In a sweeping statement of generalization, I believe there are two types of people in this world: those that seemingly float over the petty grievances of life, focused on the bigger picture and its greater meaning, and those that sweat every last detail down to its microscopic minutiae.
How we handle a small thing can be indicative of how we handle a big thing. Whilst it’s completely normal to experience stress during any major life changes, when these same feelings continuously crop up over the more mundane hassles of life, it can be an excellent indicator that it might be worthwhile to take a step back and ask yourself if this type of reaction is actually serving you. When we experience stress, even if it’s just a moment of exasperation, the cortisol levels in our bodies change. While these stressors are minimal in comparison to larger more serious stressors, such as a visit to the E.R., they have a cumulative effect on the body. And we all know the effects of long-term stress. Two words. Not. Good.
As a recovering worry-aholic I know all too well the downward spiral that occurs when faced with a string of minor nuisances. It can prove to be all encompassing and at times debilitating. Yet it wasn’t the number of hassles that was spiking my adrenaline; it was my perception of them being a big deal that was causing the problem. I was acting as if my life depended on getting through these small concerns, and my body, believing what my mind was saying, reacted accordingly.
Realizing that this was no way to live my life, I asked myself if there was a way to train my brain to stop jumping on the express train to Worry Town each time a minor irritation popped up. Turns out there was. The following three steps helped me to navigate through the intense storm of neurosis and onto saner shores.
1) Reframe The Circumstances
I discovered that sometimes all it takes is a little perspective. If my to-do list grew beyond its yellow post-it boundaries, I began to stop myself before my anxiety levels rocketed skywards and ask what would actually happen if I didn’t get it all done. The answer? Not much. The fridge might not be fully stocked with groceries for the week; the laundry might still be stacked at the bottom of my closet, but how important was this really? It wasn’t. There was plenty of other food to eat, other clothes to wear. Sometimes we can become so driven by our own neurotic thought patterns we forget to give ourselves a sanity check.
2) Problem Solve
The prospect of a looming work project would manifest itself into sleepless nights, yet after it was over I would berate myself for getting so wound up in the first place. So, instead of blowing the issue out of proportion, I learned to focus instead on how I could solve the problem. If I knew I had a deadline for a work project, I would tackle it ahead of time simply by taking action rather than leaving it to the last minute and suffering through the sleepless nights. This approach provided me with a new-found confidence to start believing that there was actually a way through every perceived block.
3) Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be an effective strategy for stopping rumination in its tracks. Becoming aware of my thoughts and observing them in a non-judgmental way meant that I simply viewed them without attaching any meaning, which in turn lessened their power over me. Instead of being controlled by my emotions, I learned to control them. How? Through maintaining a regular meditation practice.
This alone taught me the power of our thoughts. That emotions come and go all the time, much like passing storms, but that the important thing is whether we attach meaning to them. If I simply let them pass me by I discovered that they eventually evaporated into the ether and moved on. I also learned that we aren’t our thoughts and that we all have a choice: to react or to act. Two very different things.
While I know that I’ll never rid myself completely of my minor worries and petty concerns, I’m no longer a slave to them. In becoming aware of my thought patterns and learning to deal with them I no longer find myself suctioned into the downward spiral of worry and anxiety over things that simply don’t matter.
Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best when she astutely observed that “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle three things; a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.”