How to Cure Stress Before it Kills You

doctor

MONEY

I was in therapy and my therapist said, “so what happens when you make a zillion dollars? You’ll find something else to be stressed about.” And I said, “No way. If I had a zillion, I would just sit around all day and not be stressed.” And she raised her eyebrows in that way that people do when they aren’t going to say anything but you know exactly what they are thinking.

“No, I’m serious,” I said. “I would not worry about a single thing.”

The eyebrows went higher.

10 years ago I had a different therapist. Barry Magid. He writes a lot of books about Zen and runs a Zen meditation group. He once told me the same thing. He said, “if you make a zillion dollars then I’d put you right into the next room for a week and you would have to meditate for a week straight without doing anything else. Maybe even a month.” The next room was his meditation room. I once spent a Saturday with his group on a full day meditation there. 60 minutes of meditation broken up by 5 minutes of walking meditation for ten hours. After one period, in the middle of the day, I got up like everyone else for the walking meditation.

But I couldn’t stand up. My legs were asleep. So I fell down to the floor. Nobody else wanted to break their walking meditation. So I was lying on the floor in that agony you get when the blood starts  to creep back into the legs and everyone was walking over me. There was a girl I had a crush on in the meditation group. She was walking over me like everyone else while I squirmed around like a slug. I got really embarrassed. I was even a failure at sitting down and standing up. He told me later that that in itself should’ve been an exercise in meditation for me. Breathing through that humiliation. I stopped going to therapy with him.

 

——-

BETRAYAL

One time I was afraid a girlfriend was cheating on me. I walked past her apartment all night. Waiting for thelight to turn on on her floor. Waiting to catch her. Waiting to see if she was happy to see me. Or scared. Waiting, waiting, and waiting. And what would I do? Kill her? Cry? Kill myself? I had no idea. My mind was just in a frenzy. Pacing. I’d walk a mile. Then I’d think, “ok, she has to be back now.” And I’d walk back. Lights still out. Ring the doorbell. Silence. Repeat. All night. I knew it, I thought. She was cheating.

———

THE WORLD IS ENDING

Every day the news, the Congress, the President, Bernanke, Europe, all try to stress me, personally, about money. Somehow the world is going to end. They each describe different end-of-the-word scenarios. They each have different villains. You can’t even turn on the TV to watch a show to avoid the worst case. How come? Because everyone on TV is rich. Bloated and smiling they are laughing in our faces with their paychecks just because they are in some sitcom or play baseball or whatever.

I watched “Sue Sylvester” from the TV show “Glee” walk out of 11 W. 42nd Street the other day (I think NPR is there and she’s promoting a book.) She smiled at me because she likes to be recognized and the smile helps connect the dots. But she’s not worried. Why should she be? Glee will go into syndication forever. Why should she care about politics or world affairs. She’ll put all her money in New Zealand kiwis. Why would anyone in New Zealand care about Greece?

—-

I would say my worst stresses in the past ten years:

And I can list ten others and I’m sure I have in various posts. And there’s some I feel like I can’t list because as honest as I am in these posts, some things are just too close and some boundaries are still up.

But I do have a way I deal with stress. At the risk of sounding self-helpish, the ultimate plan for dealing with stress is AAA:  Awareness, Analysis, Action.

AWARENESS

Awareness means listing the things that you are stressed about.

Stress can have three intensities: Mild, Moderate, Intense. Intense is when you want to kill yourself you’re so stressed. Moderate is when you’re stressed and the stress is probably distracting you from other important activities. Mild is probably the best you can do with any stress. With the AAA method I want to take my intense stresses and systematically reduce them to Mild.

Here’s the 7 things I stress about. Being aware (just simply listing them) is the first step. Awareness takes them out of my mind and puts them on a piece of paper. It’s like when you feel an itch. Often the moment you note to yourself, “Oh! I feel an itch”, the urge to scratch often goes away. So Awareness alone can help reduce the stress.

