5 ways to beat stress and make everyday life easier

I regularly speak to audiences around the globe. I ask them to let me know if they are feeling stress, and a forest of hands goes up. This is true in India and São Paulo and everywhere in between.

Stress is linked to everything from heart disease to lack of career progress. Contrarian pundits posit that stress is actually good and can help you start moving and get work done. A TED speaker asserts that stress is not harmful, but thinking that stress is harmful is harmful. In other words, stress is just fine. But if you think it is not fine, then it becomes so.

Depressed businessman
Will Selarep | Getty Images

My own experience as a consultant and speaker is that a majority of people in white-collar occupations feel that they have an unhealthy amount of stress in their lives. Paradoxically, this stress increases as they become more successful and climb the ranks of hierarchy or entrepreneurial success.

Clients give many reasons for the stress they experience—financial reverses, business and career setbacks, relationship problems, struggling children and so on. In reality, there is one, and only one reason they feel stress.

They would like the world to be a certain way, and the universe is not playing ball.

A universal truth

Think about your own life. Why do you feel stress?

Is it because you got fired and are unsure of when and where you will find a new job? Underlying this is the expectation that you should have a stable job with predictable income.

Is it because your partner is filing for divorce? Beneath is the expectation that you should have a relationship with your partner that is stable, fulfilling and free of friction.

In every instance where we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, there is a notion that the universe should be a particular way and it turns out that this is not the way it is.

So we desperately try to make it the way we want it to be. We may succeed. Or we may not succeed. But we try mightily, and this is the cause of stress in our life.

Here are 5 tips to greatly reduce, even eliminate, stress in your life.

1. Recognize that you are not in control, and make your peace with it.

We can plan carefully and execute skillfully, but there is always the possibility that something unexpected will derail us.

An executive heartily disliked a colleague, and she was able to stitch together a coalition that forced him out. He joined a competitor. Six months later that competitor launched a hostile bid for her company. It succeeded. He became her new boss and promptly fired her.

Understand that actions are within your control; the outcome is not. So pour your energy into the activities you have to undertake to achieve your goal. Don't obsess about the outcome.

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Paradoxically, the more detached you are about the outcome, the higher the probability that you will actually achieve it.

2. Pause: Every time you feel your stomach tighten and your heartbeat increase, pause.

Take a minute and sit with your spine straight. Breathe slowly and deeply. Just concentrate on your breath. As you inhale, notice the air filling your lungs and expanding your belly. Notice it seeping out as you exhale, and feel the contraction in your lungs and stomach.

Do this for five to 10 cycles. Really long, slow cycles.

Then get back to work.

3. Be mindful—eschew multitasking.

It is a myth that multitasking makes you more efficient and productive. On the contrary, it exhausts you and makes you ineffective.

Find this out for yourself. When you are feeling overwhelmed, just pick one task that you have to get done, and focus all your attention and energy on it. Switch off your email notifications, turn off music and other distractions, and unplug your phone.

As you relentlessly do only one task at a time, you get into the flow. You will be surprised at how much you accomplish, and gradually the overwhelming feeling will you as well.

4. Take frequent, mindful breaks.

Begin by working intensely for 20 minutes and then taking a three-minute break. Walk around. Wave your arms vigorously. Rotate your head. Bend forward and backward and sideways.

Then start to work again.

Build it up over time so you work for 50-minute stretches and break for 10 minutes. You will get a lot more done.

5. "Good thing, bad thing ... Who knows?": Trust the ancient parables.

Ancient wisdom, those eternal truths discovered by deep thinkers before the Internet and smartphones gave them attention deficit disorder, has much to offer us today.

Many of these truths are transmitted through parables. Here is one such story:

A man and his teenage son lived in a beautiful valley. They were very happy, but they were also dirt poor, and the man got tired of living in poverty.

He decided to go entrepreneurial and become rich by breeding horses. He borrowed heavily from his neighbors and bought a stallion. He kept it in a paddock, and the very day he bought it, the stallion kicked the top bar loose and vanished.

The neighbors flocked around to commiserate. "You were going to become a rich man," they said. "But now your stallion has run away and you still owe us money. How sad." And there may have been some schadenfreude in their sympathy.

The man shrugged his shoulders and said, "Good thing, bad thing ... Who knows?"

The stallion fell in with a bunch of wild horses, and the man spied them in a valley close by. He was able to entice them into his paddock, which he had repaired. So he now had his stallion back, plus a dozen horses. That made him a rich man by the standards of that village.

The neighbors clustered around again, and there was a tinge of envy as they congratulated him. "We thought you were destitute, but fortune has smiled on you," they said. "You are already a rich man."

The man shrugged his shoulders and said, "Good thing, bad thing ... Who knows?"

The man and his son started to break the horses so they could sell them. One of them threw the man's son and stomped on his leg. It broke and healed crooked.

Again the neighbors came. "He was such a fine young lad," they said. "Now he will never be able to find a girl to marry."

The man shrugged his shoulders and said, "Good thing, bad thing ... Who knows?"

And that very summer, the king of the country declared war on a neighbor, and press gangs moved through the villages rounding up all the able-bodied young men. They spared the man's son because he had a game leg.

There were tears in their eyes as the neighbors lamented, "We don't know if we will ever see our sons again. You are so fortunate—you still have your son with you."

The man shrugged his shoulders and said, "Good thing, bad thing ... Who knows?"

And it goes on like that forever.

There is a powerful lesson here for you.

Go back in your life. Has anything happened to you that, at the time it happened, you thought was a "bad thing"? But looking back at it today, you can clearly see that it was not so bad and, perhaps, was even a good thing?

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Most people can recall many such instances. So is it possible that what you are today about to label a bad thing could, at some point in the future, turn out to be a good thing?

If so, then why be in a hurry to label it bad?

Just asking yourself the question "Is there any possible way in which this could actually turn out to be good?" takes you to a realm of possibility. And if you take the next step and ask, "What can I do to make this happen?" you will find avenues opening up that you may never have conceived before.

This works in both your personal life and your professional life and is a great antidote for stress.

By Srikumar Rao, a TED speaker and author of "Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated and Successful—No Matter What" and founder of The Rao Institute.

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