Weather the Storm

How to get out from under the stress cloud, for good.
By Penny Wrenn

A few months ago, beset by a mounting sense of “It’s all too much,” I signed myself up for what I hoped would be a transformative yoga retreat at a monastery in upstate New York. I extracted myself from busy New York City life and spent the entire weekend sitting quietly at sunrise, blissing out in Lotus Pose, and eating three vegetarian meals a day prepared by kindly nuns. Come Sunday morning, I rejoiced in the lightness in my shoulders and the quietude of my thoughts. I would return to the city (where I’d been floundering in a swell of daily to-dos and deadlines) ready to flaunt the boons of rest and relaxation.

But then I descended a dingy subway stairwell, boarded a crowded train, and treaded the noisy four blocks to my apartment. I told myself to breathe deeply and relax my jaw—two tension-releasing skills I’d practiced during my weekend respite—but instead of feeling the stress melt away, I reached my front door and collapsed in tears. Clearly, this hadn’t been the ultimate stress remedy I’d hoped for.

My post-getaway comedown didn’t surprise Michael Baime, MD, founder of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Anything that works to relieve stress by removing us from the stressful events of our lives is bound to fail eventually,” he says. Why? Stress is inescapable and unavoidable. Right—the old “stress isn’t optional; it’s inevitable” refrain.

Not long ago, my friend received similar consolation from a well-meaning acupuncturist. She lay on the table, needles sprouting from her ears and tears dripping down her cheeks, and wondered aloud, “When’s it all going to calm down?” The acupuncturist’s response: “It’s not.”

But I knew I couldn’t just “keep on keepin’ on,” as my father would advise. Trying to endure stress, says Frank Lawlis, PhD, author of The Stress Answer: Train Your Brain to Conquer Depression and Anxiety in 45 Days (Viking, 2008), is “the equivalent of trying to hold your breath during a 20-mile run.” Translation: It isn’t possible. So I shifted my modus operandi from I can handle this (as in put up with stress) to I will beat this (as in whup stress’ butt). And what better way to conquer stress than to seriously ramp up the work I’d already started on my retreat?

I turned my life upside down—printing vegetarian recipes, stocking up on organic fruits and vegetables, finally attending one of the yoga classes I’d circled on the gym calendar stuck to my refrigerator, and downloading some free meditation guides (how hard could it be to sit quietly for a few minutes every morning?).

But Operation Whup Stress backfired. I flaked on most of my yoga classes. I woke up at 6 a.m. to meditate to a three-minute guided “journey,” but as soon as I plugged in my headphones and heard a woman’s voice trying to “transport” my mind to trippy music, I couldn’t tune out the creaks of the wood floor or the doors shutting and keys turning as my neighbors left for work. And of course, by the end of a 12-hour workday, recipes gave way to take-out menus. I didn’t feel like lifting a pot or chopping an onion or, for that matter, emptying out a premade salad onto a plate. So my produce rotted, unused, in the fridge.

Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute in Atlanta and author of A Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness (AMACOM, 2006), has seen many folks like me “crash and burn” from treating stress management like a job. Although they hit the ground running with the best intentions, she explains, it isn’t long before their efforts lose steam from trying to do too much too fast. But instead of fighting to escape, endure, or defeat stress—all of which I’d tried—Hall insists the key to changing our relationship with stress is to accept it and learn from it. Here’s how.

Identify your stressors, bad and good
For starters, says Hall, “don’t push away stress too quickly by saying, ‘I’m not going to do anything that stresses me out.’?” You can’t ignore stress, she says—and why would you want to? Stress is information, though sometimes with a blessing-curse dichotomy. We all know how the stress cycle works: Something happens (burning building, speeding car), and we respond in one of three historically predictable ways: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. And, really, says Hall, more than the stressful event, it’s our response that counts. Baime agrees, adding that while stress may be unavoidable, “you can prevent and manage the distress that it causes.”

