Your Greatest Weapon Against Stress
Relaxed. Calm. Unflappable.
These were a few adjectives used to describe ex-Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni. People joked that he was so cool that the air conditioning had to be turned off when he entered a room.
It was common to see captains lose their cool in the heat of the game. But if that ever happened with Dhoni, it became a hot topic for news and on social media.
His phlegmatic attitude led to an astounding captaincy record and him becoming one of the most influential figures in the sport.
But how did he do it? What made Dhoni such a Stoic? Was he a robot covered with human flesh and muscle? Did he not feel emotions?
Far from it. On more than one occasion, Dhoni admitted that he felt frustrated, angry, and disappointed just like anyone else.
What made him special was his embodiment of William James’considered the “Father of American Psychology” maxim, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
How MS Dhoni Handled Stress Like a Pro
To say that captaining the Indian cricket team is a high-stress job is putting it mildly. Many captains cracked and committed blunders or gave up the role because they couldn’t handle the pressure.
But not MS Dhoni.
As mentioned earlier, Dhoni felt the same emotions the rest of us would feel in stressful situations. If a player or the team failed to carry out a plan, an existing plan went awry, or the opposition was just better on that day, he would feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed.
But he also understood that those feelings weren’t constructive. So, instead of giving in to them, he would ask, “What should I do next?” This question made him focus better on the end goal.
Dhoni also didn’t spend much time planning his strategies in advance. Most players would analyze hours of videotape to plan how to outfox their opponents. But Dhoni went into matches blank without any preconceived notions.
This meant he could observe how things were unfolding on that day and plan accordingly. And many of his unconventional plans caught the opposition off-guard.
Finally, when Dhoni was away from the field, he rarely thought about the game. He indulged in hobbies like riding his motorcycles, shooting at gun ranges, or learning more about the Indian Armed Forces.
Even the Chairman of the BCCI couldn’t reach Dhoni, despite giving him a special phone to serve as a private hotline.
Each instance proves that Dhoni chose one thought over another. He chose to respond to situations instead of reacting to them. He chose to live in the present instead of the past or the future. And he chose his personal well-being over the status quo and others’ expectations.
To Reduce Stress, Choose Your Thoughts
The present moment is all we have.
As Eckhart Tolle explained in his book The Power of Now, life is just a series of present moments. The past is nothing but all the present moments that went by, and the future is just a collection of present moments waiting at the horizon.
Yet, the present moment is where we struggle to live.
Rather than enjoying our dinner with loved ones, we’re thinking about what happened at work. Rather than thinking of solutions if something goes wrong, we waste our energy blaming others. Rather than forcing our mind to focus on a task, we give it the freedom to decide what we should pay attention to.
That’s why we’re rarely happy or peaceful but always stressed.
I’d like to state William James’ maxim once again:
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
You have the power to choose your thoughts and push stress out of your life.
How can you hone this power? Here are three simple steps.
You don’t need to be spiritual or religious to reap the benefits of meditation. A simple inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale exercise for a few minutes daily can improve your ability to focus and to choose your thoughts.
According to attentional blink experiments, if you see two letters flash a half-second apart in a series of 25 numbers, you’ll see the first letter but almost certainly miss the second one. This glitch is because you stay glued to the first cue longer than you should. But after three months of breath-centered meditation, you can “let go” of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the next one.
Here’s an excellent short video on using breathing to reduce stress and anxiety.
Tim Ferriss calls the blank page a photography darkroom for the mind, and for good reason. When you write, your thoughts and feelings become clearer. The dirt settles and you get a true reflection of what’s going on.
Write for just five minutes like no one will read your work. Because no one has to. This exercise is not for anyone else, but for you to gain some perspective.
I write on any topic for 10 minutes at the start of each day without worrying about language or coherence. Random thoughts collide, and what emerge are simple yet profound solutions for problems I’ve been grappling with.
3. Take a break
A break doesn’t only mean sleeping or meditating. Nor does it mean getting busy with social media or Netflix. A good break is anything that separates your eyes and mind from a screen.
Read a book, ride a bicycle, work on a hobby. If nothing else, have sex with your partner. And while you’re on your break, take time out to appreciate tiny beautiful things. This helps your brain build a strong executive network which, in turn, makes it easier for you to replace unproductive thoughts and feelings with energizing ones. No matter how bad your day is, you can do something productive to salvage it.
Various studies have shown that people who take frequent tiny breaks feel less stressed, solve problems more effectively, and are more productive.
Regret stems from living in the past, stress stems from living in the future. You can’t live in either.
But you can learn from the past and apply those lessons in the present to have a pleasant future.
All it takes to achieve this is the ability to choose the thoughts you want to focus on.
The power is in your hands… or mind. It has always been.
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