It almost goes without saying: Stress is at an all-time high. Not the kind of major traumatic stress we see elsewhere, sure. At least in the Western world, there aren’t any horrific sectarian conflicts scouring the landscape and generations to come. Our infrastructure is built to withstand most natural disasters. Our world is safe and predictable and sterile. But we’re stressed out just the same, afflicted with the kind of pernicious, low-level, unending stress that drives people into substance abuse, that promotes depression and suicide and broken relationships. The type that never quits. The kind you just want to drown out with Netflix and Facebook and anything at all to take your mind off the churning within.
Most people address stress in one of two ways. Either you build up your resistance to stress, so that it doesn’t hurt you so much, or you play triage, developing tools, tricks, and strategies for countering stress and dealing with it when it occurs. This assumes that stress is a given. I tend to agree. Stressors arise; it’s what they do. The most effective way to minimize the impact of stress on our health and wellness is to engage both perspectives—to establish baseline health practices and life management that build resilience and to equip oneself with tools to fight stress when it strikes.
Before anything, get the basics down. Good sleep, good food, regular exercise, and steady exposure to nature are all prerequisites for healthy relationships to stress. They’re necessary, but rarely sufficient.
What, for instance, can we do to pause and hit reset when under duress, when the furnace just conked out, the oldest child barfed at breakfast, and a looming work project is suddenly due today? And what can we do so those crises either don’t happen as often or hit us quite as hard?
Seek Meaning, Not Happiness
Happiness is a real thing, but it’s fleeting. You can’t grab it for long—it’ll just flit away. It’s part of the journey. If your goal is to get back in shape, happiness happens along the way—when you hit a squat PR, when you plop down on the couch with a good book and a bowl of meat and sweet potatoes after a tough sprint workout. You don’t hit a specific point of fitness, attain happiness, and remain there in a state of bliss. Happiness emerges from the pursuit of meaning. Think ongoing instead of endpoint.
What does this have to do with stress? Chasing something that’s impossible to catch is inherently stressful, if not defeating. You’ll be wondering why “you’re not happy.” Find meaning, find purpose, and that existential stress will melt away. You’ll know what to do and, most importantly, why to do it.
It seems to work for residents in Tamil Nadu, where having a well-defined purpose to life reduces psychosocial stress.
Being informed about the world at large is overrated. And impossible. I’m not advocating putting your head in the sand, but there’s only so much a person can effectively absorb (let alone process and act on). The 24/7 news cycle means the news (bad or good) never stops. It’s always plowing ahead, and if you want to stay apprised, you can’t ever stop checking the updates. Being informed is a full-time job. What good does it do to know the nuances of every mishap, outrage, and tragedy that plays out in the world? A politician’s every social media post? Every dismal statistic? Every horrifying image of war and calamity?
That sounds cold and callous. But it’s just reality: We’re not built to worry about billions of people, or even the tens and hundreds of thousands of strangers living nearby. And we stress (and often suffer) as a result.
In a recent survey of people who reported feeling stressed out on a regular basis, one of the most common triggers for their stress was consuming the news.
If this is anathema to you and you honestly enjoy reading about current events, pick up some history books. Instead of obsessing over the 24-hour news cycle, read up on the history of Syria, the Sudan, and the American Civil War. Read a biography of Lincoln. Study Venezuelan history. The lesson may be more than informative. It may give your nerves a break.
The stress response isn’t trying to kill you. It’s not trying to make you miserable and unable to function. The stress response is preparing you to do battle, to act, to perform. Those nerves? The flutter in your stomach? That’s your nervous system impressing upon you the monumental nature of the task at hand. It wants you to step up, and it’s increasing the heart rate to promote better blood flow so your tissues can perform.
Understand that and the stress becomes an ally, not a hindrance. One recent study suggests this, finding that although high amounts of stress increase the risk of dying, it does so only in individuals who perceive stress to be harmful. In people who don’t see stress as a health threat, stress does not appear to increase mortality.
Take a Relaxing Lunch
Lunch is rarely lunch anymore. At lunchtime in offices around the world, people scuttle off to procure/heat their food, rush back to the desk, and wolf it down while continuing to work. What if you did things differently?
According to a new study, taking an actual lunch break outdoors that includes a short walk or a 15-minute relaxation exercise session reduces workplace stress, improves fatigue, and increases well-being. Consider it a wise buffer for every work day.
