Wisdom of the Ages
Stress Coping Techniques What can be done to deal with stress? There are two basic strategies: reduce stress by changing your environment or manage stress through effective coping techniques. The following are coping techniques for managing stress that are timeless and apply to all types of people. In this sense, they represent Wisdom of the Ages.
Follow the Principle of Moderation Stress is not only inevitable, it is desirable. Creative tension usually accompanies great achievement, and the desire to succeed is necessary to overcome many of life’s problems. The goal is not to reduce all stress but to experience stimulation in your life that is satisfying without being destructive. The following story shows the value of avoiding extremes:
In “How Much Land Does a Man need,” Leo Tolstoy wrote about Pahom, a greedy man who was offered by the Starshima of the Bashkirs all the land he could cover by foot in a single day, from sunrise to sunset.
Lured by the fantastic offer, Pahom set out at the crack of dawn and walked on hour after hour. It seemed as though the farther he went, the better the land became. At midday, he looked up and saw the sun overhead. It was sign that he should turn back and head for the starting point. But then he thought of how much more land he could acquire, and the thought compelled him to keep on going.
Hour after hour passed. Now, surely, Pahom would have to turn around and go back if he were to reach the starting point before sunset. Finally, he turned toward the starting point. But before long, he realized he had waited too long. He had been too greedy.
His heart pounded fiercely as he began to run. Soon, his breath grew shorter and shorter. Still he forced himself to run faster and faster, even though his legs were numb.
At last, Pahom could see the Starshima and a small group of Bashkirs at the starting point, awaiting his return. With his last ounce of strength, he reached the group, fell to the ground in complete exhaustion, and died.
The people buried him, saying, “This is how much land a man needs.”
Besides avoiding excesses such as Pahom’s, you should strive for balance in your life. You should seek balance between rest and work, and avoid either sinking into laziness or becoming a workaholic. You should recognize that you are both a public and a private person—enjoy others, but take pleasure in solitude as well. Daily, you should do something for each dimension of your being—spirit, mind, and body.
Moderation is especially important when you are sick. Sometimes, no matter what steps you take, the flu or a cold temporarily defeats your immune system’s defenses. Slow down. You can’t expect your body to cope with a high activity level and combat disease simultaneously. You will get well faster if you give your body a needed break and rest.
The saying “meden agan” was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. It means “nothing in excess.” It was popularized by the Roman playwright Terence (Publius Terentius Afer), 190-159 B.C., when he said, “Moderation in all things,” echoing the Golden Mean, which was emphasized two centuries earlier by Aristotle. Aristotle himself said the concept of moderation as a virtue was inspired by Seven Sages (c650-c550 B.C.), specifically the Sage Chilo, who likely received it from the temple of Apollo at Delphi … kind of like a really long and wise telephone game.
Set Priorities People can handle enormous amounts of stress as long as they feel in control. It is only when events seem to be spinning out of control that accelerated wear and tear occurs. When setting priorities, you should consider your personal values and goals in life. Ask yourself, “What is important?”—family, work, education, and so on—and then prioritize your activities accordingly. Otherwise, you will become frustrated and feel unfulfilled, always working on matters that are relatively unimportant to you.
Look at the way your energy is used, and note especially if it is being drained away on unimportant matters. Say “yes” to high-priority items that support your values—family, health, work, and so on—and “no” to low priorities. By saying no to low value activities, you can embrace high value activities more fully. Simplify your life by putting first things first and doing one task at a time. In this way, you will avoid clutter and confusion.
Because 80% of what you value usually comes from 20% of what you do, you should prioritize your activities and work on the top 20% first. You should write these down and check them off as you complete them. Doing this will help you feel in control and provide a feeling of progress. Nothing is more satisfying than to make a list and check off completed tasks.
Don’t Try to Be a Superhero No one is immune to stress. Everyone experiences pressure, conflict, and frustration in the normal course of living. And no one is superhuman; everyone has a breaking point. We all have limitations of some sort—physical, emotional, and financial. To reduce unnecessary stress, decide what is important to you and put your time and effort into those activities. Tolerate some imperfections, and don’t try to be all things to all people. Avoid overpromising, overscheduling, and overcommitting.
The average person can handle a maximum of four major commitments at any one time and still do them well. Imagine an individual with four responsibilities such as family, work, education, and community service. Another major commitment, no matter how worthy, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In this spirit, Salvador de Madariaga, the Spanish essayist, wrote:
Our eyes must be idealistic and our feet realistic. We must walk in the right direction, but we must walk step by step. Our tasks are to define what is desirable; to decide what is possible at any time within the scheme of what is desirable; to carry out what is possible in the spirit of what is desirable.