  • –          Money.
  • –          Career.
  • –          Health.
  • –          World Health
  • –          Love
  • –          Parenting
  • –          Self-improvement. Am I doing enough?

ANALYSIS

Take each stress. Ask yourself what are you really stressed about? This takes it from a nagging feeling in your body to, again, something outside of you that you can tear apart.

Money: Do I really need to worry about how  much money will it take to make me survive my entire life? I could be dead in a year. Then all that stress will  seem useless. Am I abnormally scared about going broke because my father went broke? Am I unreasonably calculating my expenses? Do I really need that house, or those trips, or that particular gym, or that expensive phone?

How much of my stress about money is historical? (Worries today because of events that happened to me in the past and a fear (sort of a post-traumatic money stress syndrome) and how much is hysterical? (Worries today simply because the stock market is down today). What’s realistic? What’s not rational? It’s ok to examine these things and not ignore them. What’s the worst-case scenario?

Make a list for each stress and answer these questions:

–          Why exactly am I worried about (e.g. I’m going to go broke without a job)

–          What’s historical? What’s hysterical? What’s rational? (Note: you might not be correct in your analysis. It’s just helpful)

–           What’s the worst case scenario? Be realistic here. For Health, for instance, the worst case scenario is not that you have a heart attack today but maybe that your health declines because you aren’t putting any attention to it (because you are stressing too much about money). For Love, the worst case scenario might be that your girlfriend is cheating on you this second. That’s pretty bad. The upside? Gives me an excuse to get out and find someone who won’t do that. There might be ugliness in the middle (confrontation, tears, screaming, separating, loneliness) but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (experience. Love again).

ACTION – There are DON’Ts and DO’s

The DO’s

  • –          Do the Daily Practice. In my upcoming book I discuss modifications to this to make it a little easier depending on schedules, etc.
  • –          Be around people who uplift you. Thanks to the beauty of social media, we can extend our friendships outside of our normal circle that is limited to the people who are either around us or easily available by phone. Social media can actually lead to a less stressful life if used properly.
  • –          Do everything you can to simplify your life in one way today. Over time, these simplifications add up. You dont have to do 100 things, like that one book says. That’s too complicated.
  • –          Do everything you can to achieve one goal today related to your stresses (e.g. if you eat poorly and are stressed about your health then pick one meal where you’re going to eat a little better. Or send one email to a new contact in your network to improve your career if career is a major stress for you)
  • –          Do THINK IN OPPOSITES. Assume the worst case scenario of your stress. List the upside.

What makes life so terribly fatiguing sometimes is our simple inability to be ourselves in most situations. We spend so much hard work and effort being a subhuman, a shadow of ourselves. The above helps us reclaim the real us, the one we were meant to be.

The DON’Ts. 

  • Don’t hang out with people you don’t trust
  • Don’t lie to people. About anything. Not even a white lie. Don’t even lie to yourself about whether or not you are following these Dos and Donts.
  • Don’t say anything bad about anyone else.
  • Don’t harm anyone, even if they don’t realize they are being harmed. This rule supercedes the lying rule.
  • Don’t talk at all, if you can help it.

(upcoming book)

Sometimes it’s all over. When the stresses overwhelm, when you’ve come to the end of everything that can happen to you. Even your own sadness is tired of you, tired of being summoned. In those moments you have to retrace your steps. Find your way back to anything, to anybody. You won’t be choosy. But real life begins again, even if it’s just so you can weep. And from there you piece things together one item at a time doing the above steps.

One more don’t:

Don’t take my word for it on any of this. View yourself as a stress laboratory.  Try it out on yourself. Experiment and see.

Will you be happy? I hope so. Will I? The only real answer is: most of the time. But that’s a lot better than never. Which was the case for me for at least two decades.

 

 

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  • Anonymous

    Lots of work. Your are not alone, stress is part of life.  What works for me is much simpler:

    A Calming Breath–breathe in, hold, breathe out, smile gently.
    Thinking for a moment about what really matters.
    Calming my monkey brain wiht a useful slogan-“-Now is not forever” saved my marriage, got be through being a foster parent to delinquent teens, a job I really needed but a boss who wanted to fire me, and all sorts of  more private stresses.
    Another Calming Breath
    Gong on.

