Some thoughts on stress

By Slow Dad - December 30, 2016

Stress is self-inflicted. It is us who make ourselves worked up, and our own perspectives that determine what is worth worrying about.

Feeling stressed?

This morning my ten year old son exclaimed “Oh my goodness, I’m so stressed!”.

I caught myself shaking my head at the ridiculousness of his statement. What in his supremely comfortable middle class existence could he possibly believe was stressing him out? Come to think of it, did he even know what stress was?

It turned out that he was having trouble completing an intricate maneuverer during the assembly of a complicated looking Lego set. The instructions made it look easy, but the coordination and logistics required proved challenging for him.

That got me thinking. Today we live in a world where everyone is always complaining about feeling time pressured and stressed out. However many of us live in a level of comfort that our parent's and grandparent's generations could only have dreamed of.

Once, but no longer

Many years ago I used to get worked up about things, but a series of interactions changed my perspective.

This can be summarised by a great quote from the cricketer Keith Miller, who had been a fighter pilot during World War II. “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, cricket is not.

Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, cricket is not.
Keith Miller: Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, cricket is not.
My best mate at school became a surgeon. Shortly after graduating from university we caught up for a beer, during which I vented about how stressful my day had been. A deadline had been missed at the office, resulting in my pointy headed boss directing a toddler tantrum at all us accountants. My friend reflected on this for a second, then proclaimed that wasn’t stressful at all. A bad day at the office for him resulted in patients dying. I must confess that was pretty hard to argue with.

I used to work with a Swedish guy who was incredibly good at writing the embedded computer programs that make microwave ovens and car satnavs and calculators work. He accepted a role writing the program that was to control a new generation of heart pace makers. On his third day in the job it occurred to him that he was no longer programming some random consumer device. This time if his work was anything less than perfect it would actually kill people. He quit on the spot, knowing he would endlessly worry about spectre of an undiscovered bug in his code.

My cousin performed bomb disposal in the armed forces for many years. I once joked that we should get him a t-shirt saying “if you see me running, try to keep up”. He responded that their team motto was actually “if at first you don’t succeed, bomb disposal wasn’t for you”. You don't meet too many unlucky people in his line of work.

I asked him how he coped with the idea that every job could potentially be his last. He just shrugged and said there wasn’t any point worrying about things that he couldn’t control.

You don't meet too many unlucky people working in bomb disposal.
You don't meet too many unlucky people working in bomb disposal.
The common thread these interactions had is they taught me stress is self-inflicted. It is us who make ourselves worked up, and our own perspectives that determine what is worth worrying about and what can be shrugged off.

Since I came to understand this I very rarely become stressed.

I am regularly challenged by stressed out consultants and client executives, demanding to know how I can be so calm after some “crisis meeting” or other has left them with a sense of bowel clenching fear and foreboding.

Usually I smile and tell them that I don’t worry about things I can’t control, that somebody else’s panic does not have to become my own, and that things will remain broken until we fix it no matter how much we stress about them. Then I suggest we solve the problem rather than wasting time worrying about it.

What is the worst that could happen?

The next time you find yourself getting worked up about something, STOP.

Ask yourself: “Is anybody going to die because of this?

Most of the time the answer will be no.

Next ask yourself: “Is somebody trying to injure me or my loved ones in some way?

Most of the time the answer will also be no.

Then ask yourself, as that famous Dr Pepper advertisement once did: “What is the worst that can happen?

Things seldom turn out as bad as we fear they may, which means most of the time they work out far better.

Finally ask yourself: “Will stressing about it actually help?

I’m yet to experience a situation where the answer to this question was actually yes.

So what?

Stress doesn't make us happy nor make us feel better nor help us get things done. As it is self inflicted, why not devote your energies to solving the problem rather than worrying about it? Get the job done and move on.

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