Bird by Bird: Managing Overwhelming Stress
“Thirty years ago,” Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird, “my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” That’s it.
Bird by bird, starting with a bunch of easy birds to help you feel accomplished and then tackling a hard one to gain serious traction and reduce your stress level. All timed. Working within a specific and limited time frame is important because the race against time keeps you focused. When stress is generalized and diffuse, it’s hard to manage.
Using a short time frame actually increases the pressure but keeps your effort specific and particular to a single task. That increases good, motivating stress, while reducing negative, disconcerting stress. So, the fog of feeling overwhelmed dissipates, and forward movement becomes possible.
The Brain Perceiving a Threat
Regardless of how real the stress may or may not be, when our brain perceives a situation as being threatening, the process it engages is the same. Just like airport security, our brain has to take every situation seriously because failure to identify threats could be disastrous.
Therefore, whenever we encounter a stimulus, whether it is a bear, a highway full of slow-moving cars, or a traveler who for some reason chose to wear shoes, the first thing our brain has to do is determine if that stimulus is going to kill us. It is a very high-priority decision that the brain has to make before we take any other action. I am sure I don’t have to explain to you why it is so important that our brains do this.
The Correlation Between Privilege and Pressure
According to a December 2014 article in The Economist, there is a “distinct correlation between privilege and pressure.” We may earn more money, but we can never earn more time. And because we’re working jobs that are less physically taxing, we actually enjoy and find more fulfillment in our work today.
This leads us to finding our identity in our work and allowing it to bleed out inordinately into other parts of our life. Time, then—our least renewable resource—feels all the more valuable (and elusive). What we are really feeling is pressure. We aren’t actually busier. We want to maximize everything, milk it for efficiencies. Opportunity cost rises the more you have access to. To choose nothing feels ungrateful and unwise. Our privilege causes us to have anxiety over the seemingly endless ways we can mess up.
Finding a Private Relaxation Activity
In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith shares the importance of finding ways to rest and relax as part of a healthy, balanced life:
I once read a book in which the author said everyone needed a private relaxation activity—something that was a “no-brainer.” For a friend of his, it was raking leaves in the driveway. For the author, it was ironing his shirts.
For my friend Brian, a CEO of a gas company, it is (believe it or not) washing dishes—much to the joy of his wife Nan and their kids! Brian told me that his daughter Brie sometimes says, “Dad, you look stressed so I am leaving my dishes in the sink for you to wash.” Isn’t that thoughtful?
How Much Stress Would You Like?
Would you like a no-stress life? A wise person would not accept that option, no matter how tempting it might sound. A stress-free life would be fatal. If we do not have change, challenge, and novelty in our lives, we will literally die. How about a low-stress life? Again, it sounds very alluring.
Surprisingly, studies reveal that when placed in a low-stress environment for a period of time and then a high-stress environment for an equal duration, the majority of people prefer the high-stress environment. There is a word associated with the low-stress life: boring. Teenagers use the word all the time. And I suppose older adults don’t like boring any more than teenagers do. It’s just been twenty years since we experienced it, so we don’t remember how much we dislike it.
How about a hyperstress life then? This too, as you might expect, is unsatisfactory. People trapped in a hyperstress life feel out of control, exhausted in body and spirit. Too many demands, too little time. Let’s push the pause button for a second and reflect on the stress balance. Without at least some change and stress, we languish. If, on the other hand, there is too much change and stress, our adaptation mechanism breaks down. God designed the system for a midrange performance.
You don’t want to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles at two miles per hour, or at two hundred miles per hour, but somewhere in between. Clearly, our bodies and minds seek a certain level of stress. This is not criticizable. As stress increases, so does our productivity. We have a sense of creative tension that feels good. Deadline pressures focus our attention and keep us on task. At the end of the day we feel quietly pleased with all we have accomplished. Taken too far, however, the tension backfires. We hit the point of diminishing returns where increased effort leads to decreased results.
The Malady of Our Times
[Here is] a malady of modern times: unremitting and increasing levels of stress. The statistics on mounting stress and its detrimental effects on body, mind, emotions, and health shout at us. The American Institute of Stress notes that 75 to 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints . . . A Harvard study shows that people who live in a state of high anxiety are four and a half times more likely to suffer sudden cardiac death than nonanxious individuals . . . An international investigation reveals that people who are unable to effectively manage their stress have a 40 percent higher death rate than their nonstressed counterparts.
Overextending Ourselves & The Tyranny of the Urgent
In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith shares the importance of finding balance, even as life seems to pull us in different directions:
Overextending yourself is stretching your physical, emotional, financial, vocational and relational boundaries to the point of depletion. Have you ever heard the expression someone says when the money is running tight? It goes like this: “There’s too much month left at the end of the money.”
Translated this means, “I’ve run out of money to pay all my bills and it’s only the middle of the month.” That’s what happens when we overextend ourselves; there’s more asked of us than we can give. This overextending causes stress to accumulate: the stress at home, in the workplace, during travel—it all piles up like a huge stack of dirty laundry.
Stress, as we all know, is deadly to our health.
Every doctor and therapist will tell you that unresolved stress will “do you in.” Stress works itself out through our blood pressure and attacks our vital organs. Stress releases a toxin that when built up leaves its marks inside of us. We live with a tyranny of the urgent that drives us, manipulates us and sucks passion right out of our marrow and veins. Everything must be done now. Everything has to be quick.
Rituals That Replenish Energy
Is your job demanding more from you than ever before? Do you feel as if you’re working additional hours but rarely getting ahead? Is your mobile device leashing you to your job 24/7? Do you feel exhausted, disengaged, and sick?