    Love your posts, not my way, but great reads. 

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I think the “calm breath and smile” works…but not for the average person who has been 20 years in the corporate mesh. Its a jungle and you need to clear the thrush first.

      • Anonymous

        James, I worked forty years in the not for profit world, twnety years  as an ADDEDJUNK professor at Columbia University and believe me business has nothing on not for profit and academia has it all over the corporate world…wait minute it is the corporate world dressed in sheep’s clothing.  The trick is how often you practice and having had lots of practice it worked for me.  And nothing works ofr everyone. Stay atrong. 

      • Anonymous

        I’ve been trying to explain to my friends what stress can sometimes feels like for me, it’s the sense of impending doom that gets me, the physical aspects, the knot in the stomach, and the jittery nerves can be calmed, but the fear often remains… 

  • razorsedge

    i like it, great story. u should make ZEN=MILLION dollars on this.lol

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.casteel Nick Casteel

    You just have to take  step back and breath.  Break down what the stress is really about and look at the worst things that cold happen.  Many times it is not as bad as you think

  • http://www.reallygoodthinking.com Ian Aspin

    Flamin ek James,

    Your tips better work, even though most things don’t work out.  In fact they better work faster than a hot dog passes through a hockey fan.

    I’ve got a flamethrower at my ass and I need to escape before it burns through the seat of my trousers.

    And even if your advice doesn’t work, at least the laughter and tears your writing provokes makes the sting a little less painful.

    Thank you, thank you, and thrice thank you.

    Much love,Ian.

    “Think Better.  Feel Better.  Take an Aspin.”

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Ian! Thanks.

  • Daniel Straight

    I needed this today. Thank you, James.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      You’re very welcome.

  • Rob Hunsicker

    Good timing with this topic, since I’ve been sick with stress lately. People are actually looking at me like I have something contagious. Maybe I do. Anyway, I’ve found the only thing that really helps lately is creative engagement of some kind–writing, solving an unusual problem or whatever. Unfortunately, whenever I stop, the stress eats me up again. 
    Incidentally, this reminded me of you: http://animalstalkinginallcaps.tumblr.com/post/9739412066/you-see-that-donald-thats-a-herd-of-antelope We’ve all been laughing at it, but secretly believe it’s true.

  • Brian

    I like the principles. Don’t say anything bad about anyone else is so simple but so true. In 12 step programs they talk of not “taking others inventory”, but just of taking our own.

    Also, most of my economic insecurity stems not from fear of starving-that’s far fetched in this country-but of feeling lesser than others who have more.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I know exactly what you mean by “fear of starving”: There is that almost genetic fear unless you have fabulous wealth and even then people still get that fear (and also the fear of having lesser than others). Both are imaginary fears but it’s hard to overcome and takes real programming of the mind.

  • Absurdist

    This is very similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, which works quite well.  Great post!

  • seb delisle

    Been reading you for the past 6 months. Funny at the begining, but now you are a burden. You NEED to see that the more you think-talk-write about things, the more they happen… YOU WERE BLIND AND YOU STILL ARE!  But hey, have fun with your public therapy…  Have fun complaining!  Housekeeping: DELETE Altucher Confidential

  • http://736hundred.tumblr.com/ 736hundred

    “Even your own sadness is tired of you…”  Funny you write that, I have SO been there.Maybe it’s timing, but I have really benefited from your posts.  A sincere thank you to you.

    I have been through hell and back on many fronts for many many years. I suffer from PTSD and depression, for anyone out there who doesn’t know, they are different issues, but often they strike like a double punch to the gut when you are down.  I think I cried for a year straight I’m not sure.

    Anyway, I am for the most part happy now. Which is funny because I am kind of poor (money-wise), and without a home of my own (which sucks) and my brothers don’t speak to me. None of that matters. I mean it matters, but it doesn’t determine my happiness level.

