A new study suggests workplace stress may be as hazardous to your heart health as smoking, high cholesterol and other conventional risk factors for cardiovascular disease


Maybe this will finally convince some of the “I can take anything work can throw at me—and so should you” brigade that macho posturing about uncivilized hours and work amounts in the workplace isn’t such a bright idea.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (Job Strain Can Be Risk Factor For Subsequent Heart Attacks), people working in high-stress jobs are just over twice as likely as those in low-stress posts to suffer a heart attack or be hospitalized for angina, which often is a precursor to a heart attack.

“It is a very important effect,” said Michel Vezina, a researcher at Universite Laval in Quebec and a co-author of the study. He deemed it “comparable” to the impact of tobacco smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Prevention efforts should go beyond changing individual living habits to “take into account the work environment,” Dr. Vezina said.

And although senior managers and wannabe high-fliers may believe that they are the only ones who face real job pressure, the heart health may be significantly greater among ordinary people faced with meeting the crazy deadlines and profit targets those same executives impose.

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Why we need to resurrect an unfashionable virtue

Tolerance is an unfashionable virtue today, especially in parts of American society. Oddly, it’s often associated with weakness, where the opposite in true. To tolerate those who reject, refuse, or actively attack, your deepest beliefs and values takes enormous strength and unshakable faith in what you believe. Show me someone who persecutes those who disagree with their position and I will show you a person whose faith in their beliefs is already shaky.

Few people write about the dark side of our passions: the way they can become so intense they slip from a positive force in our lives into destroying our peace of mind. Fortunately, few of us will ever experience true obsession. Yet there is a little of the dark side of values in everyone. It’s as well to be aware of it and what it can do.

Passion and fear are natural partners. When you feel something as intensely as you feel whatever you are truly passionate about, there is always a sense of uneasiness. What would happen if you lost what is most important to you? How would you cope if it were taken away? Might someone try that?

Behind every strong human desire there is fear. People who become passionate fitting in and being part of the right crowd fear rejection and loneliness. Workaholic achievement freaks fear failure. Loners fear being dependent on anyone who might hurt them, mostly because they’ve been hurt that way before. People like this cling to their viewpoint because any alternative seems likely to be painful and scary. They reject tolerance, not because it would hurt them, but because they fear it might.

The more you cling, the less tolerant you become

The more strongly you cling to what matters most to you, the more fiercely you will respond to any threat, real or imagined, against it. People find it hard to cope calmly with such a slight danger as disagreement with the values they hold. How can someone pose a threat to your beliefs simply by holding different ones? Yet friendships are ended, families disrupted, work teams destroyed, careers derailed, and marriages wrecked by nothing more tangible than a disagreement about what is valued or believed by one of the parties. It makes no sense.

Of course, it does once you understand the fear. By refusing to accept your beliefs and values as mine too, I undermine, just a little, your confidence in what you believe. If I go further and openly oppose or denigrate your point of view, the threat is greater and the emotional response will increase in proportion. This is the paradox. The more strongly people believe in something, the less easy it is for them to cope with others who don’t. That’s why clubs become exclusive. That’s why we’ve had centuries of religious and political persecution.

How workplace tyrants develop

Our places of work are still riddled with “command-and-control” ways of thinking: beliefs about the “right” of those in positions of authority to demand that others do what they say. If it stayed at that, it would be bad enough. But it’s a small step from requiring subordinates to follow orders to demanding that they “hold the right attitudes” (i.e. the boss’s) and “show they’re sound” before they can obtain promotion.

Workplaces are social situations and bosses are sadly human. We all like to work with people with whom we feel at ease. But what a workplace needs most is people who can do the job well, not those who fit some boss’s idiosyncratic template for the kind of person they believe is “sound” or “made of the right stuff.”

Tyranny and discrimination don’t come from managers who are at ease and secure in their own beliefs and views. They can ignore anything that isn’t anti-social, illegal, or prejudicial to a good business environment, and focus purely on a person’s skills and capacity to turn in excellent work. It’s the self-righteous, the insecure, and the fearful who cannot.

Greater tolerance matters

Every day, we must all must face people whose view of the world does not match ours. You may have to work with them, serve them as customers, or answer to them as your boss. If you cannot learn to tolerate different—even uncomfortable—beliefs and viewpoints cheerfully, you’ll cause yourself and others continual pain. The dark side of your passions is always there, waiting to disrupt your life.

Strong values are usually seen as something to be applauded. Maybe. They also increase the danger of bigotry, self-righteousness, discrimination, persecution, and obsession. I’ve studied peoples’ values and beliefs for decades. In that time, I’ve met many cases of good, principled people unaware of how they allow the dark side of their passions and fears to turn them into narrow-minded, cruel tormentors of anyone who disagrees sufficiently with them.

