I’d wake up thinking about the most dreadful to-dos of the day. I went to bed obsessing about which tasks and interactions had gone most wrong, which were most apt to go wrong, and what (if anything) I could do about them. In between, I was constantly scanning my environment for problems, snafus and elephant traps of all kinds.
Even though I am, at core, an optimist, this habitual way of thinking has always come naturally to me. And it can have some real upsides, particularly for someone employed as an editor — a job that revolves around correcting problems and making improvements of various kinds. Thinking this way can make you productive and efficient, I’ve found. Unfortunately, it’s also a highly effective way of inviting lots of constant low-grade stress into your life.
This struck me with full force last year when I went to see the movie What the Bleep Do We Know!? There’s a fascinating animated segment in the film where they show how your brain physically remaps its neurological development according to your habitual thought patterns. The more you think a certain way, the more your brain becomes wired to think that way. The more firmly that hardware is in place, the more difficult it becomes to run any new or different mental software.
At first, this revelation scared the heck out of me. Because, at the time, if my mind wasn’t occupied with fixing a problem, it was generally occupied looking for one: What detail might be falling though the cracks; what might need fixing; who might be needing more of my support?
If there was anything to feel nervous about, I felt nervous. If there was anything to be regretful or disappointed about, I felt regretful and disappointed. In short, if there was anything at all to feel stressed about, I felt stressed. And so, quite naturally, I felt stressed most of the time — even when I was happy and things were going very well. Having my mental antennae permanently tuned in to the broadcasts of this “all worry, all the time” station was an obvious bummer. But I wasn’t sure how to fix it — and of course that just gave me one more thing to worry about.
Then I had this interesting talk with my very wise friend, Cindy, and she opened my eyes to a different way of thinking. “Whatever you put your attention on grows,” she explained. “So focusing excessively on problems just makes those things loom larger.” Even focusing on thinking less about problems still means putting your focus on something you’ve found “wrong,” she noted. So the real answer, she explained, was simply to start focusing more on the things that bring you the most happiness and pleasure.
“Try putting your attention on the things you find right and that you want to see grow,” Cindy advised. “When you channel more of your conscious energy into fully noticing and appreciating those things, the things you perceive as wrong will automatically seem to recede — without your having to do much of anything to fix them.”
This notion sounded radical to me, but also intriguing and inherently sensible.
And indeed, the more I started “finding things right” — from courteous drivers and happy coincidences to small wins in my work — the less inclined I felt to run all my habitual, tuned-to-what’s-wrong programming.
Working on this Good Stress/Bad Stress issue has been illuminating for me in many ways, from specific insights about things like the weird ways that stress can affect your skin, to larger perspectives on how stress can be a catalyst for personal growth and positive change. Each time I’ve read through the issue, though, Cindy’s suggestion has kept coming back to me.
It’s possible, I now realize, to find something right even in the negative effects of stress. Because those negative effects are there for a reason. In effect, they are telling us: “Hey, check it out! This way of being is not really working out so swell. Maybe there is a better way …” We hope you find lots of better ways within these pages, and also that by finding more things right in your own life, you can give any latent “looking for trouble” tendencies a run for their money.