Escape for Awhile When things are going badly, it often helps to escape for awhile—take a walk, read a book, work in the garden, take a nap, or go fishing. You don’t have to hike the Himalayas or sail around the world. Changing your activity long enough to recover breath and balance is usually sufficient. The fact is that the average workday is not eight hours of uninterrupted labor. In order to combat fatigue and remain productive, people need breaks and will take them whether they are scheduled or not.
The coffee break, the day of rest, and the annual vacation are pauses that refresh in the world of work. These breaks are useful antidotes to physical and emotional stress, and you must not feel guilty when you take one. It is interesting to note that for medium-heavy work, the optimum work week for volume produced (over extended periods of time) is 48 hours. After 48 hours, the average person is affected by fatigue and would be better served going home. Otherwise, mistakes are made, sickness occurs, and overall productivity declines.
Even people who are famous for their strength and stamina need to escape for a while if they are going to be effective over the long haul. George Washington used to disappear for a time to nurse his nerves, momentarily suspending presidential chores. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who after a particularly demanding and fatiguing time, declared, “I have had enough.”
One form of escaping for awhile is a sojourn or quo vadis, during which time you review the past, evaluate the present, and plan for the future. This mid-course correction can be a positive force for self-renewal, which is the essence of responsibility and taking charge of your life. The second act you open and the second wind you gain can enhance and invigorate your life.
Use a Decompression Chamber Technique It is important to leave the pressures, conflicts, and frustrations of one arena of your life behind you when you enter another arena. In other words, leave home problems at home and work problems at work as much as possible. This is difficult to do in today’s digital, technical, 24/7 e-world unless you use a decompression chamber technique. The decompression chamber is the personal time and place you reserve to mentally unwind, physically relax, and spiritually renew yourself. Typically, the person in the decompression chamber applies the three R’s—review past events, rehearse upcoming activities, and relax. Examples of the decompression chamber technique include:
The businessperson who uses the commute between work and home to debrief one world and prepare for the next.
The homemaker who sets aside personal time between daytime household chores and nighttime family activities.
Talk With Others When things bother you, talk them over with a level-headed person you can trust. This relieves tension, adds perspective, and helps you figure out what to do. The word catharsis (from the Greek kathairein—to purge) means cleansing. This is what happens in the talking-out process. People who are under stress report that they feel much better when they get things off their chest. Consider Shakespeare’s words in The Taming of the Shrew, 1594:
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.
Talking it out requires trust that the other person will not use what you say against you or be judgmental in a negative way. There is an old saying that you must be careful with whom you talk, because 70% of the people you may talk to don’t care about your problems, and 20% are glad that you have them. Only 10% truly care and want to help.
The people in your 10% may include your spouse, parents, or a close friend, and you may be included in someone else’s 10%. In any case, whether you are the listener or the talker, you should remember that the good ideas, moods, and advice of others can have a comforting and constructive effect that can help you cope with stress. To be a true 10% requires the present of your presence. You must be present fully, versus distracted by computers, phones, and social media.
Go Easy With Criticism There are two kinds of criticism—criticism of self and criticism of others; go easy with both. One way to reduce self-criticism is to avoid the “must not syndrome.” This is the tendency to think in absolutes—I must not fail; I must not cry; I must not be afraid. By replacing must nots with should nots, you preserve high goals while experiencing less guilt and shame if you happen to fall short.
With regard to criticism of others, if you expect other people to be perfect, you will feel disappointed, angry, and frustrated when they fail to measure up. You should remember that everyone, including yourself, has both good and bad characteristics. No one is perfect.
The following is a guide for healthy relations with others:
State what you do and do not like. You may have to repeat what you do not like several times because people are often poor listeners and hear only what they want to hear. However, be careful not to badger the other person.
Recognize the strengths of other people. Tell them what you admire about them. This will reinforce their good qualities, as most people want to be recognized and appreciated for what they do.
Ignore inappropriate behavior. If the behavior is not part of the person’s basic nature, it will go away (extinguish). If it is part of his or her makeup as a person (an essential element of personality), it is almost impossible to change. At this point, you have two choices—either ignore the behavior or avoid the person.
Worry Less and Do More
Manage your emotions as opposed to letting your emotions manage you. Some people are prone to worry. If they don’t have something to worry about, they make up something to worry about. If something upsets you, do what you can to solve it, but avoid useless worry. Try following the advice of St. Francis of Assisi, later popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr in the following prayer: “Give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” Another saying, author unknown, makes the same point: “Of all the troubles mankind’s got, some can be solved and some cannot. If there is a cure, find it; if not, never mind it.”