Stop Taking Everything for Granted
We ignore the predictable. We don’t appreciate the dependable. On paper, things are great these days. The lights work, we have hot water, the streets are mostly safe. We can communicate instantly with people halfway across the world. Access to all the world’s knowledge rests in our pockets. Everything is amazing. Yet, we don’t notice it.
Instead, we focus on everything that’s going wrong. It’s understandable. That’s how we’re built—to detect novelty. But it makes the world a very stressful place.
Force yourself to take in the good. You can call this showing gratitude. Or being thankful. Or maybe just opening your eyes and taking stock of your life as objectively as possible. Life isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s great in many respects. Start acknowledging that!
Live a Life That Embodies Your Full Personality (as well as Potential)
I’ve written before about the value of knowing yourself and the sabotage inherent to comparison. Whether it’s following your passion, your introversion/extroversion, your personal values, or other identity-based facets, living who you are fully and authentically matters in the grand scheme. Feeling like you have to “stuff” or shrink your individuality throughout your day may be more than just a drag on joy—but a genuine threat to health.
What matters is what’s natural to you—in your work, your relationships, your daily routine. Be honest with yourself about what you really need from life, or risk fragmentation. There’s nothing more stressful than a civil war inside one’s identity each day.
You have to dig down deep, sift through the layers of conditioning, and build a life that’s congruent with what matters to you. Discover what that is. Then go be that.
Drop Everything and Get out into Nature
We need to get out of the habit of white-knuckling life and calling it discipline. If the proverbial stress typhoon has touched down—the kids are screaming, the pressure of a deadline is mounting, your brain is churning with indecision and confusion—drop everything, grab what/whom you need, and get the hell out of there. Go to the nearest green/blue space: a park, a forest, the beach, the desert, the meadow.
You can take your work with you. Bring your laptop, turn a rock or tree stump into a standup workstation, and finish the work. If it’s dinnertime, have a picnic; let the kids run around and tire themselves out. Just go!
Work It out on Paper (or Keyboard)
A lot of stress is ridiculous and unfounded. We often don’t even know why we’re stressed out. If that’s the case—if your stress takes the form of a swirling amorphous cloud of racing thoughts you can’t parse—sit down with a pad of paper or other writing tool and figure out what’s vexing you. Ask yourself: “Why the hell are you so stressed out?” Get specific. Once you discover the culprit or culprits, determine why those stressors are affecting you.
Talking yourself through the timeline can help you discover if it’s worth stressing over. It may just melt away with exposure.
Introduce an Acute Stressor
Step outside into the bracing cold. Splash cold water on your face or hop in the cold shower. Do as many bodyweight squats and pushups as you can manage. Drop and give me 20 burpees.
These acts shock you into focusing on the present moment. They take you out of your mind and away from whatever swill might be currently occupying it. You can’t ignore cold water on your skin.
The stress may still be there after the shock, but having that break can give you a foothold back in reality.
Take an Anti-Stress Supplement or Herb
I honestly created Adaptogenic Calm for those times I just needed a fast-acting damper on the rising stress that was getting to me. I wanted an easy to swallow capsule of all the best stuff out there, so I made it. It’s got L-theanine, magnolia bark, phosphatadylserine, rhodiola rosea, and beta sitosterol. The L-theanine reduces anxiety and attenuates the rise in blood pressure in adults subjected to psychological and physical stress. The magnolia bark enhances the activity of soothing GABA receptors in the brain. The phosphatadylserine works on both mental and physical stress, improving mood and blunting cortisol after physical exercise. The rhodiola rosea lowers cortisol, increases mental performance, and lowers fatigue in stress-related fatigue. And when it’s incorporated into cellular membranes, beta sitosterol protects against oxidative stress.
It’s certainly not the only option. You can find any of the constituent ingredients as separate supplements, or you can check out the various pieces I’ve done on other anti-stress supplements and herbs. My point? Keep something on hand you can immediately administer.
Stress is a many-headed beast. You can’t beat or eliminate it, nor would you want to, as it’s through overcoming stress that we improve and get stronger. We can’t let it beat us either, or walk all over us. After reading today’s post, you should have at least a few more strategies for devising your own potent anti-stress protocol.
How do you handle stress or cultivate resilience? If you could add to this post, what would you contribute?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.
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