    Life is weird.  Carry on.

  • http://doktoryun.wordpress.com/ Dok Yun

    ‘Think in opposite: assume the worst case scenario’ is an interesting point.  Let me dump another layer of sweet on that treat: visualize your worst case scenario, 10 minutes a day, 15 minutes a day.  Meditate in opposite.  Be neurotic as possible: your gf is leaving you, your health is flailing, your job security is dissipating.  This helps you confront the fear, desensitizing its grip on you.    Do it enough and you realize it’s all imagined.  

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I like that.

  • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

    736, I’ve definitely been there. People don’t realize that there is no such thing as “depression”. Its a 1000 different diseases, each with a different diagnosis and treatment and it takes, on average, 8 years to find the right treatment. but during those 8 years it can be brutal.

    What tools we can use along the way , though, become very valuable to deal with the inevitable stresses . Ultimately they keep us going til we find the right set of circumstances to allow us to be happy again for a short while.

    • http://jimgrey.wordpress.com/ jim

      For me, depression is anger that lacks enthusiasm. Every time. 

      • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

        Ha, thats a funny way to put it. Although, in many cases “depression” is a real medical condition different from stress or anger.

        Sometimes when we are stressed or angry its very reasonable that we wake up sad. But other times, when there’s no reason for it, people still wake up sad and anxious. Then there’s a chance it could be medical.

    • http://736hundred.tumblr.com/ 736hundred

      I don’t know what the answer is for the many people that suffer and I am afraid that big pharm and the medical community is doing WAY more harm than good for the majority of sufferers. :(
      ______

      One of the best tools for me is intense exercise it’s amazing – that is when i do it.

  • http://www.bradentalbot.com Braden Talbot

    Do:

    Recognize that most “problems” are simply a judgment from a fragmented, bias mind.

    Keep up the entertaining posts, buddy.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Very true. thanks.

  • http://www.preemptiveplacebo.com Preemptive Placebo

    Perspective and context are important. 

    When feeling stressed it is healthy to acknowledge the fact that most of our thousands of generations of ancestors were in a state of near starvation.  They died early and horribly.  Life was extremely harsh. 

    Look at mammals today.  Males must fight constantly to move up the hierarchy and earn the right to mate.  Females are completely dominated by males and older females.  Life is hard for zebras, gazelles, feral dogs, feral cats and even for feral humans. 

    The stress we experience today is minor when compared to the kudu that is constantly being chased by the lion or the human of four thousand years ago.  We evolved to deal with it.  We have the innate skills to cope with much worse. 

    That is not to say that it is not stressful when we are caught in traffic.  It is.  But when we put that stress in context we realize that we have a great deal of control over the cortisol response.  The knowledge alone makes us strong. 

    It is also important to realize that there are large organizations that have a vested interest in making us believe that our stress levels are so great that we cannot cope with them on our own.  They profit from the belief that we are weak.  They encourage that belief and advertise in magazines and on television programs that promote it. 

    James has reiterated several times his idea to think in opposites.  Flip conventional wisdom on its head. 

    With regard to stress, conventional wisdom has a vested interest.  We can decide to believe the opposite and decide whether we will become a victim.

    • Anonymous

      Feral humans? Got a kick out of that one. Maybe I’m a feral human on some level. LOL.

      Generally agree though. There’s a huge industry built around this idea that we need “help” to get through life, but it’s mostly just bullshit someone is selling.

    • ZebraHead

      And to think I wanted to be a zebra or a gazelle… 
       
       

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Fascinating perspective. I did not know that about the word “stress”. Thanks.

  • Aziz S

    I like this new pattern of a fresh blog every day. So I get good advice every day. 

  • Guest

    This 

  • Anonymous

    “I was even a failure at sitting down and standing up.” Thanks, needed a laugh. Been there.

