What if stress management was actually ridiculously easy?

I keynoted at a conference a few weeks ago. As usual, as the date approached I felt the pressure intensify. It’s much better than when I first started public speaking years ago. For my very first paid speech, which was in front of several hundred people, I shook for the three months leading up to it – some days when I got really worked up it was actually a challenge to hold a pen.

For this recent event, I did a few preparations the week prior (mostly making lists to help me feel like I was getting something done). I’d told myself I’d prep over the weekend, though of course when the weekend came other more fun things beckoned. No problem, I’d devote the entire day prior to the event to preparing.

Of course, on that precious prep day I found myself surrounded with unrelated fires (and mild feelings of panic). I fought back with fierce efficiency and determination and put out the fires, customized the content and Powerpoint for the audience, rehearsed the speech, rehearsed the flamenco dance that went with it, got my costume and materials all organized, etc. I managed to get a paltry six hours of sleep before getting up and getting ready to go. It felt like a superhuman sprint to the finish line.

All day long, even though I love what I do, I’d reminded myself how great I’d feel when it was all over. Whenever I do a big push pre-event, I find comfort in reminding myself that the event organizer is usually more stressed than I am. They orchestrate the entire symphony and they’re usually stress personified – hands and ears full of phones and walkie-talkies, calling out orders, fixing multiple glitches and forgetting to eat all at the same time. They make me look serene and very together by comparison.

After this event, I expected to share the usual fried-but-triumphant celebration with the woman who had organized it. As we got into the elevator together I said: “You must be thrilled that it’s all over and it went so well – I hope you have some time to relax now, I can only imagine how busy you’ve been.”

“Actually,” she said, “it was super easy. Yesterday, all I did was send out one email reminding people of when to meet this morning.”

I stared at her, and she laughed at the surprise in my eyes.

“Seriously,” she said, “I just refuse to get worked up about it. I delegate everything I can, and I don’t spend a lot of time telling people how to do things. I’ve learned it’s better not to be a control freak and let them figure things out. Not only does it make things way less stressful for me but it gives them true ownership of their part of the project.”

I had to know more, as I’ve rarely met anyone so masterfully serene (and the event had been really, really well done).

“I used to work insanely hard and try to control everything,” she told me, “until I got into an accident one weekend while skiing. Because I was so burned out and stressed from my job, it took me much longer to recover than I should have. It all finally caught up with me. After that experience, I swore that I would never let myself ever get that stressed again, it’s just not worth it.”

“You know,” she continued, “I have a theory now that people – other event planners, for example – get all worked up because on some level it makes them feel important. Their job stress is almost like a dysfunctional badge of honor they wear, that so many people wear. The craziness of their life and schedule somehow tells the world how important they and their responsibilities are. I refuse to buy into that anymore, I used to. There’s no reason to get that stressed, it’s totally unnecessary.”

She was so right. I might get worked up before a public speaking event or a major media appearance because on some level I believe I’m supposed to be stressed, that the occasion merits it. After all, most people would be totally freaking out at the prospect. At this point, now that I have plenty of experience and confidence in my speaking abilities, maybe the habitual fuss is just that – a habit. A mindless, useless, unproductive habit.

Do most brides freak out at some point during the wedding preparations, and do things that alienate or offend their closest friends and family, because our culture has taught them to be divas? That this is the most important day of their life (quite a ridiculous thought) and that the associated pressures will at some inevitable point naturally provoke a bridezilla moment? What if the bride decided she wouldn’t buy into any of that?

Do you feel rushed and frazzled at work, and complain or skip meals and breaks, because that’s what work is supposed to feel like at certain times? Does expressing all that work stress make you feel and look more committed or important?

Do you get upset and irritated (or start shouting) when you walk into your home and the kids have made a mess, because that’s what you saw your mother do, and that’s what mothers are supposed to do? Does it really matter that much?

What circumstances in your life cause you to act dramatically, rushing around and telling others how “totally stressed out” you are? Does it really need to be that way? What if it didn’t need to be that way at all?

What if “stress management” was actually ridiculously easy? What if all you needed to do to stop the madness, was to just decide to slow down and calmly do whatever it is that you need to do?

“My father used to always say ‘stress is a choice’, and he was right,” said the event planner. “When a person gets really stressed out and frantic, much of the time it’s because on some level they’ve decided to be that way. Why not just decide to be calm? It’s so much nicer.”

Indeed it is.

Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Susan Biali, MD.

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  • Perry Morgan

    This sounds nice….but also unrealistic. Stress, for me, has never felt like a choice so much as it feels like a an absolute avalanche. And I have little control over the mountains. Public speaking, in particular, has never gotten better, even after many times having to do so and attempting to keep a positive mindset. 

    However, I am willing to admit that I may not have “tried” hard enough. But, after so much, the likelihood of this being the case seems slim in my eyes.