St. Paul wrote that without charity we are nothing. He’s not an authority I’m much given to quoting, but in this case I believe he was pointing to something essential. One of the meanings of charity in Webster’s dictionary is “leniency in judging others, forbearance.” In other words, tolerance. If your values are strong but you do not practice charity and tolerance, the steep slope into bigotry, discrimination, and persecution is already under your feet.

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Your imagination is sometimes your worst enemy in the fight against workplace stress

At work, imagination can be both a blessing and a curse. It fuels innovation, but also produces the ability to imagine many situations and problems that don’t yet exist—and probably never will. How much of the stress people feel at work is directly due to imaginary scenarios? More than you think.

Many of the thoughts that run around in people’s heads go like this: “This is going to be a mess. I can just imagine how painful it will be too. Right, let’s consider how to deal with it. If that happens, I’ll do this. But if this other thing happens, then I could do that or that.” This isn’t planning, it’s anticipation of imaginary hurt, driven by anxiety and fear. Such thoughts stir up emotions that your mind treats as real, adding to your stress in advance of any genuine problems. You can, literally, worry yourself into burnout based on nothing but imagined difficulties.

How your fearful mind works

Suppose Jenny has her annual appraisal meeting next day—that pointless and destructive ritual so beloved by organizations who ought to know better. She’s feeling a nervous. Like most people, her work over the past year has been uneven: sometimes excellent, mostly acceptable, and occasionally downright bad. She also knows her next salary raise will depend on the overall rating her boss gives her.

As she lies awake that night, she’s thinking something like this: “If my boss brings up that time I had a row with Barry in Accounts, I’ll remind her that he started it. Besides, what he wanted to do was crazy; and everyone knows Barry’s a bully. I could always remind her how much work I won on the Edmonds account. That should be more than enough to offset the odd spat with some accounts nerd. . . . I’ll bet she’s forgotten the time I saved her bacon in the meeting with the COO. She never remembers anything that reflects badly on her, but I ought to get credit for that. . . . If she doesn’t bring it up, I will. Graham is always telling me I don’t stand up for myself enough. This time I’ll prove him wrong.” Every imagined situation feels real enough to bring up the feelings that would be there if it truly happened.

And so it goes: a series of possible events, followed by a rough outline of a response if that particular event occurs—plus all the feelings that go with it. It doesn’t even have to be something as important as an appraisal meeting.

Every day, millions of commuters drive into major cities, their heads spinning with an internal dialog on what they’ll do if the traffic’s snarled-up on Broadway, or the bridge is still closed, or those roadworks on Alvernon aren’t finished yet.

Maybe 40 or 50 percent of our thoughts in the course of a normal day are of the kind that uses imagination to anticipate a range of events and imagine how to deal with each one in turn. No wonder people say “I knew that would happen!” They didn’t know; it was just one of many scores—even hundreds —of potential outcomes they imagined before and fretted about to no purpose.

Your mind treats imaginary emotions as real ones

All this may sound normal and unimportant, but it isn’t. When you think this way, you prime your mind with synthetic emotions and pre-set responses—neither of which take any account of the circumstances you’ll actually find when action is needed. Worse, you’ll be stirring up real emotions, based on nothing more than your fears and insecurities. By rehearsing these dreamed-up feelings—and preparing a response based on them—you’re making yourself anxious now and readying yourself to say or do something that may be wildly inappropriate when the time comes.

Just like the situations your mind conjures up, these emotions are, strictly speaking, imaginary. They have no basis beyond your anxieties and fears. But your brain doesn’t recognize this. They’re completely real so far as your body and mind are concerned.

If you stir up fear, anger, or anxiety in this way, your body will respond by secreting the “fight or flight” chemicals that churn your stomach, raise your blood-pressure, and build harmful stress. By going over and over the situation again and again in your mind, constantly imagining what might happen and how you might respond, you keep those body chemicals flowing way longer than Nature ever intended. It’s a quick route to all the diseases that flow from chronic stress.

The way out

If you find this happening, here’s the way out:

  • Stop. Let go of all the imaginary scenarios and emotions. They won’t help deal with the problem and they’re hurting you into the bargain.
  • Take some quiet time to think about the real situation. Why are you anxious? Is there anything you can or should be doing about it now? If there is, do it. If not, forget about it until the time comes.
  • If you find yourself returning to the anticipation and worrying, note what’s going on in your head and let it go again. However often it comes back into your mind, simply note what’s happened and let it all go. Never mind if you have to do this 100 times or 1000. Let it go and move on to something else.
  • Patience is worth more than any number of pointless imaginings. If immediate action isn’t essential, do nothing until you’ve had quiet time to think.
  • Never act on emotion alone. When the time for action comes, be as objective as you can. Always try to get past any emotion to the reality.
  • Once there’s nothing more you can do, put the matter out of your mind. Whatever the outcome—good, bad, or anywhere in between—note it and let it go. It’s over. Learn what you can, then put it gently into the “file closed” part of your memory.
  • Never waste time going back over situations and imagining what you should have said or done. You didn’t. You can’t change anything by worrying or stirring up dead emotions.