  • seb delisle

    dude, you are such a downer… No wonder they put you on TV!  why don’t you:     1) solve your own problems    2) THEN tell people what to do about their own problems.  I see that you delete any comment that doesn’t kiss your butt…. so much for honesty and “bleeding on the page”.  Keep going and enjoy the slide…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U2G6L6LFHAZOSWWTIDOX2DCOP4 Russell Taylor

    You know what I have always been curious about. Why are street lights on the freeway always yellow lighting? Or on walkways or anywhere. I think the freeway would be 10x cooler if there was blue lighting all the way down the freeway and each exit was illuminated with like green lighting. In the future I feel like there will be huge LED screens everywhere down the sides of the roads with highly protective thick pastic over the top of them and little cartoon people will pop up and ask you to slow down as your driving following you from screen to screen like a yoshi like character or something. Why not have little LED arrows down the freeway directing things like mario kart? The world would be WAY cooler like that and the money that is getting wasted in all this stimulus could go to funding them and hiring people to install it vs every other stupid idea they have to create jobs and growth. I WANT BLUE LED LIGHTS LIGHTING THE FREE WAY SO I CAN LISTEN TO RONALD JENKEES WHILE I DRIVE!!!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U2G6L6LFHAZOSWWTIDOX2DCOP4 Russell Taylor

    A solid relationship with Jesus never hurt me and all of these things fade. In the health wealth love trifecta you are missing some love with your creator. Submit to him as your shepard and you his sheep. Pray and ask for his will, begin to only give and not worry about any take with Christ. Admit and ask for forgiveness of your sins and his divine mercy and understanding. Then, once you have done that you can forgive yourself for all the things I personally believe deep down you hate yourself for. God doesnt hate you, he loves you. And so do I James. You are special.

  • http://twitter.com/pcastela Pedro Castela

    One more DO: read your posts to get a clearer view of life :)

    I feel strangely relaxed when I read them..

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      You know what I’m going to do, Pedro, is re-read them. I think it will be good for me.

  • http://twitter.com/jonathanmatthey jonathanmatthey

    love the title of your new upcoming book ! :) keep up the good work !

  • Lulu Camargo

    Going through tough times myself, your posts are really helping to make things clear, thx.
    Browsing older posts I just found out that, like myself, you are a Go player. Interesting. I have recently come to the conclusion that playing Go for a few hours sets my mind in a over-competitive and agressive mode – which usually gets me into stressful situations in life. In short, it doesn´t help at all. Even though I miss the beauty and ellegance of the game, I have avoided it for a few months now – cold turkey. 
    What do you think about it? Maybe a post about that someday?
    (The Zen sitting stuff was really funny – happened to me also.)

  • Igloo Lou

    Going through tough times myself, your posts are really helping to make things clear, thx.
    Browsing older posts I just found out that, like myself, you are a Go player. Interesting. I have recently come to the conclusion that playing Go for a few hours sets my mind in a over-competitive and agressive mode – which usually gets me into stressful situations in life. In short, it doesn´t help at all. Even though I miss the beauty and ellegance of the game, I have avoided it for a few months now – cold turkey. 
    What do you think about it? Maybe a post about that someday?
    (The Zen sitting stuff was really funny – happened to me also.)

  • Igloo Lou

    Going through tough times myself, your posts are really helping to make things clear, thx.
    Browsing older posts I just found out that, like myself, you are a Go player. Interesting. I have recently come to the conclusion that playing Go for a few hours sets my mind in a over-competitive and agressive mode – which usually gets me into stressful situations in life. In short, it doesn´t help at all. Even though I miss the beauty and ellegance of the game, I have avoided it for a few months now – cold turkey. 
    What do you think about it? Maybe a post about that someday?
    (The Zen sitting stuff was really funny – happened to me also.)

  • http://twitter.com/Cool_Hand Rob Prince

    I am going to share this with my 13 year old daughter. She internalizes stress and this is a great way to talk to her about it. Thank you, James.

  • http://twitter.com/Cool_Hand Rob Prince

    I am going to share this with my 13 year old daughter. She internalizes stress and this is a great way to talk to her about it. Thank you, James.

