The cause of stress

When there is stress, there is a mismatch between how things are and how you’d like them to be.

For example, if your bus leaves in three minutes, and you’re still a five-minute walk away, you might feel stress. You’d like to make the bus, but you probably won’t (unless you sprint and get sweaty).

There’s a mismatch between reality (you’re running late) and what you want (you want to be on time).

It follows that you can reduce your stress in one of two ways:

  1. Change how things are
  2. Change how you’d like things to be

If you’re wearing high heels or a suit, you might choose not to run for the bus. You might choose to let go of wanting to be on time, and accept that you’ll be late.

(You could also choose not to change reality or what you want. Not sprinting for the bus, but still wanting to be on time. In that case, you’ll continue to feel stress. Don’t do that!)

When you feel stress, which option to lower your stress should you choose? The more important something is to you, the harder it will be to change what you want.

For example, one of my core values is autonomy. I feel strongly that I should be in control of my own life. Another of my core values is efficiency. I like doing things efficiently, particularly the things that I don’t enjoy, so that I have more time left for fun stuff.

Combine these two values and you’ll see why I really want to be able to control my own schedule. If I worked a nine-to-five job, I would lose the autonomy to schedule my days. I would end up commuting, doing the groceries, and so on, when most other people do them too. And doing everything at peak times is not very efficient.

In fact, this is just the situation I found myself in when I worked in consulting a few years ago. The lack of autonomy and the inefficiency of my work schedule stressed me out.

I had two options: change reality, or put less weight on autonomy and efficiency. The former was much easier for me: I quit my job and eventually started working for myself.

(Working for myself, of course, is just a figure of speech. In reality I work for you, my readers.)

For things that don’t touch your core values, I recommend meditating. Daily meditation has helped me be a tad more accepting of discomfort.

An exercise for you

I’d like to end with an exercise. Ask yourself what causes you stress. Pick something small to begin with.

For example, you might feel stress when you’re running late for work. When you’re sitting in your car in traffic, or waiting for the bus that hasn’t come yet, ask yourself:

  1. How could I reduce this stress by changing reality?
  2. How could I reduce this stress by changing what I want?

Often you’ll find that dissecting the situation this way makes it easier to let go, by choosing the second option.

What causes you stress? And will you choose to change reality or change what you want?

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