If your head is full of imagined scenarios, options, and their attending emotions, there’ll be no room for reality. You won’t ever deal with the actual problems or people—just the stories you’ve made up about them in advance. Deal with problems when they happen, not when they’re mere imaginings. If you can act, act. If you can plan in a rational way for something likely to happen, do so. For the rest, let it all go. Ignore it. There’s true freedom from stress and inner peacefulness in that.

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Looking again at the causes of stress at work

Are the true causes of stress internal or external? The external demands of working life? Or how you react to them internally? Getting rid of self-induced stress might make all the difference.

People love to find simple causes for things. Nowadays, just about every drought, flood, or other upset in the weather is blamed on global warming—as if extreme weather had never existed until the last 20 years.

Every gyration in the financial markets is instantly explained by reference to a single cause. “It was what so-and-so said to analysts,” the pundits cry. “The chairman of the Federal Reserve coughed and upset investors.” What sensitive little flowers all these Wall Street types must be, constantly disturbed by chance remarks and the state of the sorghum crop in Timbuktu.

When you think about it rationally, even extreme events—let alone normal, if unpleasant, workplace conditions—don’t really have as much power as we give them. Bad things happen, yet the vast majority of people survive untouched.

Perception changes reality

Imagine this scene. You go into an office where everyone is obviously extremely busy. Phones ring constantly and people are running from place to place. You ask what is going on.

“We’ve just been told we can win a huge piece of new business,” someone tells you. “The time-scales are really tight, but we’re giving it our best shot and everyone’s excited. Sorry, no time to talk right now.”

Now imagine a different conversation.

“We’re really up against it. There’s this huge piece of business up for grabs, but the time-scales are total killers and everyone’s already rushed off their feet. We’re being hounded into trying to make it and something’s going to fall apart real soon, I tell you. Can’t talk. We’re dying here, but the boss will have my hide if I don’t look busy.”

Same circumstances, but a totally different situation in terms of the amount of stress present.

Drama queens

The words people use, even to themselves, can either limit the stress from events or greatly add to it. Unfortunately, many people have picked up two distressing habits from the media: emphasizing the negatives and adding emotion to pump up the drama. Since good news doesn’t seem to get people excited enough, the news and news-type stores are almost overwhelmingly negative: full of anger, hatred, fear, murder, destruction, and miscellaneous mayhem. Even sports programs seem more interested in feuds and fights off the field than play on it.

Factual reporting is judged too dull by most newspapers and TV channels. In their search for “human interest stories,” what they produce are synthetic versions of events with added and heightened emotions, regardless of whose. Instead of simply being informed what happened, we’re bombarded with accounts of what someone felt about it. If no eye-witnesses are available, a casual passer-by or a person miles away will do, just as long as they can appear suitably excited or tragic.

This may be what viewers and readers want (it’s generally what they get, regardless of their actual wishes), but carrying the same habits of thinking into our personal lives makes little sense.

There are bad things happening in today’s workplaces. Many bosses do indeed act like jerks. But why respond like a drama queen? It will certainly raise your stress and make you feel worse, but will it change anything? I doubt it.

Responses matter

There seems to be a basic confusion between (positive) emotions as a source of people’s passion for their work and (negative) emotions as the source of a large part of the stress that people suffer.

Both sets are emotions, so that isn’t the reason for the difference. If you suppressed all emotions, you would remove the positive ones as well as the negative.

The difference lies in how each person responds to their emotions. Controlling them isn’t the same as suppressing them. The major benefit of human reason is the ability it gives us to discriminate between those emotions and responses that are beneficial and those that are not.

That’s where the confusion lies. When urged to control—even ignore—negative emotions, many people respond as if they had been told to suppress every emotion, good or bad.

If you can stay in charge of the emotions you allow to affect you fully, you can have all the joy and benefit of the positive ones, and keep the negative, drama-queen types from screwing you up.

There’s an old, pretty well known story of a teacher who explained to his students that the human mind is like a battleground between two huge beasts: one that represents all that is positive and life-affirming and its ferocious adversary that brings hatred, anger, and every kind of negative behavior. The battle seems never-ending, now swinging this way, now that.

“Who will win,” an anxious student asks.

“The beast that you feed,” the teacher replies.

