Working Smarter

How Stress Leads to Life Unlived

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It’s not enough that stress makes us anxious and can lead to everything from heart disease to stroke and make life miserable. No, for the coup de gras, stress saddles the brain with a killjoy mood that prevents the very things that reduce stress—recreation, leisure, fun.

In other words, when we are anxious, worried, or ruminating over a stressful event or situation, we can’t live. Pretty insidious, isn’t it? How much of your life has gone unlived because it was a bad time or stressful period and you were too preoccupied by worries to enjoy life? It adds up.


It’s maddening, because life is short enough already. We can’t write off large chunks of our years to a survival default that overreacts to the world we live in. Humans are wired to fixate on the negative, and that no doubt was key for us to make it all the way to the 21stcentury. However, we don’t live in a life-or-death, hunter-gatherer world anymore.

We don’t have to turn our back on life because we may have worries or preoccupations that are not life-threatening. We can do both, chew the gum of negative moods and break away to fully participate in our life.

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Why does life and enjoyment go by the wayside when we’re stressed? Stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain. This makes sense, since the last thing the part of your ancient brain that sets off the stress response wants to do in a life-or-death moment is have fun. It’s not a good idea to do a salsa dance routine as an angry rhino races straight at you, horn first.

But you are not on an African savanna. You are at home, maybe on the couch, and it’s just the emotions, the mood of anxiety and worry that keeps you from getting out of the house, not an emergency threat to life and limb. The culprits, negative emotions such as fear and low self-esteem, sap energy and motivation and cause us to withdraw from others, the research shows, while positive emotions make us initiate and reach out to new people, opportunities, and experiences.


In the bunker of negative emotions, we concoct rationales, terrible ones, such as I’ll get to my life when I feel better, have more money, the right partner, the right job, the kind of success that makes me feel good enough—and esteemed enough by others—to want to participate in life.  The life postponement syndrome starts here.

It turns out that humans are smart enough to do more than one thing at a time. Yes, negative moods are part of life and we don’t want to deny them, but we are capable of both ongoing recognition of stressors or tangling with a problem and leaving those behind for intervals of life engagement and fun that buffer stress, help us solve the problems we’re stewing about, and turn out to be the memories that constitute the times of our life.

Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself at a dinner with friends or on a vacation and marveled that, even though you had serious challenges and stress at the time that picture was taken, you don’t look like it. In fact, you may look like you don’t have a care in the world. I was alive, calm, not bad looking. How could I have had those fears or problems or taken the worries I had so seriously?

It’s right there in the photo, proof positive that we can live and have worries at the same time. That’s a good thing, because, guess what, we’re always going to have stress and anxieties. That’s what being alive is in a trial-and-error existence, dancing on the razor’s edge. It’s how we manage stressful thoughts and the mind that creates them that determines whether we are immobilized by them or dispute, contest, and challenge them so we can do the living we’re making for ourselves along the way.


The positive emotions we feel in moments of active leisure crowd out the negative and build resilience to stress. Researchers have found that engaging leisure activities do a host of things that strengthen coping resources. They:

— reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms (Coleman, Seppo Ahola)

— enhance social support (Chalip, Thomas, Voyle)

— improve mood through increased self-control and camaraderie (McCann, Holmes)

— and build self-esteem and competence (Zamani Sani, Fathierezale, Brand, Puhse, Trachsler, Gerber, Talepasand)

Of course, it’s easier said than done when it comes to switching off the mood that comes from stress or anxiety. You have to override reflex thoughts and emotions that overtake the brain and constrict the mind to the perceived crisis of the moment.

The survival equipment wants you to cling to this stuff as if your life depended on it. It doesn’t. It depends on the opposite, getting your life in as you move through the journey, not waiting out gloom or leaving it up to retirement.


How do we do that? It starts with awareness, being able to catch yourself in life-postponing moods. The emotions are intense and make you want to stay in the doom, but you have to override them and have a counterpunch. You don’t have to fall for the mood and sideline yourself from life engagement.

Identify some life activities that you passed on recently and what issue or stressor was the impetus to not act. What was missed? What are the main issues behind the stress, anger, cynicism that grounded you? What is accomplished by foregoing leisure avenues that could help buffer difficulties?

Play has been found to be a great problem-solver. It creates thought associations that leap to connections and ideas we can’t find when left to grinding it out with the rational side of the brain. So we often stumble on to insights by letting go and getting out of the utilitarian mindset of career and rationality.

Since so much of the life-suppression powers of stress and anxiety are autopilot, here are five ways to counter the rumination equipment and get out and live:

  • Put leisure activities on your calendar. Take them as seriously as work appointments. They are appointments with your life.
  • Set an alarm on your phone to go off when it’s time to do something fun—and a back-up alarm five minutes later to remind yourself you can rally.
  • Shift the mood with music. One of the best ways to break through the negative mood is with music. Choose some upbeat, good-time music in your collection or on Spotify or Pandora and put it on loud. Watch how quickly you can change a mood once the music starts.
  • Sign up for a new pastime, such as a weekly dance class or yoga session. When you have a hobby, you are forced to get out there once a week and override the puppet strings of mood. Five minutes after getting there the funky mood is gone.
  • Act as if. When you feel yourself caving to rumination and vegetative mood, pretend you are someone you know who would get out and do something fun no matter what. Acting is the road to action.

The good thing about moods is that they are ephemeral. They can be dumped, ignored, and risen above. We don’t have to be their faithful, reverential followers.

We can crowd out worries and stress with different emotions, particularly those sparked by direct experience, in which bodies help move the mind to new places. Full, in-person engagement in fun activities is the exit out of the thinking factory and self-infliction and the route to the memories that let us know: We were here.

If you would like to get stress and anxieties under control and activate life balance, you can learn more about my one-on-one coaching stress management training by clicking on the button below.

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