her book, Rising Strong. The stressful event itself is not what causes the pain. What really causes the pain of negative stress is our thought or our story about the event. It is not that there is a deadline. It is the thought that if we don’t meet the deadline we are imperfect and unlovable. It is not that we lost a loved one. It is that we didn’t do enough for them when they were alive which makes us a horrible person. It is not that there was an accident. Our story tells us that we were a worthless stupid idiot and that is why there was an accident. When we can keep our stories at bay, the pain of stress naturally minimizes.

Recently I had an off week. I really didn’t know why but I felt anxious, tired, and worried. Yes, I was having a busy week but I have had busy weeks before and I didn’t feel this poorly. What I realized was the story I was telling myself about my busy week was what was causing me pain. I felt I had to take on more clients at work or I would be seen as unproductive and maybe lose my job. I felt I had to put my needs to the side to take care of others or I would be a failure. I believed I had to do everything myself and not ask for help or I was not doing my share and was unworthy of love. Once I identified and released the stories I had made up, it was easy to look at my week, schedule in downtime/self-care, and approach my work from a space of giving instead of being taken from. And the pain was gone. Painful negative stress is caused by our thoughts and beliefs around issues. I was stressed because I had poor boundaries and was choosing to take too much on because I thought I had to or I was worthless. Once I removed this dishonest thinking, I moved forward to solve problems without the crippling effects of stress.

Where are you feeling stress right now? How much of it is fact? How much is it a story you have made about yourself or other people? If you release your false story, how much stress do you feel?

demanding queen

Do It for Me

For over three years now, I have been helping individuals manage unexpected job transition. I love the variety of people I speak to and the different goals and challenges they have in defining and creating what they want next in their professions and lives. One type of candidate, however, always makes me sad.

These individuals are angry that the services they are receiving (for free mind you) are not doing all the work for them. They expect their resume and cover letters to be written for them. They expect me to search and apply for positions in their name. And they are REALLY angry that things are not being done for them.

demanding queen
Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

Part of me laughs. How can you expect me to write your resume when I don’t know your professional history and accomplishments? Do you want me to go on the interview for you too?! Then I wonder, if you can’t get the will power to look and apply for positions, are you going to have the initiative to actually perform the position once you have it?

Most of the time however, I am sad. These candidates are so angry and are only making the issue worse. Yes, they were laid off. It is a horrible situation to be in, especially, if it comes without warning and if the family is already having financial or medical issues. But avoiding pain by putting the onus and unreasonable expectations on others, holding on to resentment, and not making any effort of their own, only creates more problems.

Blaming / Attacking Others

The first thing I see are individuals who want to blame everyone else for their problems. My manager was a jerk! This was total ageism! Why aren’t you writing my cover letter for me? You are supposed to get me my next job, where is it? In Rising Strong, Brené Brown calls this Bouncing Hurt. “The ego likes blaming, finding fault, making excuses, inflicting payback, and lashing out, all of which are ultimate forms of self-protection.” These candidates are hurt and instead of addressing their anger, fear, and sadness, they attack those around them.

Sitting in Resentment

When we are angry, it is ok to feel that emotion. Journal about it. Explore the stories about why we were hurt. Emotions are great tools for helping us understand what is working and what is not in our life. But we are not meant to sit in the emotions forever. Feel them, explore them, then release them. Holding on to the anger and resentment only creates more anger and resentment. We experience what we focus on so the more we focus on the bad experience, the more our life is unhappy.

Make an Effort

Stop waiting for the situation to change or for someone else to rescue you. What can you do right now to make your situation even a little bit better?  We are often blocked in making an effort because it means we have to stop blaming others and take responsibility for our lives. Have the courage to move past the pain and into action.

Life can be difficult. We experience disappointments, sudden losses, and heartbreak. It happens. We can not control what happens, but we can change how we react to things. Be aware of holding on to your anger, blaming others, or expecting someone else to fix what is wrong. Our lives become amazing when we step up, accept responsibility, and take even a little action toward what is better for us.

blackboard formulas

Simple is the Solution

The other day I found my husband’s Reader’s Digest magazine open to a puzzles page. One of the puzzles consisted of five simple addition formulas using letters, like A+B=C. The goal was to replace the letters with the given numbers. I started out with analyzing the letters; how many times was each letter used as either an additive and as a sum. Then I analyzed the numbers; I figured out how many different ways I could add them together to create sums that would fit within the given set of numbers and using this data, I uncovered how many times each number could be an additive or a sum. Then I spent hours trying to use all of this data to solve the problem. All to no avail.

blackboard formulas
Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

In the middle of the night, I woke up with the solution. I threw out all the complexity I created, all the comparisons and analysis. Instead I simply looked at the formulas. Based on the formulas to solve, I created a simple greater-than-to-less-than scale of the letters based on the formulas. Then I started to plug in the numbers. This number had to be all the way to the right because it is the largest, that number is somewhere in the middle because it can be both a sum and an additive. Once I had the majority of numbers where they had to be based on this logic, I started to plug them into the formulas to uncover the position of the other numbers. In less than five minutes I had it solved. It was simplicity and simple deduction, not over-complex analyzation that allowed me to solve the problem.

