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What’s It Like to Be Stress-Free?

I’ve noticed over the past few months that my, “How are you doing?” questions are most often answered with stress-laden responses. People feel amped up, maxed out, overloaded, under-resourced, piled upon, down & out, and stretched too thin.

“Fine” is no longer the typical response, not even the long, drawn-out “fine” that implied things were not so fine and invited a follow-up question. Nowadays the responses are more direct, more urgent, and more like pleas for help. Just this week, I’ve heard the following (all in response to a simple opening like, “How are things going?”):

“I can’t keep up. I don’t even know how things are going.”

“I need a vacation so bad…”

“You don’t want to know. It’s bad.”

“I’ve never been so busy.”

“We’re all overwhelmed and everyone is burned out.”

Occasionally, I hear a response like this, “That’s nice of you to ask. No one ever asks that question anymore.” My guess is that we’re all too stressed to ask or care how others are doing or, perhaps, that we assume they are just as stressed as we are so there’s no need to ask. How sad.

When’s the last time you did not feel stressed? How many people in your life appear to be stress-free on a regular basis? Children are stressed by playground and cyber bullies, by looming projects and tests, by high parental expectations, and by a treadmill of after-school activities. Parents share all those stresses and more in a tough economy at a time when every day brings new! more! better! things you should be doing for your children. On top of that, virtually every job requires more skill, more attention to detail, more time and more commitment than the same job did 20 years ago.

The promises of technology to alleviate stress and shorten our work days haven’t panned out. Just as soon as you learn how to use the latest gadget, another one comes along. Keeping up with e-mails adds to the stress level, as does being tethered to cell phones that imply constant availability. When we get a break from technology (think, for example, of vacationing in the mountains to “relax”), we return to a mountain of catch-up work. The refrain has become “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation backlog.”

It can be never-ending.

One influential psychologist described it this way: “Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources that he or she is able to mobilize.”

Sound familiar? If you’re like most people, this state of being is not only familiar but also expected and accepted. When we’re not stressed, we go looking for more work and more demands. We volunteer for committees, take on community leadership roles, help out at local schools and churches, fill up our social calendars, and seek ways to “get ahead.” We are adrenaline junkies, feeding our own stress and pushing the societal norm that it’s okay to be constantly stressed.

So what is it like to be stress free? Truly, completely, happily stress-free? Not relaxed, temporarily, and recharging so you can jump right back into the stress fest… But sustainably stress-free over a long period of time? Would it be boring? Would others consider you to be a slacker (or would you think of yourself that way)? Would you worry about opportunities you were missing?

Living within our means may apply here. Realistically, what are the limits of the “personal and social resources that we can mobilize?” Understanding, acknowledging and accepting those limits would be liberating because you’d say “no” and set boundaries to protect yourself from being constantly overloaded.

The benefits of reducing stress are certainly well-documented. Medically and emotionally, you’d just feel better. Taking care of yourself would ultimately give you greater capacity for taking care of the priorities in your life.

Like most blogs, I’m really writing this one to myself. So here’s what I plan to do. Being achievement-oriented, I am going to start by realistically defining my personal and social resources. For me, that includes coming to grips with the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day and that I need to sleep during part of that time. Sounds obvious, even simple, doesn’t it? But I know I’m not alone in trying to stretch time itself to do more.

Next, I’m going to work on saying “no.” For me, it won’t have to be a “no” to others’ requests. It will be an exercise in self-restraint, saying “no” to some of the ideas and tangents and enthusiasms that catch my fancy. It will be “no” to the notion that I can be superwoman and do it all. Mostly, it will be “no” to the perfection paradigm that keeps me tweaking and reworking that which is already acceptable.

My aim is to be a trendsetter, someone who can respond “fine” or even “fantastic” (and mean it!) when people ask me, “How’s everything going?”

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