Sooner or later, things have to settle down, right? Each time I ask this question during 2020, the universe answers with, “Actually, no, they don’t. Here’s proof.” Another crisis arrives and adds to the pile of straw on the back of a camel whose back is long broken. I’m not even sure I can see the camel anymore.
This year, I’ve often found myself trying to send my eyebrows back to their respective sides of my face from the furrowed position they assume when I’m not paying attention. This made me realize I needed to do something to reduce my stress. Then it dawned on me: I can’t do anything to reduce the outside stressors I face. Pandemics, riots, family strife, economic downturn, illness, grief, and loss are all outside of my control.
My classic approach to stress involved me trying to cut stress by controlling things. Enter the year 2020, and I have had no choice but to back up and change my strategy. I needed to change the way I deal with stress or crumble under the weight of it. And since the hits seemed to keep on coming, I realized it was time to level up my stress game. So, if I can’t control outside stressors, what can I do to reduce my stress? I needed to learn.
First, I needed to stop expecting a stress-free life. I had to accept that stress is coming, and disappointment is inevitable. Far from advocating pessimism, I’m suggesting an acceptance that stressors are normal and that there is room for happiness alongside difficulty. Good ol’ perfectionism got in my way on this one and I forgot that I can still have joy even if things aren’t perfect. Once I brought my expectations of myself and others back down to earth, I have been better able to cope with the stressors that keep invading my life.
Next, I had to remember that though I may not get to decide what stresses me, I do get to decide what stresses me OUT. Sometimes an initial reaction to a stressor such as tears or anxiety is involuntary and inevitable. However, this initial reaction passes or subsides and then I get to choose what to do next. This week, I experienced a sharp criticism from a client. At first, the searing words and unfair implications cut deeply and I had to close my office door so that no one would see my tears. I let myself have a cry. After I began to think more clearly, I realized the remarks were made based on untrue information and emotional panic. Though they made me feel like garbage, the truth is that I am actually not garbage. Able, then, to decide to learn what I could from the offending comments and let the rest go, I took a deep breath in and, breathing out, released myself from the obligation to be stressed out by those remarks.
Last, I’m becoming an expert in cultivating joy. Joy is the kryptonite of stress, so I’m aiming to have it growing everywhere around me. I may not be able to stop stress from coming, but I don’t have to let it consume everything in my life. Giving myself something else to do besides be stressed over life in 2020 has drastically increased my ability to cope. I’ve taken a course on vegetable gardening, resurrected an interest in classical music, changed my shower curtain, painted my bedroom, cozied up my home. I bought a case of my favorite wine, tried some new recipes, and learned a new technology. I’ve given myself permission to have the joy of these things. My problems will still be there when I’m finished and I’ll keep working to solve them. However, it’s ok to put problems down for a while and experience joy.
Stress will never go away. I must get better at dealing with thoughts and events that cause my adrenaline to pump. In this game called life, 2020 has been a particularly rough inning. By improving my stress handling techniques, learning a few new moves, and giving myself plenty of breaks, I’m still able to enjoy playing the game. Little by little, I’m learning to stop thinking in terms of “when this is over” or “after things get better.” I’m building a life right in the middle of all of the stress and mess, and you know what? It’s turning out to be lovely.