Experiments in Removing Stress (or 16 Ways to Live Longer)

Written by Scott May 9, 2011

Remove Stress

“Smile, breathe and go slowly”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

A close friend of mine recently got diagnosed with a severe case of Psoriasis (a brutal skin condition you don’t want to have). The doctors told her stress was the most likely cause.

She happens to be the least stressed person I know.

This terrifies me.

Especially since I have a hard time slowing down.

Surprise, surprise, eh? I am notorious for trying to get too much done each day and for over-planning like crazy. In the last 30 days I’ve spent 17 of them out of my own bed. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the reality I created.

I love being around people, getting new ideas, trying new things and doing small experiments. But it can feel endless (I probably need this post more than anyone…).

There’s a very fine line between being totally fulfilled doing what you love and feeling strung out with all your obligations.

But it’s hard to know what’s too much. We constantly approach the limit, sometimes finding ourselves on the wrong side of it. It’s a continuos process of learning and adjusting. The nice thing is that in theory stress is super easy to remove…

Stress reduction in 2 steps:

1. Learn what casuses it. Stress triggers are different for all of us. For me it’s being rushed, trying to do too much and not having enough time between trips (to name a few). Perhaps for you it’s spending too much or getting behind. Notice every time you find your stomach in knots. Pay attention to where it came from. Keep a list.

2. Do everything you can to avoid that list.

Obvious? Yes. Widely practiced? No.

Why do we constantly engage in the activities that cause us stress? Very rarely will something happen where it’s a surprise that it stressed us out. If you want to stop feeling like a tight wire then stop doing things that add the tension.

But what if you’re already stressed?

Now that the ridiculously obvious is out of the way, let’s get practical. We all get stressed, it’s likely killing us and we ought to do something about it.

By no means is the below list inclusive. It’s just a few things I’ve learned work well for me over the years. They often make an immediate difference. I hope you’ll share some of yours in the comments.

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.”

~Richard Carlson

How I De-Stress:

1. Do something that doesn’t matter. Pick something you don’t have to do and something that leads to no direct accomplishment. We need to train ourselves that it’s not all about checking things off a list. It’s also important to show yourself that you have the time. Some examples below…

2. Read. I’m talking about a real, paper book. Ideally something that isn’t personal development-heavy. This way you won’t feel like you need to create a huge list of things to do as a result. Any book will do though. Don’t worry about how fast you read or how many pages you get through. Few things beat soaking in a book. An impactful poem also works. Slow Dance is my favorite.

3. Drink some wine (or tea). You’ve heard me say this before. How often do you see someone pounding a glass of wine or cup of tea? Both require a slowed pace. Better yet, grab a buddy to join you. A good friend started a killer tea house in San Francisco just for this reason.

4. Write. Jot down whatever’s on your mind. I don’t care what it is. Just write. Don’t worry about showing it to anyone. You don’t even have to ever read it. The power is in the process. You may not know where to start but once you do, the thoughts start to flow.

5. Plan less. That means today, this week or this year. Look at your calendar or today’s list. I almost guarantee if you added up all the things on it, you’d find you’re trying to fit 27 hours worth of tasks into an 8-hour day. Limit to a few things that matter. Don’t underestimate The Power of Less. Notice how many events in a row are too many. My wife and I try to stick to 2 events during the week and no more than 2 weekends away a month (although with 12 weddings this year, we’re not doing so well on this front…make exceptions when appropriate).

6. Plan more time. Give yourself two hours for something you think will take one. Humans are notorious for dramatically underestimating how long things take. Ever wonder why you always feel behind? Lower your expectations a bit.

7. Say No. Overplanning = stress. You can’t do it all so stop trying. Tell people no. It’s not that difficult once you realize it allows you to happily do the things that actually matter.

8. Find things that slow you down. I just spent Mother’s day at my parent’s house in a little town outside San Francisco. Every time I go out there life becomes mellow. What things slow you down? Start making them routine.

9. Sit still. Some call it meditation. Others call it relaxation. Call it whatever you want. Sit alone somewhere quiet and just breath. Maybe even throw a smile on your face. If you’re looking for something structured, perhaps check out Transcendental Meditation (too many people have sworn by TM for me not to check it out – I plan to in the next couple months).

11. Take a walk. Go slowly. It’s not only a great de-stresser but also a fun way to clear space and get yourself thinking big.

12. Be in nature. Get as deep as you can. I recently got back from 3 nights backpacking with a few friends in Big Sur, California. It was the ultimate reset. Even if stressful things came to mind, there was nothing I could do about them so they quickly faded. Nature has a magic about it. Whether it’s a few days or a few minutes, get outdoors.

13. Run through grass barefoot. One of the fastest ways I’ve found to feel free (and like a 5-year old). Run around a bit with no real direction. One of my favorite ways to get present.

14. Nap. I’m talking 20-30 minutes, not 2-3 hours… Stay out of your bed (makes it too easy to sleep half the day away). Find a spot on the grass or on your couch. Ideally with sunlight and fresh air close by. Whether you fall asleep or not isn’t as important as just lying down.

15. Get lost in something. We all have things we simply love doing. Painting, cooking, dancing, gardening – it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you enjoy it.

16. Work Out. Don’t tell me you dont have time. Everyone can find at least 20 or 3o minutes for moving and breathing. It will make the rest of your day magnitudes better (and more effective). When time gets tight, fitness is usually the first to go. It should be the last. When working in Santa Barbara the first thing I’d do when assigned an overwhelming project was hit the beach for a barefoot run. Things always seem less intimidating after a workout.

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”

~Sydney J. Harris

There is always time

Have you ever had a packed week and then something unexpected happened (like a family member in the hospital) and you had to take a day off? Did the world fall apart? No. Everything worked out more or less ok. Remember that next time you can’t figure out how to get it all done.

This stuff doesn’t have to be difficult. Most important is to realize when stress hits and immediately do something towards remedying it. It won’t get better if you keep on the same path.

You will never do it all

There will always be more ideas to pursue, people to meet and mountains to climb. Stop trying to do it all. It’s a fool’s errand.

How about adopting a few new beliefs:

  • You will never get it all done
  • You will never meet everyone
  • You will never pursue every idea
  • You will never read every book

Besides, why would you want to do all of this stuff anyway? If you’re busy meeting every new person then how are you able to spend time with those already close to you? If you’re flipping through books at light-speed, when do you plan to actually put the new knowledge to use? If you’re always starting businesses, how will any of them get the attention to become successful?

Doing too much = accomplishing less.

Don’t be so focused on what’s next that you lose site of right now. We all need reminders. The practice of slowing down will never end.

I am notorious for packing my life full of seemingly-awesome things. But even if they’re awesome, there’s only so much room. Stress starts as soon as you begin feeling full. As soon as I feel it I dig deep and cut things out so I’m back to a manageable level. A few months later it may pile up again. So I tear the walls back down. So the process goes.

I am not perfect. I’m far from it. But I know enough about myself to be aware of it, to notice it happening and to know what to do about it.

Use stress as a reminder

Stress exists to help us. The moment we do something to cause it, we feel it. It’s an almost instantaneous alarm (think fire siren) to remind us to take a step back and understand where it’s coming from. A lot of times it’s pretty obvious.

We create the pressure we put on ourself.

We create the stress.

We can also create the calm.

“Life is not a race. Do take it slower.

Hear the music. Before the song is over.”

David L. Weatherford

What’s your biggest cause of stress? How do you deal with it? Give us your best trick in the comments, because one simple idea can be a huge help. Thanks!

Image courtesy of nattu
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“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” - Jim Rohn