…And It’s All Small Stuff
I remember reading the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and it’s All Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson five or six years ago. I found the book enlightening because it was one of those books that points out what you already know, but are probably doing poorly.
Carlson points out that we add unnecessarily large amounts of stress to our daily lives due to “small stuff” which gets in the way of us observing the “bigger picture” and “living in the moment.” All great stuff from my perspective! Don’t get me wrong, I too get caught up in moments of frustration when things don’t appear to be going my way, and find it all too easy to fail to see the trees in the forest so to speak. It’s easy to do.
Do you ever have one of those days where REALLY minor negative occurrences send you over the edge? Let’s say you are leaving your house in the morning and are in a rush, in your rush you forget your perfectly made coffee sitting on the counter. This is something I’ve been known to do, and depending on how stressed I am already, elicits one of two responses. 1) “Damn, I’ll have to grab a coffee on the way in to work.” or 2) “God Damnit! That figures! Why wouldn’t that be something that would happen today!” The reality is that the EXACT same “small stuff” can cause vastly different feelings depending on my level of stress that is preexisting. Or rather our PERCEPTION of the stress… More on that later.
Why does it matter anyway?
The answer is simple. Cortisol. Cortisol is “the stress hormone” and has some pretty negative effects on your body when it is released in elevated levels for long periods of time. When you are stressed your body releases adrenaline and cortisol. Most of us are familiar with adrenaline and the “surge” that it gives us. We have all had an incident of a near-miss car accident, a few minutes later our heart is pumping with an elevated rate and our hands are shaky. Whether it’s being shot at in combat (lovingly referred to as the “combat cocktail” by combat troops) or nearly being hit by an SUV driven by a cellphone wielding soccer mom not paying attention, the result is the same, your body feels the physical effects of mental stress. Cortisol increases your blood pressure and affects your blood sugar levels, and like adrenaline, is a very useful mechanism for preserving your life when it is in danger. However, it can potentially be quite harmful when constantly released for long periods of time at elevated levels.
The Cumulative Effect
Now you know what your body is experiencing when you are constantly sweating the small stuff, and that is useful, at least now we know we aren’t crazy when we feel stressed or anxious about everyday life. But why does it seem to get worse? Why do we make statements like “when it rains it pours?” The answer is that we tend to have a confirmation bias when it comes to the perception of our environment. If we are looking for good things and constantly thinking about the good things, we tend to think more positively, likewise when we focus on the negative things in our life. Believe me, those bad things will always be there no matter what. Especially the small stuff!
Day after day after day we have experiences, big and small, and day after day after day, we internally make up our minds about those experiences, we label them “good, bad, stressful, relaxing etc.” If we sweat the small stuff (the forgetting your coffee or dropping your keys type stuff) we will find that a negative snowball effect starts to take place, and you subconsciously will not only find more things that go wrong on a day-to-day basis, but will start to anticipate them as if you are a victim of your own life… Talk about an unhealthy feeling and belief to have every day of your life! Are you really a VICTIM of your own life?
Mold your thoughts to what you want them to be
How do we start to reverse our negative thinking habits, and automatic response to the small stuff? Sorry to say, but it takes time. Chances are you created this thinking and emotional response pattern over the course of many years, and it may take that long to fully reverse it. It’s also important to point out that it will not reverse itself, it will take some hard work that may require a professional guiding you, here is a basic layout of the process I have found most useful in myself and in helping others.
Identify your negative thought process
Be honest, when was the last time you journaled? For most adults, we can’t even remember. I’m here to tell you that is BAD! The first step in the process is to identify a pattern of thoughts. In doing this you can clearly identify the incidents in your life that prompt negative emotional responses, and the following negative thoughts that go along with them.
Identify the good
Chances are you have just as much good “small stuff” happen to you daily as bad ones, you just don’t take the time to acknowledge them. Take the time to be thankful and appreciative when they happen. Moreover, take the time to notice the small stuff you do for other people. Studies have shown that an important piece to general happiness is feeling like you are helpful and kind to others.
Live in the moment. If you find yourself extra annoyed by the dirty dishes your spouse left for you when you got home from work, acknowledge that the cause of your burning anger is likely not your spouse, but instead the cumulative effect of the stress of the day. Call the feeling what it is, experience it, and move on from it, don’t let it consume you.
Take a deep breath. Take some time at the end or beginning of each day to reflect and focus on the good things. You will find this is what occupies your forethought moving forward. Did I mention take a deep breath? In a future blog, I will discuss the “mind-body-emotion connection,” but suffice to say for the purposes of this blog, your mind and body can create a “feedback loop” when it comes to stress. If your mind is sweating the small stuff, so is your body with the increased cortisol and adrenaline, as discussed earlier, the physical manifestation of this stress is real and harmful, everything from increased heart rate to compromised immune health can be the result. Take the time to relieve your psychological perception of stress, and your body will feel better… Magically, when your body feels relaxed, and you focus on that feeling, your mind will also feel better. A warm bath, a guided meditation, etc. can make a world of difference.
Recognize stress is a perception
It took me a long time to wrap my head around this concept when I was first learning about it. I mean, how can stress be an internal function and not an external one? How is that possible since our environment is stressful? Well, it is 100% our perception. Let me show you how with a simple example. Have you ever seen two people in a stressful situation, one person is freaking out, and another is cool as a cucumber? We see it in everything from combat, to finances, to a stressful day at the office, right? How is it possible that two people, experiencing the exact same environmental input have vastly different reactions to it? The answer is that they are PERCEIVING the environment differently… Ladies and gentlemen, perception is a CHOICE. So, if you find yourself perceiving lots of stress from the small stuff to the big stuff in your life, take time to recognize that your perception may be the only thing causing your stress and do something about your perception. There… Everything you need to know in order to stop sweating the small stuff. Now go, perceive life differently and enjoy life more… Go on…
Rory K. McLaughlin, CEO