To utilize stress, says Hall, we have to know the who, what, when, and how of our stressors. When her clients complain about stress, they often use vague and abstract terms, so she directs them to write a list. “Think of it as balancing your checkbook,” she advises, like getting an accurate picture of how much goes out and comes in. To begin, make two columns: Debit (the things that zap your energy; i.e., your bad stressors) and Credit (things that affirm and motivate you; i.e., your good stressors).

After a day of keeping track, my “good” triggers were few but powerful (a highlight: a 3-mile walk-run in Central Park on a day when I’d rather have been at home with Law & Order); the “bad” ones ranged from nonfunctioning Internet service to being cornered by a coworker whose penchant for over-sharing other people’s bad news (colonoscopies, children’s rashes, muggings) really ticks me off. Yet some of the bad ones—deadlines, bills, rent—were necessary evils that had the potential to simultaneously affect me negatively and positively.

Make the best of the bad
Although deadlines plague most professions, they’re an importunate hallmark of being a magazine writer. Admittedly, I’m not what you’d call self-motivated, so I rely on deadlines to get my butt in gear, spurring me to a quickstep when I’d otherwise drag my feet. But they also give me stage fright when I show up at my computer to type. Still, nothing beats the sense of pride and self-accomplishment that comes from turning in a story (almost) on time.

Having mixed feelings about stressors is normal, says Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Harmony, 2009), who advises that I get myself through the experience with positive self-talk, replacing my I hate this. I wish it would stop. I’m so angry script with a simple I’ll learn from this. Similarly, I’ve read about an ancient Buddhist whose response to an antagonistic presence in his life was to say, “I need this person; he is my object of patience.” (Thank you, busybody coworker.)

Don’t take stress so personally
Things fall apart, but it’s our tendency to spin off into “Why me? Why now? Why this?” victimization that really does us in, says Jonathan Kaplan, PhD, psychologist and director of the Stress Management Program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. One precaution Kaplan encourages me to keep in mind as I learn to accept stress is to avoid me-versus-stress thinking: “It puts you in a combative mind-set,” he explains. “Stress is normal and natural; we don’t need to pathologize it as this out-to-get-us entity.”

So I shouldn’t see stress as my foe—which isn’t to say, warns Kaplan, that I need to think of it as my friend. “Accepting stress is all about learning to be comfortable with its just being. Not trying to reject it or cling to it or make it a friend or an enemy.” Hearing Kaplan explain it this way, I’m reminded of that old saying “it is what it is.” I decide to readopt this phrase and add it to my positive-talk arsenal. “Sometimes the stress we accept is painful,” says Kaplan. “But we don’t have to add to that pain by telling ourselves it’s overwhelming or we’re a bad person or we should be doing more about it.” Kaplan applies this philosophy to his advice about accepting stress, too. “Acceptance isn’t easy. It takes practice. And we’re not always going to get it right the first time. Which is fine.”

Focus on your resilience factor
What increases your chances of getting it right? Resilience. Call it a bounce-back, can-do attitude or, says M.J. Ryan, author of AdaptAbility: How to Survive the Change You Didn’t Ask For (Broadway, 2009), the “ability to face life’s challenges without collapsing.” The keys to resilience are the same tricks that unlock the “leading a good life” box: finding positive meaning in negative situations, being willing to grow from any experience, fixing one’s eyes on a hopeful outcome, practicing gratitude—all that good stuff.
In other words, says Orloff, resilience grows out of emotional and spiritual maturity.

I kind of like this nobler way of coexisting with stress, even if it doesn’t come easily. The next time I’m brought to my knees wondering, Now what? or Why me?, I may not immediately counter with a mature How can I grow from this? Yet I suspect that simply by attempting to accept the stress in my life (good and bad) rather than fighting it, trying to escape it, or spiraling into helplessness, I will grow—eventually.

Penny Wrenn is a New York City writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Marie Claire, Esquire, and Essence magazines.