The modern world provides us with the information we need at our fingertips, and we are more connected than ever. But our busy schedules, constant notifications and the fear of missing out brought along stress. This eats us from inside, and the worst part is we realize how affected we are by it when it’s too late, after having already lost a lot of time.

I wrote this post to reflect on how stress was affecting me and how I learned to be more carefree and enjoy life. I hope that others will draw upon my experiences and learn not to worry so much.

The Manifestations of Stress

The first part to solving any problem is admitting it exists. Psychological stress manifests itself in many forms, but it is characterized by you being worried about future events or regretting past decisions, over which you have no power.

If you think that you have too much work to do today and you’ll never finish it, you are certain you will fail in your current endeavor, or you feel you’re too busy and don’t have time for yourself, then you already are in a state of worry.

And being worried inevitably slows down your progress in solving all of these issues.

The Energy Consumption of Stress

What started me off in the quest for understanding stress was tiredness.

I might sleep for 6 hours. I wake up a bit tired and in a few hours I will be falling asleep with my eyes wide open. Then I sleep for 10 hours. I feel much more energetic when I wake up but after about the same amount of time I will be completely drained of energy.

To make an analogy for the problem, imagine charging your phone’s battery to 30% or 80% respectively, and then observing your battery lasts just as long in both cases. I do not deny it’s healthier for the battery to be charged more fully, but if you end up draining it really quickly maybe you should investigate whether there is a power leak.

Let’s look at psychologist’s Jordan Peterson’s definition of stress, as given in his book 12 Rules for Life1:

Unfortunately, that physical hyper-response, that constant alertness, burns up a lot of precious energy and physical resources. This response is really what everyone calls stress […]

(emphasis mine)

While worry seems to exist purely in your mind, the physical consequences are undeniable. It can negatively affect your health and shorten your life. Not to mention that being stressed increases your chance of making silly mistakes or omitting important details.

Stop worrying, start living

So far I’ve only looked at the downsides of being stressed, but I haven’t talked about how one can free themselves from its shackles. The truth is there is no easy solution or magical medicine; you have to actively fight it in your brain.

Let me describe my metamorphosis into a much calmer person. A few weeks ago I reached a point where my busy schedule and pressure from all the accumulated work made me feel like I was going to fail. In fact, at that moment everything was going quite well, and failure only existed in my mind. I stopped thinking about messing up, and just focused on doing the best I could do in that very moment. Nothing bad happened, and everything sorted itself out in time.

This way of reasoning will help you if you are nervous about a job interview, even though you prepared for it; or a hard exam, even though you studied a lot for it. The world isn’t going to end, no matter the outcome of that stressing event. You should simply concentrate on doing your best.

Dale Carnegie mentions in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living: focus on living today to the best of your ability, without worrying about how tomorrow will be or how yesterday was. Instead of thinking about how many tasks you have on your to-do list, try to pick one of them (preferably the one you can finish the fastest) and do it. The positive feedback loop that comes from solving that task will give you the motivation needed to solve the next one, and this resonance will push you through the day.

Various religions and philosophies around the world also debated this issue.

Buddhism tells us that the desire of physical or spiritual things is the source of all unhappiness. Give up on wanting stuff, and you will achieve blissfulness.

As part of meditation, some people practice mindfulness, when they try to pay attention to what they are currently feeling. Mindfulness isn’t just about observing all your thoughts as they come and go. It’s about consciously giving up on them. It’s about realizing that you will feel various emotions throughout your life, and that’s fine.

Taoism encourages us to adopt the wu wei, action through inaction, the path of least stress2. It tells us to work on improving what we can change, and not worry about what we cannot.

Imagine that life is like a river, and you want to swim across.

  • Those that flow freely with the river will be taken downstream, and never reach the other side.
  • Those that swim too hard against the current will tire themselves out and eventually drown.
  • Only those that strike a balance, who use just enough effort, will reach the other side.

Taoism teaches us that balance in all our actions is the only solution to surviving our agitated lives.

Closing words

I hope my experience with stress can be a lesson for other people. It’s amazing how much better you can live when you begin to understand yourself. From a programmer’s viewpoint: you need to understand the problem before you can start debugging it. And when it comes to worry, the moment you ask yourself why you are worried is the moment you realize there is no reason to fret.

Remember: the past is the past. The future has yet to come. Focus on what you can change and improve in your life. And what you can’t change shouldn’t worry you.

  1. Although the book is not specifically on this subject, the first chapter does deal with the issue of stress, including the chemical changes happening in your brain 

  2. This video provides a simple introduction to taoism with easy-to-understand analogies.