When times are tough, which beast are you feeding?

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“A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”

There are two sources of stress, external and internal. Much of the available advice only looks at the external sources. Here’s how to face up to a major internal source of stress and start to lessen its power over you.

When people give advice on how to deal with stress, they usually concentrate on the kind that comes at you from the outside: overwork, bullying bosses, threats to job security, and lack of control over your life in the workplace. There is, of course, another source of stress that is equally powerful. The stress that comes from within, usually driven by anxieties, insecurities,and—most common of all—a divided self.

A kingdom divided

Nearly everyone has the experience, at one time or another, of living a divided internal life; of experiencing the painful dissonance that comes from doing or saying one thing while believing another.

In a trivial sense, we all do it when we tell a white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings; or when we say or do what is expected for the sake of politeness, even though our real wishes are quite different. None of that matters much. The type of internal division and dissonance that causes stress is more deep-rooted and painful. It happens when the demands of the outside world come up against your deepest beliefs . . . and you still go along with what the world wants.

For example, you know that working late yet again—or taking still more work home for the weekend—will upset your nearest and dearest. Yet you prefer that over facing the scorn of your macho boss. You know that what you’re being told to do is unethical, even dishonest, but you still do it. You can’t bear to be called a “goody two-shoes” and excluded from the fashionable clique. To do what it will take to beat all rivals and secure that coveted promotion sickens you. But you still ruin your rivals and betray your friends to come out on top.

Emotional and spiritual haemorraging

Giving in to external pressures often seems the easier course. Certainly it’s the one that brings least immediate danger to your prospects and pressure on you. But there’s still a cost: somewhere inside you will have inflicted a deep wound that bleeds away in silence, sapping your energy and undermining your self-esteem.

Such wounds to personal integrity don’t heal easily. If the division between inner and outer imperatives becomes too great, the dissonance may become so bad that it causes all the classic symptoms of destructive stress: headaches, sickness, depression, irrational anger, lowered immune reactions. Eventually, such extreme inner turmoil will become so intolerable that only violent action can relive the pressure. I wonder how many cases of domestic violence have their roots in such inner divisions?

To live with a dehumanizing and demoralizing gap between your true self and the one that collaborates with “the system” is to slowly strangle your integrity as a human being. There are ohly two ways out: to give into the external demands completely and crush your inner self; or to re-establish wholeness by following your personal integrity, whatever the cost. One leaves you as an empty shell of a person. The other will set you free, though it may involve great pain first.

Here’s what it takes to become whole again.

The steps in the process go something like this:

  • You must face the truth. You chose to deny your inner needs to make money, be popular, come out on top, avoid exclusion, or whatever. Now you have to reverse that choice.
  • Whatever you “bought” with the price of your integrity has to be given up. you won’t be able to have ti both ways. That may mean significant losses of power, cash, standing, influence, and credibility.
  • You’ll have to admit to yourself and those whom you hurt that you were wrong. Your choice was made in the outside world, so it has to be reversed there.
  • You’ll likely lose some face and various so-called friends. Mostly, this will be a benefit. Any friend who doesn’t value your integrity over his or her convenience isn’t worth having.
  • There will be considerable pressure to recant. Seeing you choosing inner integrity over outer advantage is going to make some people feel very queasy. You’ll need to be determined.

I’m sure all this sounds like considerable pain for little gain. In reality, the gain is massive. Internal, psychic dissonance is both extraordinarily painful and brings with it a slew of harmful effects, mentally and physically. The lowering of stress alone is likely to be worth it. That’s without the positive effects on your mind, your physical health. and your life expectancy.

Choosing integrity is choosing a good part of what makes life worth living. The earlier you can make that choice, the easier and less painful it will be. After all, if you never compromised your values for external gain, others would neither expect it nor be disappointed when it didn’t happen. In all likelihood, they would admire you for it too, however grudgingly.

Start now, before you do yourself still more damage.

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Acting on the belief that sometimes enough really is enough can tame self-induced stress and stop cycles of boom and bust

The real importance of work/life balance isn’t about taking vacations, having time off for family duties, or combining work with an active social life. It’s about setting a balance between people’s natural urge to do better and get more and their ability to support the drive to achieve. It’s about setting realistic targets and time-scales, not foolish ones.

Our consumer society runs on the premise enough is never enough. Whatever you have—wealth, status, possessions, power, fame—is only the basis for getting more. Every achievement is no sooner reached than discarded. You’ve done that; on to the next goal. Bigger, better, farther.

Every goal seems to be about getting to another one. You’re at point A, and your goal is now to get to point B. As soon as you reach that goal, you’re supposed to set yourself a new one. And not just a new goal, but one that is more demanding, more challenging, further out of reach. We fear monetary inflation, yet accept inflation of expectations as normal—even laudable.

