More Good Stress, Less Bad Stress (Part 2)

As we were saying in the last post, there are three phases can help us better understand stress: Acceptance, Planning, and Action.

If you need to review the last post to catch up, here’s the link:
Finding the “Stress Sweet Spot” with Mindfulness (Part 1)

by Rushi Vyas


Mindful Acceptance of Stress

Take another look at the list you just made. Do you actually view all your stressors as negative?

I know I don’t. I love my family and friends. I’m fortunate enough to love the work I do as well. Sure, they can bring stress to my life. But do I ever want to get rid of my family, friends, or the work I love to do. No! In fact, if you tried to take them away from me, you might find this normally meditative pacifist fuming and ready to fight (well, probably not but I can dream of having an alter-ego like the Hulk).

Those are stressors I can live with. I choose to live with them and therefore they are actually somewhat enjoyable/reasonable challenges to live with, when I accept them.

The key is acceptance.

It is really easy for us to throw pity parties for ourselves and tell others around us how difficult things are because the payoff is that generally we get some form of comfort in return. I’m guilty of this from time to time.

But when I’m mindful of my thoughts and am practicing meditation, I am able to come back to acceptance of my situation and gratitude to be even having a “situation.” When we think about out, most of our problems are high-class problems (last time I checked, I didn’t miss a meal).

When it comes to bills, yes. Based on the lifestyle I’m choosing to lead, they are necessary. Once I accept that, I can figure out the best solution to make enough money and make paying them manageable through auto-pay, or budgeting. When it comes to health, if it is a chronic condition, there is the choice to resist the reality of the situation, or to accept it and then move forward.

Accepting an undesirable situation does not mean giving up. You don’t have to resign yourself to the stresses of life. But acceptance is a crucial step. It’s acknowledging the reality of the present moment, without judgement or fear.

I may not like the fact that my job is freelance right now and the income is not steady. Still, I cannot change that situation until I accept the reality of the situation. I could rail against how society doesn’t value writing, facilitation, and education enough. Or I could accept the reality and take action based on that. One solution adds stress and makes my stomach clench, the other allows me to smile and move forward.

Here’s a brief meditation to help us in accepting stress.

  1. Pick one of the stressors on your list. Focus your attention on that stressor.
  2. Take three deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Focus on your breath for 1 minute.
  5. Visualize the object of the stress.
  6. Notice if there are any sensations arising in your body as you think of the stressor. (Perhaps your stomach clenches or muscles tighten).
  7. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise whether it is sadness, anger, exhaustion, frustration or anything else. Be mindful to just feel the emotion and try to bring your attention back to the feeling rather than mental processes and rationalizing thoughts. Just feel whatever emotion you are feeling.
  8. Allow your mind to think about the value that acting on that stressor brings to your life. Does it create opportunities for you or bring you positive feelings at any time?
  9. Keep your attention on the aspects that make the stress worth it.
  10. Feel gratitude for having that stress to motivate your behavior.
  11. Accept the stressor as a part of your life.
  12. Open your eyes.

This isn’t magic. The stressor is still here.

However, this quick practice of feeling gratitude can stop you from creating extra stress through your self-talk. Anytime you catch yourself bemoaning the stresses in your life, stop. Think back to this exercise, especially if it’s a stressor you know you want to keep around such as family or a passion of yours.

Try this with every stressor. It may help bring more clarity to the next step.

Mindful Planning

Once I accept a stressor, I can start making decisions about what to do with stress. I can decide:

  • Do I want to let go of this stress or change the fact that it’s in my life?
  • Is this stress a beneficial motivator for me?
  • Am I putting enough time/effort into addressing this stress or too little?

After accepting a stressor and why it is in your life at this moment, now you can start to ask questions to determine the next steps.

One common misconception about mindfulness is that living in the moment means you should not plan for the future. While, overbearing planning for the future certainly contradicts being open to new opportunities at each moment, mindful living actually requires a level of intentionality in everything you do.

So planning is required. It’s just that when you’re planning, you are fully focused on planning. Mindful planning is not planning while drying your hair, watching TV, and brewing coffee all at the same time.

