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The most tragic thing about stress, without a doubt, is that so much of it is self-created.  We spend so much time thinking about potential problems and penalties and punishments that we make ourselves miserable, we walk around worrying about what may happen.  Or we build up our number of commitments so high that we never have time to unwind and relax--we just run from place to place, job to job, commitment to commitment, without ever being able to stop and look at all the wonderful things that surround us; we're too focused on the tasks to come that we don't see the present beauty.

Of course, there is positive stress, but that's a balanced, conscious stress.  Many people put themselves in stressful situations in order to test themselves or to learn about themselves.  I joined the army for four years, partly to test my own limits.  But I always knew that the time would end, and I knew I was there by choice.  So even in basic training, when stress levels are incredibly high, I knew that things weren't so bad.  I had chosen to be there, and the last day would come soon enough.  I chose to go to school and take the tests and write the papers, and the stress was part of the package.

I learned a very strong lesson about the power of stress in my first graduate program, though.  I constantly felt sick for the entire two years--my stomach was constantly upset, my digestion was almost never what one would call "normal," and these two situations led to a third--preoccupation with the physical symptoms, which caused a great deal of additional stress for me.  

This additional stress made the symptoms worse, so the preoccupation grew stronger, which made the symptoms even worse.  How do I know that the problems were caused by stress?  That's simple:  they were gone three days after I finished my last course, and they've never returned.

Most people don't realize the power of stress and the way it can affect our bodies.  Most of us think that the only symptom of stress is that "stressed-out" feeling, the jitteriness and inability to focus and concentrate.  But stress is much more insidious than that:  it eats away at us, giving us headaches and diarrhea and dizziness and making us want to sleep too much or not letting us sleep enough.  And once these symptoms start and we begin to fear a serious physiological disorder, things get worse.

In my second graduate program, my stress level was much higher, as I completed the coursework for two master's degrees in two years.  But by then, I had learned much more about stress and how to deal with it.  Part of that was due to the four years in the army between the two programs, but part of it was due to the fact that I actively tried to deal with the stress.  One of the most important ways that I dealt with it was laughter--I watched Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs regularly (even though I'm not much of a fan of television), and I read Calvin and Hobbes all the time.  I also went for long walks regularly--I'd get up on a weekend morning and choose a place to have breakfast that was a long way away simply to force myself to walk that distance, and then walk home.

I was fortunate enough to find out how stress affected me and to work on ways to deal with it, but I'm surrounded by people who aren't able to do so.  Part of the problem is the amount of importance that they attach to almost insignificant details.  Couple that with the perfectionism that so many people suffer from, and you see a huge problem.  Things can never be perfect, and if we spend our time trying to make them so, we're dooming ourselves to failure.  There comes a point at which we have to let go of one thing and move on to the next, but many people cause stress for themselves by making this process an agonizing one.

People who procrastinate do this to themselves a lot, for trying to accomplish everything before a deadline of tomorrow is much more stressful than working on it bit by bit for several days.  If we're working for someone who criticizes a lot or who uses the threat of punishment or demotion or firing as motivation, we're bound to be much more stressed than others.  If we have an instructor who focuses on trivialities in order to determine a grade, we're also doomed to focus on those trivialities and stress ourselves out, for we know in our hearts that those trivialities aren't worth our time.  I had an instructor like that in one of my graduate programs.  He focused on things like keeping the verb "to be" out of our papers (we shouldn't write "Romeo is one of Shakespeare's most popular tragic heroes," but "Romeo stands out as one of Shakespeare's most popular tragic heroes"), which to me is purely a matter of personal preference, and he was trying to force his personal preference on all of his students.  Very early in the semester, I realized that the price I would have to pay in re-writing all of my work to his standards wasn't worth it, so I resigned myself to the "B" in his course and focused more on the content of my work than the trivialities.  It was the only "B" I got in that particular program, but the way I felt after accepting it was worth it.  I would have spent that entire semester stressing out over his trivialities, but instead I focused on things that were much more important to me.

And you know, no employer has ever asked me to justify the "B" in his class.  No employer has ever seen my transcripts--they just ask for my degree.  I saved myself three months of stress that I would have undergone for no reason at all.


Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth,
a forgetting of the breath.  Stress is an ignorant state.
It believes that everything is an emergency.
Nothing is that important.  Just lie down.

Natalie Goldberg


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At times I rush about with such intensity that it must look to others
as if someone is chasing me.  And before long I find myself battling
another case of the crazies:  first the little twitch in the outer corner
of my left eye, then the days when I find myself snapping at folks,
and the nights when sleep won't come.  Every emotion and mental
attitude we are host to creates after its kind.  So when we forget to
stay centered, our bodies begin to weaken, our thoughts become
confused, our words are less careful, our decisions less sure.  We
become magnets for the very physical and emotional ailments we
most want to avoid--and all because we are letting the world sweep
us along on its rushing tide, rather than experiencing and enjoying
the moments of our lives.

Susan L. Taylor


No one can escape stress, but you can learn to cope with it.
Practice positive thinking. . . seize control in small ways.

Adele Scheele


Stress is the resistance to what's happening right now.
As we allow ourselves to open to this moment fully,
there is absolutely no stress.

Stephan Rechtschaffen


Nothing is more destined to create deep-seated anxieties in people
than the false assumption that life should be free from anxieties.

Fulton J. Sheen


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Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too
much to do.  It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.

David Allen

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose
one thought over another.

William James


There are thousands of causes for stress, and one antidote to stress
is self-expression.  That’s what happens to me every day.  My thoughts
get off my chest, down my sleeves and onto my pad.

Garson Kanin


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In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen
with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions
are just as important as our answers.

Fred Rogers

The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or
toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes
are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at
the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress
is strongly influenced by training.

Frank Herbert


Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.

Richard Carlson



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Yes, life can be mysterious and confusing--but there's much of life that's actually rather dependable and reliable.  Some principles apply to life in so many different contexts that they can truly be called universal--and learning what they are and how to approach them and use them can teach us some of the most important lessons that we've ever learned.
My doctorate is in Teaching and Learning.  I use it a lot when I teach at school, but I also do my best to apply what I've learned to the life I'm living, and to observe how others live their lives.  What makes them happy or unhappy, stressed or peaceful, selfish or generous, compassionate or arrogant?  In this book, I've done my best to pass on to you what I've learned from people in my life, writers whose works I've read, and stories that I've heard.  Perhaps these principles can be a positive part of your life, too!
Universal Principles of Living Life Fully.  Awareness of these principles can explain a lot and take much of the frustration out of the lives we lead.



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