If your performance rating says you’re “above average” (whatever that is), you aren’t allowed to enjoy that position, let alone accept it as enough. You now have to strive for “excellent.” Hit your budget and it will be raised. Hit it again, and it will be raised by an even larger percentage. There will never be a plateau or a point of rest before moving on. No time! Got to do better!

Much of the problem now facing the financial markets was due to exactly this mind-set. Whatever home you had, you were supposed to follow the urge for a bigger, better, more expensive one. I know elderly couples who bought new, 4000 square-foot homes within the last two or three years. Two people living in a home big enough for 6 or 7. And if you couldn’t afford it, never mind. Some company would “find” a way to make you a loan anyway. Now it’s all gone wrong, leaving many people in a worse state than they were before.

Isn’t it right to have high aspirations?

There’s a huge difference between having aspirations and driving yourself to the edge of disaster in pursuit of impossible goals.

Our society has erected achievement drive into a kind of god: a god that demands constant sacrifice and worship. There are realistic, helpful levels of drive to achieve—ones based on knowing your limits, exercising patience in reaching your goals, and knowing when you need to take a break and recover your strength before pressing on. And there’s achievement drive gone mad, forcing people forward with a continual sense of urgency and push. The kind that doesn’t even pause to enjoy what has been achieved. An obsession with more, faster, better, bigger.

When your natural achievement drive gets out of hand, the result is precisely what I’ve described. Once reached, every goal loses its value. You’ve been there, done that, won the tee-shirt. It no longer counts for anything. This is sad. Enjoying what you’ve achieved is one of the great pleasures of life. Does it make sense to spend hours and hours preparing a gourmet meal, only to throw it away as soon as it’s ready? Don’t you want to taste it? Isn’t it worth savoring?

Boom and bust: the natural result of over-extending

If you discount each achievement the moment the goal is reached, what effect does that have on others? Imagine a child coming home from school elated by some success, only to hear his or her parents dismiss the achievement instantly: “Okay, you did that. Big deal. What we expect now is . . .”

Far fetched? Not really. That’s exactly how many bosses behave. Achieve or surpass your current target and your instant reward will be a new target—bigger, tougher, less achievable. And that process will go on and on until you finally fail. It will force you to fail.

As long as people keep mindlessly pushing and pushing for more, we will face cycles of boom and bust: in business and in our personal lives. Every achievement will be dismissed and replaced by a demand for more. The only thing that ever stops the process is failure on a large scale. Then people are forced to fall back and lick their self-inflicted wounds for a while—before going right back to the same process.

In nature, whenever something extends too far for the circumstances, there’s a crash. Population growth in good years is followed by mass starvation or some terrible epidemic. There’s a sustainable level that nature enforces, often with savage means. Any species that gets ahead of itself is brought back into line.

You can see the same happening in the business world. Boom is followed by bust. Organizations reach a peak, only to be struck by a bewildering series of set-backs. At the peak of power and prestige, many people are seemingly overwhelmed by problems and upsets.

The real work/life balance

Do you give up? Drop out of the rat race and go back to oil lamps and horse-drawn wagons? I don’t think that’s going to work, do you?

There is an alternative. Slow down. Take a little time to celebrate and enjoy each achievement. Praise is worth far more than money. Say “well done” as if you mean it. Savor the pleasure of each achievement. Only when you’ve enjoyed what you worked hard to achieve, think about moving on. No pleasure lasts forever. There’s a natural point when people start to focus on recreating the pleasure by setting a new goal. Over-active achievement drive can be tamed. All it takes is thinking ahead, being realistic, giving yourself time, and offering genuine appreciation for success.

Unless your goals are realistic, they are going to produce self-inflicted problems and wounds. Realistic means:

  • Attainable within your current levels of experience ability.
  • Suited to your present circumstances, including your financial situation.
  • Possible with the amount of effort, energy, and and time you can—or are willing—to devote to them.
  • In balance with all the other demands on your life.
  • Not going to demand that you hurt others to attain them.

Patience has become almost a vice in the world of work, not a virtue. In our achievement-mad culture, to be patient is often dismissed as to be dull, boring, second-rate. Yet few important achievements are reached without it.

Remember Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare? How the arrogant, impulsive hare alternately rushed ahead, then idled and slept, while the patient tortoise plodded along at a sustainable pace to win the race? I don’t think there could be a better lesson for our current society, with its arrogant destruction of the environment, continual demands for more, and resulting cycles of boom and bust.

My bet is on the tortoise—unless the hares out there destroy us all before the race is over.

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How to stop your worries running you ragged.

