“Life is not about accumulation. It is about contribution.”
Stephen Covey’s powerful words resonate on oh so many levels. In the work setting, it’s not about accumulating personal performance accolades; it’s about our contribution to the betterment of the entire organization. In the social sphere, it’s not about the number of friends that we accumulate (know any “friend collectors”?), but about how we can meaningfully contribute to just one person’s life. And in the neighborhood, it’s never about how high a fence we can build, but about how leaving our gate open can foster a sense of camaraderie, community, and collective wellbeing.
The cost of these contributions? Free. The implementation? Super easy. (Fact: It takes zero effort to be kind). The impact? Infinite. The reward? Priceless.
Yet, when it comes to stress, things seem to get a bit more complicated. We accumulate stress whenever we believe that we can’t change our thoughts and feelings about the stressor. Likewise, we accumulate stress when we believe that we can’t reduce it through changing some aspect of our environment. As we blindly suck up stress like a vacuum, it’s only a matter of time before our ‘canister’ becomes full. And instead of emptying it, we tend to ignore the warning signs and boldly do what we do best: keep on vacuuming.
But wait — there’s hope! Current advances in neuroanatomical research prove that the brain can adapt in size, shape, and neurophysiological function to moderate the impact of things like psychological trauma, emotional distress, and biotoxic exposure. However, evidence shows that chronic exposure to stress can decrease immunological resilience and diminish coping capacity, dramatically. Over time, our will to manage our stress dissipates and, before we know it, we’ve become ticking time bombs — ready to detonate, without warning.
Fact: We are the gatekeepers of the stress response — that is, we ultimately determine whether stress is something that we can control… or a force that ultimately controls us. Yet, on so many occasions, we unknowingly hand over the keys and allow stress to storm the control room, hijack the override function, and steer us ever further into the stress superstorm.
On the front lines of the stress warzone, do you see yourself as an enemy or an ally of stress? Do you see yourself as the puller or the pullee in the stress tug of war? When stress knocks at the door, do you answer with a smile or hide behind the couch with the dog? Whether you’re the perpetrator or the terminator of your stress, let’s consider how the following I questions can help us to reframe our contribution to stress. Take a moment to ask yourself:
…a stress avoider? Example: “If you ignore stress, it’ll eventually just disappear.”
…or a stress approacher? Example: “I feel stressed…and I need to do something about it because I’m the only one who can change it.”
…continue to live in a chronically stressed state of ‘compare and despair’? Example: “That’s the fourth vacation that she’s going on this year. Wow. Just wow…”
…or change aspects of my environment in order to reduce the impact of stress? Example: “If I delete that Facebook app from my phone, goodbye… attention-seeking, multiple-vacation goer!”
…believe that I have zero control over the impact of the stress experience? Example: “Stress is a fact of life. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
…or believe that I’m ultimately responsible for regulating my stress? Example: “When I blame external forces for my stress, I give away my power. But I can choose to take back the power.”
When we acknowledge our contribution to stress, we’re more apt to adaptively respond (and not impulsively react) to the stressor. When we agree to filter out the fiction, delete the dysfunction, and ignore the irrelevancies that surround us, we feel happier, healthier, and whole. Fewer outside distractions gives us the opportunity to explore, discover, and celebrate more inside attractions. As we come to terms with our role in the stress dynamic, we come to an ironic realization: We’ve spent our lives blaming forces in the external world for our igniting our ‘stress fire’. Yet, here we stand holding the match.
Of course, stress is and will forever remain a ubiquitous fact of life. Our goal isn’t to eradicate it (that would be impossible), but to minimize it, understand it, and acknowledge what it’s telling us about ourselves. By adopting a strengths-driven, contribution-centered view of stress, we can then develop a workable relationship with it and regain control of our most precious commodity: inner peace.