When I was studying engineering in college, I learned that every material has a “stress point.” This is the limit of force that a material can tolerate. Push any material past this point and it either becomes nonfunctional or it breaks apart.
We humans have stress points, too, but ours work in more complex ways. Each of us has the same basic fight-or-flight response, and if pushed far enough, even the calmest, most collected person will lose his or her cool.
Because humans’ relationship with stress is variable and dynamic, though, it’s difficult to predict what our breaking point will be in any given scenario. And in some cases, being subjected to a significant amount of stress can actually energize and strengthen us.
When I was building my first chain of health and fitness clubs, for example, I learned that a rival company was looking at real estate in the same area where I wanted to build. Initially, I felt a surge of anxiety, but then this competitive pressure made me work harder to get to market as fast as I could. In this case, the stress I felt was a motivating and galvanizing force, not a weakening one. A similar dynamic occurs with physical exercise, when we purposefully stress our heart and muscles to make them grow bigger and stronger.
It’s interesting to notice, though, that some of our most destructive (and least rewarding) stress experiences occur within the confines of our minds. We can work ourselves into a panic thinking about all the bad things that could happen. As a result, we can lose sight of the practical realities of the moment and become more vulnerable to the debilitating effects of stress.
That’s why it’s important to know when to lean into a stressful experience and when to lean back and let it go. In many cases, it’s a bit of both: Before you can respond constructively to a stressful situation, you have to first step back and gain perspective. You don’t want your head spinning and heart racing when you need to be deliberate and clear. With that in mind, here’s an approach that I’ve found helpful:
If the present is stressful, put your focus on the future. I occasionally take part in 100-mile mountain-bike races. While riding in these grueling events, I don’t think about the whole hundred miles. I think about making it through the next hour or even the next 15 minutes — just over the next hill, or up to whatever I can see on the next horizon. As tough as the present moment is, I often find I can push through if I simply accept the difficulty of the now and put my focus on the near future instead.
If the present moment is stressing you to your breaking point, remind yourself that this moment is temporary. You are resilient and strong. Everything changes. This too shall pass.
If the future is stressful, put your focus on the present. Let’s say that your company is laying people off and you’re anxious you might lose your job. If you lose your job, then you might lose your home, and so on. If you’re worried to the point of distraction about the future, but nothing awful is actually happening, then focus on the present and show up for it with as much resolve and gratitude as you can muster. As of right now, you’re still in your place. You have food in the refrigerator. You have people who care about you. Life may feel scary, but in the here and now, you’re OK. You have options available, agreements you can renegotiate, daily choices about how and where to put your attention. Do that.
If you’re still stressed out, make a contingency plan. I am not an advocate for mindless positive thinking. Nor am I suggesting that you blithely paper over the problems in your life. There are times when you’re faced with a serious issue that just isn’t going to go away. In these cases, you need to make a plan.
As a pilot, I am required to regularly go into a flight simulator and experience what it’s like to lose an engine. How will I change my approach to the landing strip? What is the best way to make an emergency landing? I drill these worst-case scenarios over and over until I’ve got my plan down cold. Then (and this is key) I set that knowledge aside. If I were to try and pilot a jet while obsessing about all the things that could possibly go wrong, I’d not only have a terrible flying experience, but I’d be putting myself and my passengers at risk.
Your life is no different. If you’re facing a real problem or risky situation, ask yourself what your best course of action would be should the situation take a turn for the worse. Write down your “in case of emergency” plan. Then set it aside and go back to living.