    • http://www.susanbiali.com/ Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       Hi Perry, what comes to mind for me here is that there are some things that are just really difficult for some people. I’m really afraid of heights (much more than I would be about speaking) and will probably never stand at the top of the Eiffel tower (and don’t really care that I won’t). Something that I’m that scared of isn’t the kind of fear that I can just cast off easily. Public speaking, on the other hand, is very difficult for most people (apparently feared more than death) but is something I’m good at and have done often but still get habitually (and unnecessarily) worked up about. In the article I’m not referring to dismissing paralyzing fears or things that are really challenging for a person to face  – I’m referring to the kinds of day to day things/stressors/triggers that we get worked up about but can actually calm ourselves down quite easily from if we realize that we’ve worked ourselves up unnecessarily. 

  • drseno

    The same thoughts as Perry stated ran through my mine while reading this. Though I also key note before large audiences and am comfortable doing so without the crazy stress; it didn’t ‘appear’ as a decision or a choice (though I know it is) to get that ease in being and doing.

    So, what tools and processes help someone ‘choose’ out of the avalanche (as Perry describes it)? It’s nice if someone’s dad wisely told them that ‘stress is a choice’ and one day that lucky kid realized it for them self. My dad never said that and coped with tremendous anxiety within himslef. One day I realized that stress was a choice anyway. My sister never realized it.

    But I am 58 now, my kids are raised, I’m out of crazy academis (a choice), have no debt (a choice) and still get freaked out a little bit sometimes…at which time I make a choice to use tools like questions and quiet time and walking in the woods in order to deal with the stress.

    So how do you do it is the question anyone is going to ask? It’s why anyone would read this article with a great title. If it’s ridiculously easy, how does one do it? You clearly have some clues.

    • http://www.susanbiali.com/ Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       What I meant by it being ridiculously easy, in the context of pre-keynote stress for example, is that when I get into that habitual mode of working myself up in the days before, I can catch myself and say “do I really need to be feeling this nervous? Do I need to drive this quickly as I do preparatory errands? Do I need to act like this is a big deal?” I can remind myself that I can just calm down about the whole thing, take the edge right off it.  I can still get all the things I need to do done, without taking on that frenzied edge.  “That” feeling simply doesn’t need to be part of the experience, even though I might have come to assume it was a natural part of it. It doesn’t have to be…I’m a naturally anxious person and have found so many other different tools to deal with it in different circumstances, they work very effectively but are beyond the scope of a comment!

  • drseno

    Your blog has some direction that this post lacked. Link people to it for more info – say it out loud. I especially liked the no more wine article – awesome! I’ve been at that edge of stop all recently…the article pushed the edge from under me. Thanks!

    • http://www.susanbiali.com/ Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       Hi! Thanks for taking the time to check out my blog, so glad you enjoyed it – and facing the truth about wine was a big step for me too!

  • http://twitter.com/RUAccountable Linda Galindo

    ” “I just refuse to get worked up about it. I delegate everything I can,
    and I don’t spend a lot of time telling people how to do things. I’ve
    learned it’s better not to be a control freak and let them figure things
    out. Not only does it make things way less stressful for me but it
    gives them true ownership of their part of the project.” 

    Amen. Amen. Amen!   Way too much “Rescue, Fix and Save” on the part of managers instead of “true ownership” being passed on.

    http://lindagalindo.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/accountability-education-for-management-training-conflict-and-holding-others-accountable/

  • http://www.thehappymd.com/ Dike Drummond MD

    Stress is only a choice when the person has a certain level of self awareness. You can only Opt Out when you realize you have Opted In. THAT is a HUGE BLIND SPOT  for most people.

    The person you quote in the article was a typical stressed and burned out doctor until their ski “accident” (there are no accidents) gave her time and space to self reflect on the craziness of her life. THAT was the breakthrough.

    The stress is trained and conditioned into most docs … the epidemic of burnout is the result. And more often than not it takes a life changing event / injury / illness / divorce to prompt the self reflection that makes stress management “Easy” from that point forward.

    My two cents,

    Dike
    Dike Drummond MD
    http://www.thehappymd.com

    • http://www.susanbiali.com/ Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       Hi Dike,
      Thanks so much for commenting – the person who had the accident wasn’t a doctor, I was writing about the life of the event planner. And yes, she herself described the accident as being absolutely not a coincidence. It is what woke her up and  taught her to “chill out” going forward. I, the author of the article, am the medical doctor – and though I still practice very part time, I am primarily a wellness expert, life coach, speaker, author and flamenco dancer these days : ).  I agree that for many it takes a major life event…but often “those who have gone before” can share lessons that others can appreciate and learn from without having to necessarily walk through the fire themselves…
      Thanks again for your comment!

  • http://www.susanbiali.com/ Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

     Hi Linda! Love your comment about “rescue, fix and save”, I myself am learning how to manage/lead and am really working on getting this true ownership piece.  Thanks for reinforcing this!

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