Feeling Better and Achieving More by Fighting Stress

“In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive.” – Lee Iacocca

Stress. It’s not good for business.

According to a survey of 800,000 workers in over 300 companies, the number of employees calling in sick because of stress tripled from 1996 to 2000. In fact, an estimated 1 million workers are absent every day due to stress.

About two out of three of the workers in the survey said that workplace stress had caused difficulties, and more than 10 percent described those difficulties as having a major effect on their jobs. About one in five respondents said they had quit a previous position because of job stress, and nearly one in four have been driven to tears by it.

Okay, so you’re not going to cry. But you can’t lead a happy, healthy, and productive life when you’re feeling crummy. You can’t work well. You can’t be creative. And you can’t enjoy the company of others.

So if you’re feeling stressed right about now… what are you going to do about it?

Looking back through the ETR archives, I see that I’ve written about this subject before. One of those essays put the question in a broader and more philosophical frame: Why is it, I asked, that so many people, so much of the time, are downright miserable?

Is it the existential situation – the psychological default program that kicks in when we realize we are alone? Is it the result of thinking we are alone when we are not? Or is it merely the result of too much work and not enough sleep?

Short answer: all of the above.

You can’t avoid getting into a funk now and then. However, you can learn to recognize the onset of a bad mood and get yourself out of it before it ruins your day (or your life).

I should know. I’m a moody bastard. If I could gather up all the time I’ve spent fretting, frowning, grousing, and/or complaining, I’d have enough to become a physician and open my own emergency clinic. (Now that would cheer me up!)

Grumping around is not only wasteful, it’s limiting and potentially destructive. When you feel bad, you lack the emotional strength to try new things or overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Because your energy is low, you tend to spend time on very ordinary chores, the kind of work that will ensure the same old ho-hum life.

I once read a book on optimism and pessimism that made the case that the difference between feeling sad and clinical depression is not one of kind but of degree. If that is true, two conjectures come immediately to mind:

1. Moodiness should be actively combated, because moodiness can lead to despair.

2. Despair is an extreme form of moodiness, and so some of the techniques that eliminate moodiness can cure clinical depression.

Versions of despair – cynicism, anger, and fear – have no place in your business or personal life. If you let them in, you will fail to strive or give up too easily – and those habits will cost you.

Bad feelings are usually triggered by stress – some external event that creates a feeling of emotional discomfort. To lead a psychologically comfortable life (free of unnecessary stress and open to happiness and other good things), you must learn to recognize stress in its early stages and do something to reduce it.

Avoiding a bad mood is much like avoiding a common headache: If you can feel it coming on early enough and get some aspirin into your system, you’ll never be in pain. But if you wait till the pain is planted in your head, you’ll have a difficult time getting rid of it.

One way to deal with stress is to eliminate the external cause. If, for example, a new client is a royal pain, figure out how to deal with him or pass him off to a competitor. If a new set of regulations is making your routine work difficult, master them and they’ll cease to give you stress.

Another, sometimes more practical, way to defeat stress is to change the way you react to it. As Viktor Frankl pointed out in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, it is impossible to control the external circumstances of our lives. We must accept what comes to us with equanimity, but we do not have to accept the way we respond.

Frankl argues that if you see a purpose in your role in life, you’ll have a much easier time avoiding the stress of not knowing what to do. Two thousand years ago, Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are distressed by anything internal, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to the view you have of that thing. How you view anything is a power you can revoke at any moment.”

That said, here are 9 ways that I have found to de-stress my life:

1. Forgive yourself for feeling bad. Depending on your biology, your upbringing, and your circumstances, you may feel blue rarely, sometimes, or often. Accept it as normal.

2. Count your blessings.

3. Take a nap. You’d be surprised by how often you can make yourself feel better simply by taking a 10-minute catnap.

4. Make sure you are getting enough sleep at night. This will not only keep your stress levels in check, it will improve your overall health. And remember this: The sleep you get before midnight is twice as good as the sleep you get afterward. (“Early to bed, early to rise… .”)

5. Take regular stress breaks. If you work as hard as I do, you will be forever on the verge of a nervous breakdown unless you schedule at least two (and preferably three or four) stress breaks every working day. If you have good control over your daily schedule, you can plan those breaks between tasks. Ideally, you’ll want a five-minute break every 90 to 120 minutes.

If you think you are too busy to take stress breaks, you really, REALLY need to do it. If you have no problem with the idea, you don’t have enough stress in your life because you are not working hard enough. (Get to work!)

A stress break is not a stress break unless:

* You get at least 10 feet away from your desk.

* You are completely distracted by it.

* It lasts at least five minutes.

* It relaxes you.

* It energizes you.

6. Cut out the crap food. Sugar and starch are poisons. Be aware of how they affect your mood.

7. Spend as much time as you can with upbeat people. Moody people are often helpful, productive, and inspiring – but they can be an emotional drag. If your life is full of moody energy-sappers, refresh with positive friends.

8. Exercise. For many people (me included), the kind of short-duration, high-intensity exercise we recommend in ETR to improve your heart, lungs, and waistline reduces stress too. For other people, doing something like walking, biking at a medium pace, or swimming slowly is more calming when they’re feeling under pressure.

9. Play. Be cognizant of which forms of play reduce stress and which add to it. Golfing is mostly, from what I’ve seen, a stress producer. So are most competitive sports. Yes, they’re fun if you have a competitive nature… but they don’t reduce stress.

Let’s see. What can you do right now – while you’re sitting there at your desk – to make yourself feel better and in greater control of your life? Try this – something that always works for me whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by my workload (which is often):

Compose a list of your five most pressing incomplete jobs. Break down each job into specific tasks that can be accomplished in an hour or less. Arrange those tasks in order of priority. Then, choose one. Just one. Put everything else out of your mind and get to work on it. Immediately. No excuses.

That’s what I just did by writing this essay. And now that I’ve done it, I’m one essay closer to catching up on my backlog than I was an hour ago.

I think I’ll use this energy to write another one.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]