When people are stressed, they either focus myopically on the closest source of their stress, or they focus on the stress itself. Either way, the result is to establish a cycle that produces still more anxiety. Here’s a way out.

Many people focus most of their attention on their worries, the risks they’re taking, and the troubles they face. One whiff of trouble and they let their minds run wild, imagining all kinds of pessimistic and fearful outcomes. Then the stress and anxiety feeds on itself. You become stressed about being stressed. It’s like being a hamster in a wheel, running as fast as you can and getting nowhere.

The first and most important step to take to get out of this mess is this: stop running. Slow down and give yourself time to think. Don’t just let your attention wander wherever it likes. If you direct your attention consciously and deliberately, you can focus it where it will do most good.

Okay, that maybe sounds too easy. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but it can be done—and done by anyone. What it takes is a firm refusal to go on feeding your anxiety. Every time the temptation arises to go over your worries for the thousandth time, don’t give in to it.

It’s your attention, isn’t it?

Most of us forget that what we pay attention to is under our control. You cannot stop thoughts, emotions, or worries from coming into your head. But you can—and should—decide which of those thoughts and feelings you are going to allow to stay in your field of attention. Whatever you “feed” with attention will take root and grow. Whatever you continually set aside and starve of attention will diminish and wither away.

If you’re stressed, don’t let your fears control you. Don’t dwell on your worries and problems, so that you become more and more distracted and stressed.
Try looking carefully at one problem, and one option for helping to solve it, at a time. Follow it through and see where it leads. Then take another option and do the same, directing your attention where you want it to go. Think about your next step to get out of the mess. If you can’t see one, set that problem aside for a while and consider a different one.

If you don’t let your fears make you confused, you can stay focused more of the time on positive possibilities and avoid giving in to anxiety and stress. What opportunities are you aware of right now? What do you plan to do about them? Don’t wait. They may never return.

“Who’s in charge here?”

Awareness and conscious choice are as closely intertwined as thorns in a briar patch. Without awareness of yourself, what’s going on in your mind, and all the ways that you contribute to your own anxieties, none of your choices will be fully conscious. Every problem has some causes that you can try to deal with, even if all the others are out fo your control. Focus your thinking on the one’s that you have some responsibility for and can do something about. It’s your attention, use it as you want.

When someone asks you to deal with a problem or make a decision, you’re going to bring all your prejudices, opinions, likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, antagonisms and knowledge along. Your mind is like a committee—and a pretty bad tempered and cantankerous one too! Like all committees, your mind has some members who have greater clout than others. They hog the floor and shout twice as loud as the next person. They get together and rig the committee elections so they’ll hold all the power. And once they have a taste of power, like politicians the world over you won’t easily part them from it.

Who is in charge? Who is running your life to their agenda, not yours? Are you just going with the flow? Doing what you’ve been assigned? Or are you making your own choices?

Keep asking yourself who or what is really controlling your life. Is it your conscious choices and focused attention? Or is it whatever fear, worry, or concern happens to be newest or uppermost in your thoughts in the current moment? Are you happy about that? If not, what do you plan to do to change it?

Worries go along with each of us like fleas on a stray dog. However much you scratch, you can’t get rid of all your passengers. Ignoring them altogether doesn’t work either. instead, use your ability to make conscious choices about where and how to direct your attention. Take action where you can and send your attention onto other matters where no action is possible. By slowing down, focusing your mind, and refusing to be sidetracked by random distractions, you’ll get more done, feel less stressed, and develop a powerful technique that you can use to help yourself through any troubles you may face.

It’s your attention. Don’t let anyone or anything else hijack it.

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A potent source of stress is taking everything too personally. It’s easy to see criticism as a personal attack, or a setback as some kind of malice aimed directly at you. Neither viewpoint is going to help solve the problem. Both will send your stress levels soaring. Here’s an alternative.

I’m writing this article with a sense of trepidation. On previous occasions when I’ve turned to this topic, it’s generated quite amazing levels of abuse from a few people. So I’m going to start with an explanation. It seems that some people equate detachment with emotional coldness, standoffishness, and a kind of superior disdain for normal human feelings. That isn’t what detachment means for me. I’m not suggesting people turn off their feelings (it’s impossible anyway) or adopt some sort of lofty disregard for others. To understand detachment properly, you have to understand attachment first.

The common phrase “I’m attached to it/him/her” may imply liking or love, but people don’t become attached to stress, worry, overwork, obsessive competition, or always being first because they love it. Attachment, in the sense I’m dealing with, means being “stuck on” something. You can’t let go of it, however much it’s hurting you. You’re clinging to it because of some kind of habitual or past emotional bond. Usually these aren’t positive emotions either.

