Stress: Part 2A: Filling up the Tank

The Better News

The last post sounds like bad news. There’s some good news, too. First, knowing that certain events are more stressful that others, we can cultivate some measure of intention about what we say “yes” to. If you’ve had some big stressors in life lately, it might not be the best time to sell your house (31 points on the Holmes Rahe Scale) and move (25). Second, knowing that stress is, in part, biological, we can cultivate rest, play, and exercise to replenish the reserves (stress reserves are another of Selye’s ideas).  Third, knowing that stress is unavoidable and that some years are full of unavoidable stressors, we can give ourselves permission to be less than our best selves (more on Self-Compassion in the next post). It’s just not realistic to expect that we’ll live through a series of major life changes and still do our best work, feel utterly calm, and never snap at the children when they’re chasing the cat around the house trying to give him a “haircut” (hypothetically speaking, of course, this has never happened at Team Kell Headquarters. ahem).

Saying “yes” and saying “no”

Most of chronically overestimate our ability to cope with new stressors. So we say yes too often. We do it for any number of imminently defensible reasons: we really want to, we are afraid of what will happen if we say no, we have an internal switch that defaults to “yes,” the opportunity really is too good to pass up. What’s important is to know why we say yes, and to cultivate the ability to say no when we really should. As my friend Steve Brown at Mercer University’s Career Services office once quipped to me, “you know counselors. We don’t care what you do as long as you know why you are doing it.” If you find yourself saying yes to everything and frequently wind up burned out, resentful, and overwhelmed, it might be wise to wonder what your internal script is around saying yes or no. I’m biased, but I think talk therapy helps here. And remember Brene’ Brown’s wonderful “boundary mantra:” “Choose discomfort over resentment!”

Doing Non-Doing

2007.03.09 063
2007.03.09 063 (Photo credit: sartzsche)

Adequate rest, fun, and down-time are essential ways to re-fill your stress resilience reserves. A story to illustrate: before I started a tough graduate program back in 2003, I was an avid rock climber. I went to the crag twice a month and to the climbing gym (fake plastic rocks) three times a week. Within a few weeks, I was going climbing only once every couple weeks. The wise manager of the gym mentioned that he’d been seeing less of me. I told him about the new stresses and busy-ness and how I felt I had too much to do to devote more time to climbing. “When you have too much to do, you have to give more time to non-doing,” he said. “Otherwise, you risk getting out of balance. And then you burn out and can’t do anything.”

Doing non-doing feels counter-productive, even scary, to those of us who derive some (or all) of our self-worth from being needed, being busy, being useful. But I’m increasingly convinced that to cultivate the ability to rest, to sit, to play, and to just be when we feel pressed to do more is one of the more important secrets to living a good life.

There are different kinds of non-doing. There are physically active pursuits like fun excercise (exercise is good for you even if it’s not fun, but why not do something you like instead of something you have to waste valuable willpower on by forcing yourself?), playing, gardening, building, yoga, walking the dog after dinner, and so on. There are the quiet ones, like making a craft or art, writing, reading for pleasure, meditating, or lingering over dinner with your loved ones and friends. It’s important to cultivate both kinds. When you are feeling panicky, that is no time to knit. Go for a jog.


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