Besides worry, two other emotions are particularly distressful. These are resentment over the past and anger in the present. A useful technique to help cope with the negative trilogy of resentment, anger, and worry is to accept three basic truths:
You cannot change the past. What is done is done, and being resentful is to no avail.
Not everyone is going to agree with you. Being angry is a waste of precious time and energy. If you are angry, count to 10 before you speak; if very angry, count to 100.
You are going to make mistakes. Nobody bats a thousand. Instead of worrying about this, use your faculties to keep your eye on the ball and concentrate on the swing.
Like gravity, these facts are real, and the act of accepting them helps reduce nonproductive resentment, anger, and worry. This can be summarized with the phrase “Lighten up!”
Enjoy the Little Things in Life Research shows happiness springs primarily from feeling good over time, not from momentary peaks of ecstasy. Finding something that gives you pleasure may require a change in your environment. If so, take steps to make your work and living areas pleasant and satisfying. Surround yourself with people who give you happiness, and every day, strive to do at least one activity that gives you peace of mind.
Closely related to enjoying the little things in your life is to enjoy the pace of your life. Sometimes poetry is better than prose to make a point well. As you read author John McCollister’s poem, think about the pace of your own life at this point in time.
Slow Dance Have you listened to rain drops slapping on the ground, Followed a bird’s beautiful flight, Or gazed at the sun into the fading night? You better slow down Don’t dance so fast Time is short The music won’t last
Do you run through each day on the fly? When you ask, “How are you?” do you hear the reply? When the day is done do you lie in your bed With the next hundred chores running through your head? You better slow down Don’t dance so fast Time is short The music won’t last
Have you ever told your child, “We’ll do it tomorrow,” And in your haste, not seen his sorrow? Have you ever lost touch, let a friendship die Because you never had time to call and say “Hi”? You better slow down Don’t dance so fast Time is short The music won’t last
When you run so fast to get somewhere You miss half the fun of getting there. When you worry and hurry through your day, It’s like an unopened gift thrown away. Life is not a race. Do take it slower. Hear the music before the song is over. You better slow down Don’t dance so fast Time is short The music won’t last
Handle Hassles Healthfully When you feel hurried, harried, and hassled, stop and ask a few key questions that can help put things in perspective.
What is the worst possible thing that can happen here?
On a scale of 1 to 10, with a life-ending catastrophe as a 10, where does this hassle rate?
Who and what are important to you, and how, if at all, does this hassle affect them?
A month from now, will you remember this hassle?
For many people, there are predictable times when hassles tend to be high, such as holidays, vacations, and other family get-togethers. To handle stress healthfully during these occasions, follow three basic rules:
Be Realistic. Set achievable goals. Don’t expect every moment to be perfect and every person to be happy all the time.
Keep Things Simple. Invite the people and then trust the process. Relax and remember, less can be more. Follow the advice of Beatrix Potter—the shorter, the plainer, the better.
Share the Tasks. So often, one or two people shoulder most of the work. Instead, ask everyone to help in some meaningful way.
Accentuate the Positive Attitude plays an important role in dealing with stress. To a degree, stress is determined in the mind. Two people can suffer setbacks. One may become stronger and wiser for the experience, while the other may never recover and may actually worsen. Often the difference is that one focuses on the positive and the other on the negative. By emphasizing the positive versus the negative, you can feel more optimistic; and this can lead to positive actions and results. Charles Swindoll explains succinctly and well the importance of attitude:
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…church…home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for the day. We cannot change the past…we cannot change the fact that other people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you … we are each in charge of our own attitude.
Trust in Time Many of life’s events are painful, and it may seem as though the anguish will never end. Although time may not heal all wounds, it often helps. If you suffer a loss in your personal or professional life and you feel your world has collapsed, there is a good possibility that within a year or two, the pain will be gone, and you may even be stronger for the experience. As Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “The best metal has been through the fire.” And as John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “Our torments also, in length of time, become our elements.” Finally, Ecclesiastes 3 states: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to sow seed, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” Sometimes, our only choice in a stressful period is to trust in time.
Coping Review Mark Twain once said, “Habits cannot be thrown out the window. They must be coaxed downstairs one step at a time.” With this in mind, identify coping techniques that would be good for you:
Follow the principle of moderation
Don’t try to be a superhero
Escape for awhile
Use the decompression chamber technique
Talk with others
Go easy with criticism
Worry less and do more
Enjoy the little things in life
Handle hassles healthfully
Accentuate the positive
Trust in time.
Notice that none of these techniques promotes laziness or lack of achievement. Indeed, most accomplishments require hard work, and great achievements make life worth living. The point is not only to succeed in your life, but also live to enjoy it.
George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn
Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor
Freelance editor, writer, and consultant