“Plan out your work, then work out your plan. The former without the latter is a sheer waste. The latter without the former is mere unproductive confusion.”
-Swami Chinmayananda

Mindful planning involves asking yourself tough questions and answering them objectively. This can be very difficult and will be easier for those who have practiced mindfulness for a long period of time and are aware of your self-talk patterns. If you are new to mindfulness, these are still questions to ask yourself, but it also may be helpful to go over the questions with someone you trust who listens well or a counselor who can help objectively tease out what your intentions are.

Use these questions as you evaluate each stressor in your life:

  • Is this stressor short-term or long-term?
  • If it’s short-term, can I see the payoff being worth the stress I feel now?
  • If it’s long-term, is it a stress I am stuck with or something I could choose to let go of?
  • If I’m stuck with it, how can I leverage this stress to create other opportunities?
  • If I want to let go of the stressor, what steps can I take to make that a reality?
  • If it is a stressor I know to be a positive motivator for me am I challenging myself enough or too much?
  • When I look at all of my stressors, which one seems to be causing the most tension?

In my work as a Career Advisor, I saw many individuals cling on to stresses they wanted to get rid of, out of fear. In this context, the stress was in the form of a job. A few clients reported hating the job they had, but created the dialogue that they “had to stick with it,” to make ends meet. Yet, there was still an unwillingness to accept that as the reality without continual negative self-talk about how unfulfilling the work was.

When it comes to evaluating stressors, the most difficult thing is facing our own fear of uncertainty. Clients that had success, ended up sticking with a job for the short-run but allocating much of their free time to network with people in fields of interest, and build relationships that could lead to a better opportunity.

While it added a little stress in the short run, these clients reported having better attitudes at their job, due to feeling a general excitement for the opportunities ahead. Within three months, one client I’ll call Tim, started at his new place of work and has felt much happier there. Some of the descriptions he’s shared of his new job have sounded an awful lot like finding flow in the workplace.

You can change the stress in your life. You just have to be willing to take action in spite of fears or reservations you may have clung onto before.

Taking Mindful Action

Speaking of which, once you have evaluated your stressors and planned what you want to do with them, do it! But take action mindfully, intentionally.

Ideally, we would like to balance our stress so as to maximize moments of happiness. Returning to the idea of flow, remember the idea is to find that ideal balance with stress. Flow requires:

  • An adequate balance of a perceived challenge with existing skill sets and resources (time, opportunity, etc.)
  • An opportunity to stretch the existing skill sets
  • Activity that is motivating in and/of itself
  • A present-moment awareness and focus

Try to cut out the self-talk, and focus on the present moment. Focus on the areas of your life that are giving you the opportunity to engage in activity that is autotelic and that is giving you the opportunity to stretch your skills. While, not every activity in life can be that, make that the focus.

For me, I’ve realized that autotelic activity is working with individuals one-on-one. I have made sure to increase that as part of my role in the start-up educational organization Beyond Bounds. Through making extra time to coach students one-on-one, facilitate, and listen to their stories, I have realized I enter flow more often.

Now, I still have other obligations to meet in life with family, work, and finances. In fact some of those obligations have increased in recent weeks. I’ve had to cut down on time I spend going out with old friends. But, by emphasizing the things that make me feel most alive, I have realized the other stressors do not seem as bad anymore. I have more energy to handle everything.

The key with taking action is to just do it. We live in a culture that tends to say, “everything will be ok when…” But then when that “…” actually happens, we are still feeling unfulfilled.

You don’t have to wait for a day in the future to start doing things that make you feel alive. Sure, we all don’t have the luxury to immediately make our job the thing we love to do. But we do have the ability to make those things a bigger priority in other ways in our life.

Keep the stress that is worth having in your life and discard the rest. Take action that enables you to minimize the unwanted stress and continue benefiting from the wanted stress.

Continuous Mindful Evaluation

Finding this balance is an on-going process. Through cultivating your moment-to-moment awareness you can begin by trial-and-error to find what works for you.

We’re human. We’re bound to make mistakes and find ourselves overwhelmed or tangled in webs we didn’t mean to get into. That is ok. Develop an awareness and kindness towards yourself that lets you find the challenges that make sense.

Stress doesn’t always have to be negative. Make the most of the stress in your life. Create opportunities for ‘flow’ to enter your everyday life.

For more on using meditation and mindfulness in everyday life check out these articles: