We all deal with stress on a daily basis — whether it’s the stress of being busy and overwhelmed at work, having to deal with personal crises, traffic, relationships, health, finances … stress can be a big part of our lives.
And stress has some strong effects: it makes us less happy, less effective, less openhearted in our relationships, it tires us out, makes us less healthy, and can even create mental health issues if it rises to levels of anxiety.
So let’s look at how to let go of stress, whenever we notice it.
What You’re Struggling With
Why do we get stressed out, feel anxiety or feel overwhelmed?
Because we want the world to be calm, orderly, comfortable, and the world isn’t going along with those wishes. Things are out of control, not orderly, not simple, full of interruptions and unplanned events, health problems and accidents, and things never go as we planned or imagined.
But this is the way the world is — the stress comes not because the world is messy and chaotic, but because we desire it to be different than it is.
We have ideals for how other people should be, how we should be, how everything around us should be. These ideals aren’t a problem — the is that we are attached to these ideals. And this attachment causes us stress.
The good news is that we can let go of our attachment, and the world doesn’t need to change one iota. We can let go, and in doing so we let go of our stress.
How to Let Go of the Stress
Let’s say you’re experiencing a moment of stress right now.
Something isn’t going the way you’d like, things are chaotic or overwhelming, someone isn’t acting the way you’d like, you’re worried about something coming up.
The first practice is to drop into your body and notice how the stress feels, physically. Be present with the feeling — it’s not a problem to have stress in your body, it’s just a physical feeling. You can observe the physical sensation, just be with it. This can be your whole practice, and it only has to take a few moments.
The second practice is to notice the ideal, or your narrative about the situation. What’s causing this stress in your body? You have some ideal about how the world should be, how the other person should be, how you should be. And the world, the person, or you are not meeting that ideal. Notice that right now. Notice what you’re saying to yourself about it: “They shouldn’t act like that, I don’t like this, I’m such a screwup and not worthy of love.”
What do you say to yourself? Is this a familiar narrative? Notice that the ideal and the narrative are causing the effect of the stress, anxiety, fear, feeling of overwhelm. They aren’t serving you very well.
Also notice that they are completely fabricated by your mind. You created this ideal and the narrative. They are harming you, and you made up this dream. That’s nothing to beat yourself up about, but just to recognize. The good news: If you created it, you can let it go as well.
The third practice is to let go and just be. What would it be like to be in this moment without the ideal and the narrative? You’d be at peace. You’d be present in this moment. You’d be free. Perhaps more loving (to yourself or others).
Ask yourself what it would be like to not have the ideal and narrative. See if you can feel what it would be like, just for a moment. In that moment, you are free. You can relax, open your mind beyond your self-concern, and just be.
This is a state of openness that you can drop into in any moment. Just notice the sensations of this moment — the sensations of your body, of your surroundings. Notice the other people in your life, and their beautiful hearts. Notice how amazing it is to be alive right now, what a gift it is to have sight, hearing, taste, a body. What a privilege, what a joy!
You don’t have to be grateful and joyous in every moment, but this freedom of dropping ideal and narrative, and being at peace … it’s always available. Even in moments of chaos, you can be free, and even appreciate the beauty of the chaos.
Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness. It has over a million readers.