  • cindyluwho

    Stress killed my mom at 54. Well it was actually the heavy drinking that killed her but, she drank to deal with stress. I can not say enough how right you are about dealing with stress properly. This is a great post and should be required reading for all.

    By the way, I have doing the daily practice for 5 weeks now and I am noticing a difference in my stress level. It is by no means gone but everyday it gets just a bit easier to deal. Thanks:)

  • Moshkosh

    pleasuring yoursel is a great stress reliever

    focusing on the goal and everything goes away

    hmmm, I hope this is not addictive therapy

    gotta go, eye docotor appointment…I think I am going blind for some reason

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U2G6L6LFHAZOSWWTIDOX2DCOP4 Russell Taylor

    “Stress is a code word for fear.” – Tony Robbins

    • http://www.facebook.com/patty.denny1 Patty Denny

      I like to think that stress is just resisting what is.  When I am feeling stressed, if I can just remember to not fight what is and let go – it helps.  Remembering is the hard part.

  • Larry

    doc yun, three days ago. In my A A meetings (29 years) I refer to that as “futuristic catostrophic thinking”, 99.9% of which never happens.

  • Robert Jackson

    Check out my podcast on the zen stuff. I would love your opinion. 

    http://www.aquietmind.com

  • Anonymous

    The following always helps me put stress and anxiety in perspective –

    Prosperity depends more on wanting what you have than having what you want.
    Geoffrey F. Abert

  • Anonymous

    The following always helps me put stress and anxiety in perspective …

    Prosperity depends more on wanting what you have than having what you want.
    Geoffrey F. Abert

  • Too young to keep going

    James,

    I’m feeling like killing myself because of stress from work, spouse, life, and especially my own mind. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going – at the same time knowing most likely I will, because the survival instinct is indeed very strong.

    I know all the usual sayings when it comes to a case like mine – your life is worth it, there are people who love you, you are here for a reason, find your purpose, become spiritual, get physically active, explore possibilities, think of times when you felt happiness, other people and animals have had worse, whatever you are going through is temporary, etc. I realize they are true, but at times like this, now, I really wish there were a quick painless way to leave life, so quick I will not be able to regret or undo my death.

    Yes I most likely will feel happy again, at some point, once this is over. But happiness is not lasting. Soon enough the overwhelming stress, the depression, the hopelessness will catch up with me again. Is it really worth it to go through that cycle over and over until life is gone?

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  • Yusiley Sierra

    Being pessimistic never hurts, especially when dealing with people. Thinking positive all the time always makes it easier for some people to fall apart, at least for me this is so true. If I always think of the worse, than I am more prepared for when the worse does occur than if I don’t think of the worse. I’m less depressed in this way. I highly recommend philosophers like Seneca and Nietzsche, even though I prefer Schopenhauer and Diogenes as my favorites. Anyways one of my favorite quotes would be “Almost all of our sorrows spring out of our relations with other people.” I told you Schopenhauer is one of my favorites. Anyways our stress usually does with other people so I would add that to the Don’t talk rule… you would properly end up unemployed and surround yourself with poodles like Schopenhauer did. If you want to be employed, have high status, great relationship, etc you will need to lie and talk, that is human bureaucracy for you. Human civilization was built on lies, greed, envy, all the other sins whether we like it or not. I had more money in my pockets being a total bitch than I ever did being honest, sincere and kind.

    These read more like the rules on “How to be unemployed in a week/month/year forever!”.

    Don’t hang out with people you don’t trust
    Don’t lie to people. About anything. Not even a white lie. Don’t
    even lie to yourself about whether or not you are following these Dos
    and Donts.
    Don’t say anything bad about anyone else.
    Don’t harm anyone, even if they don’t realize they are being harmed. This rule supercedes the lying rule.
    Don’t talk at all, if you can help it.

    You have to do ALL these things and more if you want to get a job or keep your current job. >_> It is a lovely post, but very unrealistic.