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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