Stress, in the literal definition, means a pressure, tension or strain placed on an object. Bending metal, pulling chain or rope, puts physical stress on the material. Under excessive stress, these materials will break.
Humans are the same, but our pressure, tension and strain are not usually physical. They can be – under situations of extreme exercise or threat of physical harm, but otherwise most of human stress in North America is psychological. These pressures and strains are our daily obligations and expectations that we face in personal, professional and family interactions.
Psychological stressors (things that create pressure and require a response from us) like appointments and schedules, work responsibilities, and caring for family members are all common examples of obligations. These things are often EXTERNAL, pressures from others and our environment. The other side of the coin is expectations – INTERNAL pressures we put on ourselves based on social norms and how we believe we are supposed to perform in the world. The largest stressor is disease and death, which is a threat to our actual existence.
When faced with a stressor, we undergo a stress response. This is the built-in fight / flight / freeze response that ALL animals possess to ensure survival. However, as society and technology evolved at a dramatic speed, our evolutionary adaptation for survival remained quite primitive. The result is our stress response is now being set off by things that don’t actually threaten our survival – psychological pressures and fears have largely replaced physical immediate dangers.
There will always be things that create stress in our lives. There is nothing we can do to change that.
However, we can live a MUCH LESS stressful life by reducing our non-essential obligations and expectations.
1. Make a list of your daily or weekly obligations.
Who or what requires your time or attention? People, places, volunteer, work, home duties – list it all. Don’t be surprised at the size of your list, I expect many of you have a tremendous amount of obligations and you don’t even realize.
Once your list is complete, number everything on the list with a #1, #2, or #3.
#1 items NEED to be done to maintain health and life – eating, caring for children
#2. Items SHOULD be done, but do not affect health and life – chores, work
#3 Items we do, because we have AGREED to do them – extra curriculars, social functions
Once you have your list, stop doing #3’s unless you ABSOLUTELY love something. Learn to say “NO”. Stop using the word “should” completely. Thinking you should be doing anything is an indicator that perhaps you should NOT be doing it. If you are doing things in your life because you’re supposed to, or it’s the right thing to do, or everyone else is doing it – just stop. You’re doing it because it’s an obligation.
Take all the #2’s and try to delegate these roles out to others if you can. Yes cleaning can slow the spread of disease, but sanitizing your entire home daily is ridiculous and has actually been shown NOT to prevent many common diseases. I also realize that everyone needs to work, but maybe you have too many duties in your job that can be passed onto others?
Focus on #1’s. All you really need to do in life is exist. Eat, drink, remain warm, raise your family.
2. Let go of ALL expectations you have for yourself and what life should be
Life is not a competition. We are not “supposed” to be a certain way, have certain things, do certain activities. NONE of that is true. Our expectations are all stuff we have been told from childhood via social norms, family values, and advertising. Go to college and get a good job. Have children who are well behaved. Eat healthy. Exercise. Remain thin and young and vibrant for decades. Live in a nice, new home in a community with a great school and amenities.
Reality isn’t that cut and dry. When you have an expectation of how your life is supposed to be, you will feel frustrated or disappointed when it is NOT how you expected it to be. Drop all notions of how you think things are supposed to be, and you will feel less stress when things turn out how they turn out.
I know some people will think this is impossible or unrealistic. That is fine, as I used to think that way too. I was that perfectionist, over achieving, never say no child who became a depressed teenager and career driven, anxious adult. I worked my way up the career ladder in veterinary medicine from technician to college instructor to supervisor and corporate trainer. I burnt out and had to leave my career and reassess my entire existence.
It was learning to let go of obligations and dropping all expectations I had for myself that helped me recover from 20 years of depression and anxiety. I feel very little stress in my life, and the stress I do encounter I can manage much more effectively. ALL of my physical health ailments have disappeared too – psoriasis, chronic neck pain, diarrhea, acid reflux – without medical intervention.
I started Aurae Wellness Coaching to share what I have learned with others. We can live a less stressful, more peaceful life.
I am simply trying to normalize being human in a world that seems to promote the opposite.