Nothing lasts forever — not even stress. No matter how intense a problem or how significant a challenge, life moves on eventually. This too shall pass, as the Sufi poets taught us.
Of course, understanding the inherent ephemerality of life does little for us when we’re in the thick of a problem. All things may be temporary, but stress sure does feel permanent when it sinks its teeth in. It doesn’t matter what we do or how hard we try, we can’t seem to shake it. The stress, the challenge, the problem sticks around.
Humans have a default response in moments like these: We strive for control. If we can’t control the source of the stress itself, at least we can try and control everything else in our lives. We can clean our house until we’re white in the knuckles. We can control our relationships. We can go to the gym twice a day and work three times as hard at work.
The problem with this default response is that the more we strive for control, the more disconnected we become from ourselves — from who we are, how we feel, what our body is doing, and what information we’re holding inside and refusing to let out, which is causing this stress in the first place.
What’s worse, by focusing on controlling the world around us and achieving certain outcomes — lose weight, get a promotion, keep a house spotless — we set ourselves up for further stress. If things don’t go the way we want and our envisioned outcomes elude us, the stress mounts and the disconnection increases, all of which can escalate into a full blown crisis of mind, body and spirit.
So what can we do to avoid this cycle?
Here are some steps that I like to travel through with my clients.
1. GO TO THE SOURCE
The problem that’s causing your stress may be obvious. Often it is. Why that problem has generated such internal turmoil is often more difficult to unpack. Even if you know the source deep down, you may be reluctant to go there and bring the pain associated with this problem out into the light.
When I work with clients, I’m careful to respect this and not to rush someone toward an epiphany. That being said, the first step to stop a cycle of perpetually escalating stress is to acknowledge the root challenge. This requires more than a superficial glance. It demands a deep dive into the underlying issues.
What about this problem is so stressful? Why?
Maybe it’s a fear of the unknown, a fear of failure. Maybe it’s a reminder of childhood disappointment. Maybe it’s something you’ve never thought of before. Whatever the answer, illuminating it for yourself, giving it a name and acknowledging its presence, is critical.
2. LISTEN TO YOURSELF
Once we know what’s troubling us, the next step is to shift our focus from external outcomes to internal connection. The truth is that we can’t control anything in our external environment, but we can control stuff on the inside; our thoughts and behaviors, our goals and aspirations.
To do that, we have to exercise self-care and self-compassion.
How can I support my mind, body and spirit to increase some calm, reduce the noise and step out of this present situation that feels so all-encompassing and overwhelming?
If you ask yourself these questions, you’ll get the answers. Maybe I just need to get out of the city, turn off the phone and be immersed in nature. Maybe i just need to sit and watch Game of Thrones for three hours. Maybe I need to go for a run. Or maybe it’s about disregarding your needs and considering what it is you truly want.
Listen to what your mind, body and spirit are telling you and grant yourself what you hear.
3. START A PRACTICE
Vacation is great, but the taxi ride back from the airport into the city will probably have you stressed all over again. By the time you’re through the traffic, lugging your baggage up five flights of stairs to your too-small apartment, you may find yourself even more stressed than when you departed.
This is where the importance of having a practice comes into play. It can’t be a one-off. I liken it to the gym. If we only exercise every once in a while, when we feel unhealthy or guilty, it doesn’t do much good. It’s the routine and the regular attention to the practice that makes it meaningful and creates personal fitness. So it goes with nurturing the mind, body and spirit as well. You have to get into the regular practice of building a stable environment where you feel connected to what and who you are.
So, how do you do this?
4. FORGET A FORMULA
There is no one ideal practice. Everyone is different, and so much of this is about what feels right to you. That may be meditating or journaling; it may be finding a leadership coach or doing some therapy.
Some of my clients have created mantras for themselves that they repeat. Some have a mini-reflection practice, where instead of journaling they find moments on the subway or in between meetings to breathe and remind themselves of what’s important. It allows them to look back on how they dealt with something in the past and how to move forward.
One of my personal favorite mantras is intention without attachment. It’s the practice of having an intention for something but not being overly attached to the outcome. It’s a form of letting go and finding satisfaction and a less stressful existence in the way we live our lives. The purpose we live with is more important than the accomplishments we lay claim to along the way.
5. GET SPECIFIC ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE
When it comes to implementing and maintaining a practice, specificity helps. One of my clients is facing a major transition in both her career and her personal life. She decided that what she needs to do to ease the stress is reconnect with her spirituality. For her, this meant getting back into the practice of shabbat. Taking five minutes every day to light candles and have a moment for herself.
I loved this idea, as did she, but she recognized that if she just left it at that — five minutes a day — it would get swept into the chaos of her life and before long would blow out like a flame in a stiff breeze. So we had to get specific and down into the nitty-gritty.
I asked her when she could find time. ‘In the evening’, she said.
‘When exactly in the evening?’ I asked.
‘Before I go to bed’, She responded.
‘Is it the last thing you do before you turn out the light? Talk me through the specifics.’ I asked.
“Hmm ok. I’ll walk the dog, brush my teeth, and then, before I get into bed I’ll carve out five minutes to light some candles, meditate, breathe and connect with my spirituality. I’ll then set my alarm, read for a bit and turn off the light.’
The need to define this level of specificity depends on what kind of person you are, but as a general rule, getting really nuanced is helpful. That way the brain can see exactly how this practice will go. As with many things in life, preparation can be key.