I’ve been reading a fantastic book called “Unwind”, which clearly describes a phenomenon which I have been long aware of, but I have never taken much time to think about, even though it is part of the central teaching of various philosophies.
The core argument in this: you can only live in the present.
When you stop and think what this really means, it is kind of cool. For many people in the world, the threat of violence or real danger is essentially negligible. In the great book “War: What is it good for?”, the author makes a great point about death rates, and even how in the twentieth century, where more than 100 million people died of violence and war, it was actually the most peaceful century on record, because you have to put those 100 million people in context of the 10 billion that lived through that century, and that means that only 1% of people died a violent death.
So, most of the time, you are quite safe, and you can do a simple exercise and try and count how many seconds or minutes you were in real danger in the last month. I tried, and I reached something like 30 seconds, which were the following:
- I had a few split-second almost-accidents while driving my Vespa.
- I was threatened by someone with a large stick (long story…) but manage to cool down the situation immediately.
- I was involved in a minor crash while riding a taxi.
When we realize that the stress we feel in the modern world comes from the ancient Fight-or-Flight syndrome, where your body floods with adrenaline and other hormones to ensure that you have the best chance to survive, by essentially simplifying decision making, and redirecting attention and energy (essentially, blood flow) to the most important actions, we can understand how silly it is to get stressed by the way we live now.
When I saw “now”, I don’t mean the now that means this week or this year, I mean right now, which is often not actually a stressful situation. However, the issue is that we don’t manage to live in the real now, but our minds and thoughts flutter to the past and to the future, which often ends up causing stress in the present.
However, this is all easier said than done. I’ve suffered horrendously in my first year of being CEO, with some weeks have a terrible issue where I could not sleep one night because I was thinking too much, only to then collapse in an uneasy sleep the next day to compensate.
Looking back, this now feels really dumb, as generally situations tend to work themselves out, and there is little cause to worry about things that you cannot control.
And that is what I believe is the key to manage and reducing stress. The understanding of what is truly under your control and what is not, and then taking action on the things that are at least partially under control.
Even the very fact that you are taking action to resolve a real or perceived problem, that normally is enough to reduce a large amount of the anxiety that one feels.