Last night the neighbor’s dog bit me. It was just a little nip on my calf — a sheep dog’s instinct — and it took me a second to even register what had happened. Once I realized what had happened I approached the mutt (who was now peeing in my front yard) and stared him down. He ignored me, so as he dashed off I growled at him. He promptly turned and charged at me.
For a moment I wondered if I was going to get the chance to really get into it with this animal. The beast considers my driveway his territory and barks every time I get a tool out of the toolshed or unlock my bicycle. I stomped my foot and barked, and the mutt turned tail. I chased him for a few steps to let him know who’s boss.
The scuffle got my blood up, and it took an hour or so to calm down. Adrenaline — it feels good. Following the conflict I felt wide awake, energized, and pumped up. It’s not very often I get into any kind of physical conflict or feel that I’m at risk of injury — most of time I’m sitting in front of a screen and typing or clicking a mouse. I can see why cops get addicted to “the kick” that follows a chase or confrontation.
The encounter made me think about the nature of stress. Real stress, like the kind I experienced as a result of physically confronting my neighbor’s dog — isn’t a bad feeling. Too much of it would probably make sleeping difficult (and maybe lead to PTSD), but a bit here and there isn’t bad. Chronic mental stress, on the other hand, is an awful feeling. When I allow myself to get in a mental twist about work, money, relationships, or whatever, the mental and physical tension I experience is 100% unpleasant. I lose my sense of humor and all the pleasure drains out of life.
It’s natural and unavoidable to encounter stressful situations in life, but how do we avoid the unpleasant stress spiral? I think my own mental stress is usually self-induced. When my baseline stress increases, I can usually attribute it to one of these self-destructive behaviors:
1) Allowing interruptions, and self-interrupting
It’s good to switch up what you’re doing if you’re feeling stuck (as opposed to just grinding away) and it’s also productive to take breaks between tasks so that your mind can relax and recover between bouts of concentration. On the other hand, when I’m “deep in” and have a good flow going, a single phone call or “do you have a second?” can set me back twenty minutes. I do better when I protect my time, turn off my phone, and commit to not checking email or browsing the internet for the duration of a work session.
Why do we sometimes take on too much? I think the answer is one part fear, one part greed. We’re fearful of missing out (FOMO) — we don’t want to miss the possible rewards saying yes might bring us. In fact, we’re greedy for opportunity and rewards. Maybe we’re also fearful of the negative reaction we might receive if we say no (or no thank you). Will other people think we’re selfish, or not team-players?
They might, but it’s worth risking our reputations as team players in order to protect our time and energy. We’re no good to anybody if our energy is going in disparate directions.
It helps to remember that over-committing isn’t noble — it’s fearful, greedy behavior.
3) Engaging in disputes
Have you ever noticed that when you notice a dispute in public, the angrier person always seem like they’re in the wrong? Last time I was at the DMV, the lady next to me went into a tirade about something or other. The DMV clerk was patient and a little cool and distant. For all I know the woman had a valid point and was “in the right,” but to me she just appeared to be a crazy lady who had lost her shit.
That’s how disputes usually go. When you’re in one you feel righteous, angry, and stressed out, but to everyone else you just look like a crazy person who has lost all perspective. Meanwhile, the dispute consumes you, eating up all your mental energy and creativity. Even if you “win” you’re usually left poorer than if you hadn’t engaged at all.
Not engaging in disputes doesn’t mean you’re a doormat. Instead, you yield a bit, but hold your essential stance. You under-react instead of overreacting. You use Akido instead of Tae-Kwon-Do. And you avoid the stress of being that angry crazy person at the DMV.
Am I going to sue my neighbor because his dog nipped me? No way — not worth it. I just chased his dog a little and got it out of my system.
Reducing Stress, Meta-cognition
What about stress reduction? Exercising and meditating are considered socially “optional” behaviors, while tooth brushing is “required” (everyone thinks it’s gross if someone else doesn’t brush their teeth). Why is this? The former two are as important for “mental hygiene” as the latter is for dental hygiene. (I borrow the analogy from David Lynch, who wonders why people won’t dedicate as much time to meditating as they will to brushing and flossing.) Stress reduction isn’t complicated, but it might require establishing a new habit (which is difficult).
The things that we “have” in our lives (material possessions, jobs and/or income streams, friends and family) don’t guarantee us any degree of happiness. While it’s generally more pleasant to have enough money than to not have enough money, a big part of the “enough” happens in our head, and is completely disconnected from our actual material means. Maintaining a high quality of consciousness is a constant juggling act, and requires deft meta-cognitive (metaprogramming) skills. Avoiding chronic unnecessary stress (or, ideally, maintaining a Zen “mind like water”) is a big part of this.