A THOUGHT TO REFRAME STRESS
Posted on 28th June 2022 at 16:25
When confronting a stressful situation, my natural inclination was to fall into old patterns of anxiety when triggered. This is how it was, despite all the work I’ve done on myself, until I read something in a book which changed my perspective completely.
Stress and anxiety are nothing new to me. I definitely wasn’t born with them - they just sidled into my consciousness over the years. Life experiences and expectations layered themselves one upon the next like a shabby paint job of worry; peeling back to reveal the patchy poorly protected surface beneath.
Having children doesn’t help with soothing anxiety (sorry, children, you know how much I love you, but now I have to worry about you too!). Nor do hormones - periods, peri-menopause and menopause more precisely (and I’m not apologising for anything on that front).
Certain character traits (either born with or otherwise) can exacerbate stress. Perfectionism is, of course, an open freeway to ruin when it comes to anxiety. Unfortunately, this trait is baked into many of us even if we weren’t born with it. Years of education; exams that we are told our life depends on; qualifications that hold the key to our future selves - all these are the prelude to a career path built upon the somewhat shaky foundations of getting it right.
During my three decade career as a graphic designer and creative director, perfectionism was a prerequisite to the job. Becoming a personal development coach in recent years has helped me work on and break down this particular trait up to a point, but it’s hard to undo thirty years of conditioning just like that. Fastidiousness (and the inevitable disappointment that comes when you expect everything to be perfect) seems to have become an integral part of my DNA. It manifests the moment I drop my awareness.
“So”, I hear you ask, “what happened? Why are you writing this article?”
I read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman and a point he made within it clicked for me when it comes to managing anxiety.
The book explores the idea that a lifetime of eighty years equates to around four thousand weeks. There’s much food for thought within its pages and the overarching premise is that, in the scheme of things, life is over in the blink of an eye so stop putting things off or living life through some lens to the future. Get on with it. Start living in the now rather than always imagining something better will happen once you’ve got all your ducks in a row - because chances are that day will never come!
“But what does this have to do with stress and anxiety? I feel like what you say is adding to the pressure to live my best life now. Is THIS really the best it’s going to get?” you may be wondering.
In the book, Burkeman asks us to accept that, across the timespan of human civilisation, even long ago when life expectancy was much shorter, there would most likely have been a few people in each generation who lived to be one hundred years old.
He asks us to “visualise a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough.”
By that same measure, it means that the age of the Egyptian pharaohs happened a mere thirty-five lifetimes ago! Jesus was born twenty lifetimes back. Shakespeare was born less than five centenarian lifetimes ago! When viewed that way, the space humankind occupies in the realms of time seems pretty … miniscule.
The idea of being a small dot on a seemingly infinite cosmic timeline certainly does put one’s worries into perspective. Zoom out and suddenly our day-to-day concerns disappear into utter insignificance. For that matter, so does everything: the rise and fall of civilisations, wars, pandemics! I realise when you’re experiencing any of these awful things, it doesn’t feel that way - that’s the point.
Let’s zoom into the minutiae of our four thousand weeks timescale (at a point that isn’t consumed by the immediate necessity to stay alive amidst a life-threatening situation). Suddenly there seems to be an awful lot to fit in if we are to do something significant with our short time in the world. We don’t have long to make our mark. Is it not our duty to use our four thousand weeks in a way that will have lasting impact - like Michelangelo or Einstein did?
The trouble with this way of thinking is that it sets us up for inevitable disappointment. How many extraordinary folk like Michelangelo and Einstein have existed through history? There’s a clue in the word “extraordinary”.
And therein lies liberation from worry and stress (for me at least). Many of us live with the idea that, in order to feel like we have lived our life well, we must have achieved some seriously impressive and remarkable accomplishments; ones that will be remembered long after we are gone. A few of us expect our impact to last for generations.
The weight of responsibility we pile onto ourselves in our quest to achieve greatness is a heavy one to bear. We set ourselves standards no reasonable person could be expected to meet when the reality is that achieving this kind of immortal greatness is highly unlikely. Recognising and dropping the weight of some of the impossible standards I’ve been setting myself has been the key to liberation to me.
Ok. Just to be clear, I have never seriously expected to become the next Michelangelo! I am, however, prone to make the most impossible demands on myself under the deluded belief that, if I can only manage my time well enough, I am capable of superhuman levels of quality output.
In my mind, I can:
write a best-selling book
run a thriving coaching practice
create a witty daily cartoon strip (later to become a best-selling book)
prepare enough quality art to have an exhibition (somewhere really good)
be a brilliant (and patient) mum who supports my children in every way, attends all school events and drives my children wherever they need to be
become an excellent chef who provides nutritious and tasty meals on a daily basis (and also entertains regularly too)
also become someone with enough business savvy and financial success to become a dragon on Dragon’s Den
I have lifted this quotation from the book I referred to earlier, as this was the paragraph that shifted my perspective around stress and anxiety:
“No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it’s the feeling of realising that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realisation isn’t merely calming but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a ‘life well spent’, you’re freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed - and that until now, you’d subconsciously been undervaluing them, on the grounds that they weren’t ‘significant’ enough.”
- OLIVER BURKEMAN, Four Thousand Weeks
From that moment, I realised that to make the most of my few thousand weeks, I needed to let go of the abstract notion of a ‘better tomorrow’ and focus squarely on the now; to stop living life in the quest for an unattainable standard of achievement and plop myself right back into the tiny speck of dust in the cosmic timeline that I am occupying right now - in short, cut myself some slack.
Many high-achievers live life with their eye on what they intend to happen next and feel huge anxiety in the build up to it actually happening or (as is often the case) not happening as they envisaged. The trouble with that is a life always out of reach, one that feels like it’s warming up but that the main event is yet to happen. Of course, the reality is that each day is the main event and each day you get another taste of it. When you look at it that way, it feels like there’s less to get worked up about.
Sophie Neilan is a certified professional coach and creative mentor. She coaches high-achieving (and overstretched) women who want to take back control of their precious time and energy so they can focus their attention on what really matters.
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