This reminds me of a few elections ago, the first time the electoral college caused a bit of an issue. By chance, it was the first time a television network used a fancy new electronic tally board. As the night went on, it became less clear what was needed for the candidates to win the election in this neck-and-neck race. The fancy electronic board had tons of data and cool images and pre-programmed formulas, but it couldn’t handle this unexpected situation. The host of the show, Tim Russert, asked for a white board. He threw out all the complexity of the super computer and went back to the facts. Using simple calculations, he was able to more accurately predict what was needed for each candidate to win.

How often does our self-created complexity cause more problems then it solves? Sometimes it is our making a situation too complex. Sometimes it is having too much complexity, too much stuff in our minds. Brigid Schulte author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time first introduced me to the concept of “tunneling.” Tunneling is the result of being too busy. Our brains are overloaded with what is on our plate, all the details, all the continuous thoughts, all the worries and fears. When we tunnel, when we are caught up in the complexity of life, we can not see broadly anymore. We have tunnel vision losing our big picture thinking. And we lose 13 IQ points in the process. Lost in the complexity of tunnel thinking, we can not see the solution that is staring us in the face. We are lost in our thoughts and not thinking clearly.

I don’t know about you, but I can easily point to times in my life – more than I care to admit to – where I was caught up in the tasks, in the responsibilities, in the overwhelming challenges. My mind swirled with all there was to do and fix. I didn’t identify it at the time, but yes, I was not using my whole brain. I was so consumed by the complexity of the small details that I couldn’t see the simple answer right in front of me.

Where in your life are you currently challenged? What obstacles or overload of challenges are consuming all your gray matter right now? Can you put away all the details for just a bit and look at it with fresh, expansive eyes?  How does it feel to be stuck in the tunnel? Are you effective? How would things shift if you got out of the complexity and into simplicity?

Hope for the Future

Many of us are happy and joyful as we celebrate this Christmas Day. And many of us also have some sadness, some worry and some concern about the future. Years ago, I stopped watching the news and it released me from depression and hopelessness. Lately I have noticed that after two minutes on Facebook my warm fuzzies of happiness change to devastation and political divide. For my sanity, I may need to begin limiting my social media consumption soon too. The truth is, even if we remove the news from coming to us, essentially hiding our heads in the sand, the world will still continue to get worse, right?

Or are things really getting worse?

I found two great TED talks you should check out. The first talk I found by Hans Rosling was in 2006. In this first talk, he begins to question what we really know about what is happening in the world.  I encourage you to watch the video and see how what you think is actually based on your perception of the world and, if you are like me, you don’t know much more than the literal monkeys surveyed. The point of this talk was that if we don’t look at the real hard data, we don’t see the positive changes in and the real progress of the world. The negativity we see and experience every day is based on our perception. Our perception is based on what we learned in the past. Therefore we are living in the non-progressing negativity of the past instead of the hopeful reality of today.

Photo by Ron Smith on Unsplash

The second talk by Hans Rosling and his son doesn’t just show how our thinking is skewed. Instead, they also provide us with tangible ways we can look for and truly see the real data. It is when we can see the real data that we can create ways to make real change, or at least sleep at night knowing life is progressing in a positive fashion.  These gentlemen postulate that we all have embraced preconceived ideas as reality. Our beliefs are based on our personal bias due to growing up in homogenized neighborhoods, to the unfortunate fact that we are taught outdated world views in schools, and due to biased news which focuses on rare events and sensationalized fear.

Here is what they suggest to help us start creating a realistic worldview:

  • Instead of focusing on and believing that everything is getting worse, focus on the fact that most things do improve (and they have the data to prove it).
  • Although there is a real gap between the rich and the poor, remember that most people are in the middle of the curve. And that the middle of the bell curve is growing, meaning more of us are living better.
  • Money is not needed to make social improvements. The inverse is true. Social improvements actually lead to increase in personal and national wealth.
  • We may have news, and now even fake news, but we control our consumption. We are often drawn to sensational and unusual events therefore we are fed more and more of these. Stop consuming the sensational, stop feeding your fears, and focus on the true daily facts of our world.

As we move into 2019, don’t focus on the past. Don’t expect things to get worse. Don’t let the past hold you back. Don’t bring the heartbreaks of the last year into the new year. Look at things with open eyes. Look to the new year with hopeful eyes. And usher in the positivity and hope the world needs today.