Attachment is an obsession. People half kill themselves with overwork and stress because they believe they must, not because they enjoy it. So . . . to be detached means to be able to step back from events and see them in their proper perspective.

The simplest way to define greater detachment is to see it as the freedom not to be “sucked in” every time—whether that’s into feelings that hurt you, actions that make you feel worse, or responses that don’t help.

Why detachment is desirable

There’s something delightful about being able to stand and look at events and remain in control of your feelings and reactions. If you want to, you can jump in. If you choose not to this time, you can stand aside. It’s your choice. You aren’t at the mercy of an internal “reaction reflex” that is just waiting to be set off by the next setback, the next jerk who pisses you off, or the next unreasonable demand from some idiot on high.

You are just you: conscious of what you are choosing and free to act in whatever way seems best to you. You’re in control of yourself and armored against most of the petty irritations that build into a serious stress load.

How to become more detached

Here are some ideas that can help you to become a little more detached; to let your own wishes and thoughts take precedence over the shouts, opinions, and commands from the outside:

  • Know what is most likely to suck you in. Take some time to consider the patterns in your life. What sets you going? What causes you to “lose it” and do things that you regret later? How can you recognize them before they draw you in? Make a list and memorize it. Then work at avoiding whatever’s on the list.
  • Build a habit of pausing and giving yourself time to think. It may take a long time to make this stick, but it will pay huge dividends. Instead of jumping into action, or snapping out a response, say or do something neutral: “I’d like to think about that a moment,” or “Let me get back to you on that one.” Buy yourself time to get past your first response and start considering the options. Try to make more conscious choices whenever you can.
  • Build a new self-image. Instead of being someone who’s quick to react or speak, start seeing yourself as the quiet person who rarely jumps in first, but who everyone listens to when he or she does say something. At first it will seem false and theatrical. But if you stick at it, it will mix with the rest of your personality and produce a new, calmer, more influential, and more popular you.
  • When you feel your emotions on the boil and your hackles rising, ask yourself whether what you believe at that moment is really true. Force yourself to stop and question your beliefs and feelings fully. You’ll be surprised how often you discover that you’re all fired up by something you’re assuming, something you’ve been told (on what authority?), or something that isn’t even real.
  • Watch others. See how simple it is for people to get sucked in—and how easily they’re manipulated as a result. Watch how a simple, trivial situation is turned into a drama, then a Hollywood disaster epic. Consider whether that’s how you want to live.
  • Ask yourself whether what you’re doing right now is your own choice, or the result of being sucked in by something that you’ve got hooked on. Notice how each one feels. Compare stress and frustration levels. Decide whether you want to be swept along or make your own decisions.

The best antidote to getting snagged into negative situations and responses is always to be aware of what’s happening inside and why you’re doing whatever you’re doing.

Being more detached means giving yourself more space and time to be aware. It means freeing yourself from compulsions that don’t serve your best interests. It means being master or mistress of your own mind, controlling your emotions, and choosing your actions with care. And it means only accepting the amount of stress that you are willing to suffer, instead of what events or other people want to unload onto you.

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Religious people have long used retreats—time totally away from the world and its distractions—as a way to deepen their understanding and refresh their spirits. Those are goals that can benefit anyone. You don’t need to be religious to use the idea yourself to ward off stress.

The religious retreat is a specific period completely away from the world and worldly things: a time set aside for religious practice and that calm and quiet that many people feel that they need to get their view of life back into perspective. Many Jewish people, for example, keep the sabbath as one day each week free from work of any kind; a time for family-based rituals and a reminder of their cultural origins. Indeed, their ancestors so revered this time set aside from the world that they believed it to be both a commandment and a blessing from their god.

Such a good idea need not belong only to the realm of formal religious activities. Most of us would benefit from regular breaks away from all the pressures and distractions of our lives; taking time to refresh ourselves, enjoying peace and quiet, thinking and renewing our perspective on life, or just catching up with sleep, family, and friends. Best of all, it could be time devoted mostly to resting and letting our minds wander into paths far away from the daily stresses and pressures of work.

I think we would all do well to take such regular one-day “retreats” in this way; preferably every week, but at least as often as we are able to do so. You could, of course, combine it with religious practices of any kind, if you wish. But that isn’t the essence of the idea. The purpose that I have in mind is a specific period of rest and relaxation to help deal with stress and the many ways that it distorts our thinking and undermines our health and peace of mind.

Here’s how a purely secular and non-religious version might work.

