How much stress can you handle? A tiny dose of stress can motivate us to take action. I used to think a little stress here and there is okay—till it became the default mode. I stressed about everything. And one day, my body said enough.
A few weeks ago, I got up feeling tired and stressed. While making coffee I started feeling achy. I couldn’t determine what it was exactly. I got the coffee and moved to my office, and then I started shaking like a leaf. I was so cold I started turning blue. It felt like my organs are going to shut down. I lay down with blankets, space heaters, thick socks, a hat, and a heating pad with the central heating on. I remained cold for about an hour before my body temperature started normalizing.
All I could think of was, I just want to feel warm. I didn’t think about to-do lists, or exercise, or meditation. My mind dropped everything because my body said so.
The protective intelligence of the body
I did have symptoms of the flu for a few days prior but decided to push through. What was more damaging was the constant nagging of the things I needed to deal with.
But the body has its limits. Push it beyond a certain level and it will take over and tell the mind to shut the hell up.
I spent the next few days in bed. The only thing I did was pay my bills, which took a few minutes online. And then I shut down my computer and didn’t bother picking it up again.
And what happened to all the things I stressed about? Nothing. The world moved on without worrying about my productivity.
The best part was feeling physically better. For the first time in over a year, most of the aching muscles relaxed. My body felt so calm and suddenly, my mind was free. I didn’t care about anything, and it felt so good.
We put too much emphasis on our mental faculties and don’t give the physical body the attention it deserves. Instead of listening to it, we just pop a pill to mask the pain. Eventually, the pills stop working and the body forces us to stop and listen to the instinctive wisdom of survival.
I don’t claim to have the cure for stress. But I have a few ideas that may help you in reducing stress before it gets out of control.
Techniques to alleviate stress
When dealing with stress, I highly recommend you start with your body.
1 - Start with survival.
Before we deal with stressful demands, we need to put the body first and take care of our basic needs. We need shelter, clothing and warmth, water, food, and rest.
Looking at the basics will bring us back to the reality of survival. We can focus on earning enough money for necessities and then caring for the gift that life entrusted us with—the body.
If your job is a main source of stress, work with the second step.
2 - Focus on being 20% productive.
What’s optimal productivity? It’s a loaded question that no one can answer with absolute certainty. So, let’s look at our own ability to focus and the tasks we need to perform.
If we apply Pareto principle, 20% of our activity should yield 80% of the required results.
In my case, I decided that 20% means one hour of focused work a day. After I started feeling better, I focused on just doing one hour. I didn’t get 80% of the expected results right away. But that’s because I wasn’t very clear on using the productive hour. It got better with practice.
Take some time to think about your 20% time and effort and the desired 80% results.
If you have a seven-hour workday, you’ll probably need around 90 minutes to work on your most important task. After that, you can file papers, clean your desk, return phone calls, and clarify your next 20% work.
3 - Work with “now” and “later” lists.
We need to separate ourselves from our obligations. Create two lists to clear your mind. The “now” list has the tasks you intend to work on. The “later” list includes the upcoming tasks and projects. If you have more items that are not important but you’re not ready to ignore, add them to a separate “would be nice” list.
Your “now” list will include a handful of items. You should be able to fit them on a sticky note.
At the end of the day, update your lists. For projects, create a detailed plan of action for each, and then add the tasks to your now and later lists. Keep it as simple as you can.
4 – Rest and learn to be still.
If you want to be more productive, find solutions to your problems, or learn something new, get more sleep. It’s not a waste of time. It’s nature’s way of cleansing and optimizing your mind and body.
Learn to relax and just be. Do something that’s fun but not taxing (read a book, listen to music, go for a stroll). Take a few moments and breathe deeply.
As you work with the above process, keep the following reminders in mind.
- Prioritize your essential 20% before someone else prioritizes your time for you.
- 80% of what we do is not that important. What would happen if you dropped some obligations completely, or cut down the time you spend on them by 80%?
- Change takes time. You may not feel better right away by focusing on your wellbeing, but over time you surely will. Slow progress is better than stress and no progress.
- Impressing others won’t improve the quality of your life. Taking care of your body and mind, and working on what matters will.
- Disappointing others won’t kill you. But stress will. You’re bound to make decisions that won’t sit right with others. That’s okay as long as you’re doing your best without hurting anyone.
We may not be able to eliminate stress, but we can take proactive steps to ease the pain before it causes irreparable damage.
And the best place to start is the physical body—the home of life’s intelligence and wisdom. When the body leads, the wandering anxious mind will follow.