Take It Easy

There’s been a lot of fuss around the blogs about the New York Time’s silly article about bloggers killing themselves. It’s clear to anyone who reads it — and should have been clear to the reporter, Matt Richtel, even before he wrote it — that blogging isn’t killing anyone. Writers don’t blog ’til they drop.

Rather, Richtel offers a picture of several driven bloggers who, quite simply, worked too hard. Not all bloggers work too hard. Not even most bloggers work too hard. But some do — just as some engineers, politicians, landscape designers, pet groomers, phone psychics, agricultural product marketing specialists, computer technicians, telephone sanitizers, and vampire hunters work too hard.

I can see the headline now: "In World of 24/7 Politicking, Vice Presidents Hold Secret Meetings Till They Drop".

Bloggers working themselves to death is not a trend. The fact that it was notable enough for the deaths and illnesses reported in the story to pop up on the reporter’s radar is proof of that. Dozens of corporate executives will have heart attacks while I’m writing this post — a trend the media won’t even notice.

But working too hard, that is a trend. Working too hard until your health begins to suffer, that too is a trend. Allowing your life to be driven by stress, driven so hard that it kills you — that is a trend, and an unfortunate one indeed.

Stress Kills

Researchers suggest that as much as 60-90% of illnesses are directly caused by or exacerbated by stress. Stress is related to major illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but can also cause back pain, headaches, tooth grinding, upset stomach and digestive problems, sleep loss and exhaustion, skin problems, unhealthy weight gain or loss, and of course, loss of sex drive. And that’s just the bodily symptoms: stress is linked to depression, anxiety, mood swings, confusion, restlessness, irritability, insecurity, forgetfulness, and a host of other negative mental and behavioral symptoms.

For all that, stress is often worn as a badge of accomplishment in our society. It’s not enough that we compete to see who can do the most, but we compete to see who can handle the most stress doing it. With such an unhealthy attitude towards stress, it’s no wonder that stress-related illnesses are so common.

Kill Stress

The only way to minimize the negative effects of stress is to minimize the stress itself — to identify the sources of stress in your life and either a) eliminate them, or b) rethink them to reduce the stress they cause. Note that this doesn’t include only the things we hate in our lives; stress can be caused just as easily by positive, life-affirming events as it can by negative events. Getting married, having a baby, getting a promotion, planning a kids’ birthday party, or taking a vacation can be just as stressful as dealing with your overbearing boss for 8 hours a day or coming up on a big deadline.

Since the big positive changes in our lives can be just as stressful as the negative ones, dealing with stress can’t be simply a matter of getting rid of everything that stresses you out. Instead, you need to develop practices and a mindset that dissipate and reduce the inevitable stress of life itself.

For starters:

  1. Make quiet time: Whether you meditate daily, go to the gym three times a week, practice yoga, go hiking on the weekends, or just spend an hour a night with a book, you need to create a space where you can clear your mind of everything that’s dragging at you.
  2. Stop procrastinating: You can put off important tasks, but you can’t put off worrying about them — and the stress that causes.
  3. Write everything down: If forgetting something would cause you stress, make sure you’ve got it written down in a trusted system so you know you won’t forget.
  4. Eat better: A good diet can help your body better deal with the effects of stress. A healthy diet isn’t all that complicated; as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, puts it, Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. As a general rule, eat as much as you can from the "edges" of your supermarket — produce, bakery, butcher counter, dairy case — and save the stuff in the "middle" for once-in-a-while — Twinkies, Pop Tarts, potato chips, canned foods, instant meals, etc.
  5. Make family time: Try to eat at least one meal a day with your family (or with friends if you’re single). Better yet, eat at least one homecooked meal a day with your family/friends.
  6. Talk it out: Bottling up your frustrations, even the little ones, leads to stress. Learn to express dissatisfaction (in a constructive, non-hurtful way) and to voice your worries and fears to someone close to you.
  7. Prioritize: Figure out what in your life actually needs attention and what doesn’t. Know what you can easily let slide — and what you can drop entirely — and focus your energy on things that will actually make a difference in your life.
  8. Have routines: Having a set routine means you don’t have to worry about what comes next; after a while, it becomes second nature.
  9. Accept interruptions gracefully: Don’t let your rituals become so rigid that you can’t function if they’re interrupted. Leave yourself enough wiggle room to adapt to changing conditions.
  10. Know when to quit: Don’t stand for employers, friends, or lovers who treat you badly. Decide how much of yourself you’re willing to put into a relationship, job, or activity; when you cross that line, walk away and don’t look back. This applies to the little things ("At 5 pm, I go home") and the big things ("If things aren’t better after 6 months of marriage therapy, I want a divorce").
  11. Pay attention to yourself: Notice when you feel stressed, and determine the cause. Notice when your body hurts or you feel unhappy, and determine why — or see a doctor. Figure out whether the things you’re doing are fulfilling your own definition of a good, productive life — or somebody else’s. Give up unnecessary competition (you need to make a better product than your competitor does; you don’t need to have a prettier girlfriend or a faster car than he does).
  12. Love: Build relationships. Share yourself. Feel human warmth.

What do you do to beat stress in your life? How do you maintain balance between the stressful and the not-so-stressful? Let us know!

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