  • You set aside a clear period of 24 hours for your retreat. That time is sacrosanct. Nothing must disturb it short of a national or personal emergency.
  • You remove all possible distractions. No telephone calls. No e-mail. No use of computers, not even to surf the Net. No TV, radio or newspapers.
  • You must not do anything connected with your work. Nothing, however small or seemingly insignificant. And that includes golf with potential customers, “talking shop” with friends, reading anything work-related, or simply thinking about work problems. You can make physical effort (playing sport, walking, gardening, painting the house), or mental effort (spending time at some hobby, playing or listening to music, reading some challenging book, writing on non-work subjects, watching serious programming on TV), but none of it must be related in anyway to your job.
  • There’s no need to be serious or “worthy” in what you do. Probably the best way to spend the time is playing, relaxing, and generally having fun. My only suggestion would be not to “veg out” and waste the whole time on the couch in front of some mindless TV program.
  • If you have visitors or go out to visit friends, try very hard to make sure that they aren’t directly connected with your work or you’ll be tempted back into talking shop. If you do have some work contact with them, gently ask them to stay away from conversations about work topics while they’re with you. If they can’t, invite them on another occasion instead.
  • At least 8 full hours must be set aside for sleep. No excuses.
  • All meals must be leisurely and relaxed. If you enjoy cooking, cook. If you don’t, eat out.
  • At least half the non-sleeping time ought perhaps to be devoted to being with family or friends. This isn’t a rule, just a suggestion. Some people enjoy social time. Others find greater refreshment in time alone. It’s your choice.
  • Try to get plenty of fresh air. Nowadays, most of us spend far too much of our time indoors. Walking or cycling is good.
  • If work-related matters (or people) try to intrude, they really must be ignored. If you aren’t strict about this, your attempt at a retreat is doomed. Nothing must be allowed to spoil it. No exceptions. Allow just one in and all the rest will push through the crack you opened. It’s only 24 hours. Almost nothing is truly so urgent that it cannot wait that long.
  • It’s best to hold retreats like this regularly, on set days. That way, everyone else gets used to your schedule and knows that it’s pointless trying to interrupt.

The benefits are, I think, obvious. Aside from the rest, refreshment, and re-establishment of perspective, just the self-discipline involved is likely to be extremely beneficial. So is the process of reminding yourself—regularly—that it’s your life and you should be able to set aside some part of it for yourself.

So consider this: if you can’t do this, how are you different from a slave who lives continually at the whim of someone else’s agenda?

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Many people find that they have reached a serious state of stress before they even notice that anything is happening. On the basis that prevention is better than cure, here’s an idea to help you stay aware of what is going on and take action well before anything unpleasant happens.

Stress, overwhelm, anxiety, obsession: all of these creep up on you. They don’t arrive in an obvious way. One moment all is well, more or less. You probably know that you’re pushing yourself a little too hard, but it’s not something that you can’t cope with. Then you go one step too far. What was normal concern becomes anxiety; what was just a little extra effort becomes more than you can handle safely without doing yourself any harm.

It’s the same with extra working hours. You can handle them at first. Maybe it’s only only a temporary effort to deal with a crisis. Then, gradually but inexorably, working 9, 10, 12, 14 hours a day becomes normal for you. You don’t notice the effect until it’s way too late.

The one-minute check-in is a simple and practical way to get a handle on what’s happening. Here’s what you do:

  1. At regular intervals throughout the day, you stop for 60 seconds to bring your attention back to yourself.
  2. Each time, you ask what you are doing, how you feel, and —most important of all—what your patterns of work are. How long are you going without a break? How early did you start and what time is it now? How tired are you?
  3. You don’t cheat yourself. You make it a genuine inquiry into what is happening. No quick, superficial, comforting responses are accepted. That’s why it takes 60 seconds: 30 seconds to give yourself the edited version, then 30 more to get at the truth.
  4. Ask yourself where you are and what you’re doing. How long you’ve been doing it. How long until you can take a meaningful break or stop altogether. How you feel physically and mentally. What’s happening inside you—and where, if anywhere, it hurts.
  5. Don’t prejudge. Don’t make assumptions. Check yourself out carefully and notice what is going on. The purpose of the one-minute check-in is to allow yourself to be aware of your own functioning on a regular basis.
  6. Finally, act on what you find. If all is well, press on until your next one-minute check-in, say in an hour or two. If you need a break, take one. If you recognize that you’re long past being effective and only your stubbornness and anxiety are keeping you in place, pack up and go home right away.

Many of the stress-based problems people cause themselves are overlooked; dismissed as nothing to be concerned about. People take almost no vacation time and expect to be able to go on functioning at peak ability just the same. They skimp on sleep and imagine they are still fully alert. They drive themselves through a physically crippling schedule and imagine they’re tough enough to suffer no ill effects. Until pain or disaster strikes.

By checking in regularly, you can avoid all of this and stay on the right side of your personal limits. It will cost you perhaps 5 minutes a day to do it. It might save your health, your relationships, your career—and potentially your life.

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