Spending longer days at the office and extra hours at home doesn’t work because time is a limited resource. But your personal energy is renewable, say Schwartz and McCarthy. By fostering deceptively simple rituals that will help you regularly replenish your energy, you can strengthen your physical, emotional, and mental resilience. These rituals include taking brief breaks at specific intervals, expressing appreciation to others, reducing interruptions, and spending more time on the activities you do best and enjoy most.
Schoolwork through Different Experiences
In the fall of 2009, I was invited to go on a month-long speaking tour throughout Africa. During the trip, a CEO from South Africa named Salim took me to Soweto, a township just outside of Johannesburg that many inspiring people, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called their home. We visited a school next to a shantytown where there was no electricity and scarce running water.
Only when I was in front of the children did it dawn on me that none of the stories I normally use in my talks would work. Sharing the research and experiences of privileged American college students and wealthy, powerful business leaders seemed inappropriate. So I tried to open a dialogue. Struggling for points of common experience, I asked in a very clearly tongue-in-cheek tone, “Who here likes to do schoolwork?”
I thought the seemingly universal distaste for schoolwork would bond us together. But to my shock, 95 percent of the children raised their hands and started smiling genuinely and enthusiastically.
Afterward, I jokingly asked Salim why the children of Soweto were so weird. “They see schoolwork as a privilege,” he replied, “one that many of their parents did not have.” When I returned to Harvard two weeks later, I saw students complaining about the very thing the Soweto students saw as a privilege. I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality. The students who were so focused on the stress and the pressure—the ones who saw learning as a chore—were missing out on all the opportunities right in front of them. But those who saw attending Harvard as a privilege seemed to shine even brighter.
Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, had quite the sharp wit. After hearing about a Roman nobleman who had passed away with enormous debts (which were kept private throughout his lifetime), he sent one of his emissaries to the auction to bid on a single item. Augustus told him to bid on the man’s pillow. His reason: “That pillow must be particularly conducive to sleep, if its late owner, in spite of all his debts, could sleep on it.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Stress, Burnout, and a Ten-Foot Sapling
If you walk into a woods and select a ten-foot sapling, you can bend that sapling over, let it go, and it will return to its normal height and straightness. However, if you bend it again, this time a bit further, then further, then further yet . . . eventually you will hear a snap. Let it go now, and the sapling stays down. It’s broken. This is an effective illustration of what happens from the spectrum of stress to burnout. With stress, first you bend, then you recover. With burnout, first you bend, then you break. And you stay broken.
Burnout is a real phenomenon, not a figment of your imagination or a sensationalized diagnosis by overly dramatic psychologists. It’s not only real; it’s common. And it is dangerous.
The co-morbidity is very high: exhaustion, irritability, anger, paranoia, headaches, ulcers, immune dysfunction, depression, and even suicide. Burnout is that point where something within you breaks. It is that point where you quit trying, when you finally throw up your hands and say, “I don’t care anymore.
I don’t care who sees me. I don’t care who hears me. I don’t care about anything. I just want out.”
There is indeed life after burnout. It is possible to recover and once again experience passion, enthusiasm, productivity, and excellence.
But recovery requires an extended period, and the healing is mostly by scar formation. Burnout is common among the spiritually minded. They are often very sensitive and tormentingly conscientious. They see the pain, and then they internalize it. They want to help the wounded and rescue the world. But they don’t always realize that they were not designed to carry the entire global burden on their individual backs.
Stress: A Value Neutral Concept
Although we use the word stress in a negative connotation, it actually is a value-neutral concept. In the medical sense, stress is the body’s response to any change required of it or any demand imposed upon it. Such a definition is contrary to the popular thinking that defines stress as an unpleasant circumstance, such as tax time or a screaming baby. Stress is not the circumstance; it is our response to the circumstance. It is not “out there” but rather “in here.”
Time and Stress
A clock would make a poor bank. No customer would ever be able to deposit a moment to save for later because, at the end of the day, every second would be spent and the clock would be bankrupt. While it’s true that each day gives us twenty-four hours to spend, those hours have to be divided into moments driven by the demands of our to-do lists, not to mention our problems, worries, families, and jobs.
It seems that our minutes evaporate no matter how fast we rush to meet them. The ticking of the clock is one of the reasons why, according to Psychology Today, 39 percent of Americans claimed their stress had increased over the past year. The article continues with unsettling news: “More alarming, only 29 percent reported that they were doing an ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ job at managing their stress.”
We’ll get up tomorrow with a brand-new set of twenty-four hours, a new day that will give us another chance to catch up, find solutions to our challenges, and—hopefully—calm down. Yet, by the end of tomorrow, many of us will fail to find solutions to our stressors. A recent survey shows that most people hear alarm bells when it comes to money (75%), work (70%), the economy (67%), relationships (58%), family responsibilities (57%), family’s health (53%), personal health (53%), job stability (49%), housing (49%), and personal safety (32%).
If we can’t find a way to quiet these alarms, we could be in for even more stress, which eventually impacts our health. Web MD explains:
If stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can have bad effects. It can be linked to headaches, an upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping. It can weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off disease. If you already have a health problem, stress may make it worse. It can make you moody, tense, or depressed. Your relationships may suffer, and you may not do well at work or school.
Not only that, but stress contributes to conditions such as fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, a quick temper, obesity, cancer, stroke, heart attack, and even death. Yikes! The thought of the effects of stress is enough to stress out anyone.
What We’ve Learned About the Mind
Did you know that more has been discovered about our minds in the last twenty years than in all the time before that? Did you know that an estimated 60 to 80 percent of visits to primary care physicians have a stress-related component? Did you know that research shows that “75 to 98 percent of mental, physical, and behavioral illness comes from one’s thought life”? Did you know that, with what we know about the brain today, when Scripture is talking about the heart, it really could be talking about the mind and the emotions we experience in our brains?
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Stress. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!