Stress, our life-long frenemy

When I left my last job and started my current one, I took a HUGE pay cut.

Yep, youch.

Of course, you don’t know what my salary was before – and I’m not going to say, because we preserve some level of social comfort by not knowing exactly how much more or less we earn than others.

It was a very, very stressful decision to make the shift. Three years into my career and I would be taking a big (monetary) step backward, nearly to where I was when I was just a baby in the working professional world. My team loved me and valued me. I likely would have kept progressing in the company – pay and position. But I was miserable there, and ultimately chose my happiness, my mental health, and a gateway to future possibilities and growth.

Here’s one thing to clarify, though: making a life change that lifts a huge weight off your shoulders does not mean that all the weights will be lifted, or that more, different weights won’t be added. Although, in theory, you should not end up with a heavier load than when you began (more on that in my decision making course that doesn’t exist).

While my new job has come with numerous and welcome benefits – like fun office environment, flexibility, being valued and trusted, new skills and industries, and learning to relinquish some routine/control – it’s been far from stress-free.

Accepting that life and stress are a package deal – realizing there will never be a perfect job without downfalls, and that there’s no finish line where we’ve finally overcome or escaped tense necks and teeth grinding and all other nasty side effects – is helping me unpack and deal with it.

To illustrate:

The “me time” I can always count on is my morning workouts. It’s not so much that my running shoes hit the pavement or my hand grasps and dumbbell and all my worry melts away; it’s more like the time alone coaxes out everything I’d been stashing away in my busy, distracted mind. It’s a norm for me to pause mid-workout to set reminders for to do list items, or rush home from the gym to scribble down a plan or idea or grocery list. Then I’m all good.

But sometimes it’s not so simple to resolve. As my mind strays from whatever podcast or playlist is plugged into my ears, I’m completely overwhelmed by all the stress that suddenly bubbles up.

I’ve actually teared up on long runs before. Multiple times, no shame. Fortunately, after these moments of clarity is when I’m most efficient at working through the problems. And my go-to tactic is writing a stress list. 
Stress lists are best written in the spur of the moment, when everything hits you like a ton of bricks and the stressors are fresh in your mind. Grab the nearest piece of paper and writing tool and just start listing everything that is causing you stress. Literally everything and anything. This list is for you and nobody else, so even if your bananas turning brown is causing inner turmoil, write it down.

My most recent list included like 20 items ranging from wanting to finish a craft project to my new Roth IRA account performance. Anxiety does funky things.

Once your list is good and complete, go through each item one by one and really evaluate them. Jot down some more details about why exactly it’s stressing you out. Is it just a task you’re putting off disguised as deep-seeded stress? Cross it off and add it to your to do list. Is it a more profound to do, like “I need to visit my grandma more often”? Well, you’re hopefully already equipped to fix those types of things. Lastly, are there things that really stem from the same issue, creating a big, complicated, multi-layered knot of stress?

I often find this is the case for me. One thing bothers me and begins to infiltrate all areas of my life, latching on to other miniscule bothers. That’s why clearly listing everything out can help you address your stress effectively, all the way to the root. Money woes are a good example of this, and I’m not ashamed to use myself to help explain.

Money has always caused me undue stress. It’s learned behavior from my mom, who sits very comfortably in the middle class, but is laser focused on saving at all times.
My husband and I are not hurting for money at all, but with my new job my income is not where I was before, and it makes me uneasy. I’m not saving as much, and it makes me paranoid. I feel like I need to be careful about spending on shopping and going out and restaurants, but I had just reached a point before the pay cut where I didn’t have to worry about that stuff so much. It’s frustrating.

So when I look at my stress list, I can clearly see how 80% of the items stem from money worries. My retirement account, home improvement desires, weekend plans. Now that the monster is more concrete, I can keep it at bay.

I don’t cross everything off the list, but I do crumple it up and throw it away.

Stress is psychological and physiological. It’s not an ailment that we can cure for good (although there are mental health issues and disorders that exacerbate it); it’s a response to negative stimuli. We need to acknowledge and accept the fact that stress is part of the human experience.

Embrace it as a side effect of not being a robot, and just learn some ways to keep it from controlling you.

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