Dr. Ben Michaelis (@DrBenMichaelis) is a motivational psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. Here, he shows us how to stop trying to avoid stress and, instead, utilize it in intelligent ways.
“The tighter we hold onto things and try to control them, oftentimes the more difficult it is to have influence over them.” -Dr. Ben Michaelis
The Cheat Sheet:
- Stress is inevitable, so stop trying to avoid it and learn to leverage it for constructive purposes.
- Is anxiety the same thing as stress?
- Understand how cognitive biases get in your way.
- Learn the difference between eustress and distress — and how to get the right amount of the right kind of stress when you need it.
- How do we overcome our evolutionary programming to focus on actual problems vs. imaginary problems?
- And so much more…
Trying to avoid stress is, itself, stressful — because it’s impossible. But there’s actually such a thing as good stress, and we can use it to our advantage instead of letting it take the wind out of our sails.
Through using a blended approach in his practice, motivational psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy Dr. Ben Michaelis helps his patients achieve a strong sense of self and balance. On episode 488 of The Art of Charm, he talks about utilizing stress instead of trying to avoid it, ending monotonous routines, and leading lives of purpose.
More About This Show
At a time when so many sources are telling us how dangerous stress is for us and that we should be limiting and avoiding it, along comes Dr. Ben Michaelis, a motivational psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy to tell us we’re better off trying to use it than lose it.
“When we think about stress,” says Ben, “we tend to think about distress, which is like when you’ve got a difficult boss or the equipment of your iPhone isn’t working for a podcast — that kind of stuff where you feel like you’re out of control. That’s only part of stress. But there’s another kind of stress, which doesn’t get as much publicity, which is known as eustress — and it means positive stress. And that’s the kind of stress that you get from a coach or a parent that’s just trying to get you to be your best. That’s really just pushing you along. And the reality is that without stress, we don’t develop. We don’t do anything. We need stress to develop and learn.
“And so it’s a matter of just figuring out how to get the right kind of stress in your life and to minimize the kind of distress, where you feel like you’re out of control.”
Because there’s often confusion between the two, Ben clarifies that anxiety is different from stress. “Anxiety is basically like a false alarm,” he says. “This is why I tend to focus only on two things in my practice, which are now and next. The only reality that ever exists is the reality of right now. The future doesn’t exist yet because it hasn’t happened. And the past is in your mind. And anxiety is basically like your alarm system is going off, saying, ‘Oh, my God! Something bad is going to happen!”
Anxiety just makes your brain circle around and around for answers and possibilities that never exist — so there’s never a resolution. Ben tells us anxiety is “a very seductive process in the mind that makes you think that you’re thinking about the future, but you’re not actually planning, you’re just sort of running scenarios over and over and over again without the actual data.”
This is likely a leftover chunk of evolutionary programming from the days when failing to be hyper vigilant about the environment would result in our ancestors dying — from competitors for food to predators that considered our ancestors food. Over time, the things we worry about have changed. We’re geared to survive and eat (while avoiding being eaten), but more recent constructs — like money, for instance, which is pretty abstract in comparison — are a little difficult to wrap our brains around.
“What we end up doing is mixing up these concepts,” says Ben. “Am I going to have enough food with am I going to have enough money? So I’m trying to get people to focus on problems that are actual problems vs. imagined problems…One of the things that often comes up in my office is the notion of control. People like to think that they have control over things; in reality, none of us have control over, really, anything. If we’re lucky, we have influence over things, and that’s a great thing. But it’s an important distinction to make that hopefully we have influence over things, but we do not have control over things.”
So how do we break away from a cognitive bias — like the illusion of control and the pressure and distress it causes — and understand the more comfortable limits of our influence?
Coming to terms with how we mentally work out these situations is important, but Ben stresses we shouldn’t ignore the biological components that have influence over us, either. He recommends exercise, attention to nutrition, and meditation as crucial to cultivating eustress and defusing distress.
“Our bodies don’t get nearly enough activity for how much that they require, essentially,” says Ben. “So there’s a lot of excess energy built up given how many calories we tend to consume in a day. And there’s really nowhere to go for them except essentially [being] burned off by anxiety. If you’re taking care of yourself from a cardiovascular standpoint, you actually do become calmer, because you’re burning off those [calories].”
He approximates it to how important it is to take a dog for walks or make sure kids spend some of their seemingly endless resources of energy every day. As we get older, our bodies still require a similar release (though our energy seems much less infinite). It’s better to channel that energy into regular exercise rather than letting it become nervous energy that burns itself off by paths of manufactured anxiety.
We can monitor our levels of stress by paying attention to the ways our usual patterns are disrupted — either in mind or body. Through overstimulation or understimulation, maybe we feel more paranoid than usual. Or we’re picking fights with others. Or we’re retreating from society. Or we’re eating more. Or we’re sleeping more. “Anything that is a change in your equilibrium,” says Ben, “usually can signify a difference in stress. Maybe you have too much or too little stress in your life.”
It seems easy to pinpoint those times when you’re getting too much stress, but how do you know when you’re not getting enough? Think about projects you’ve taken on that aren’t much of a challenge. Or perhaps you’re overqualified for a job. Maybe you’ve had the same job for so long that it started out as a challenge, but you’ve just outgrown it. These could all be scenarios that lead to a change in equilibrium that signifies you’re deficient in eustress and racking up distress.
So how do we get the right kind of stress in our life? What can do each day to get us in the optimal stress zone so we don’t do something by accident (or even on purpose) to max out the meter and drive ourselves crazy?
Aside from exercise — always a reliable fallback to remedy a lot of mental and physical aches and pains we experience throughout life — Ben says cold showers are one way of jolting your body into experiencing a certain level of stress that stays with you throughout the day (though maybe not in the middle of winter).
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to pick up some more tips from Ben (and the ancient Stoics) about dealing with — rather than avoiding — stress, and to understand how missing a train can be an opportunity for mental exercise rather than a world-ending tragedy.
THANKS, DR. BEN MICHAELIS!
Resources from this episode:
- Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy by Ben Michaelis, PhD
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