On top of the regular day-to-day stresses of traffic, relationships, deadlines and busyness, life can throw situations at us that are more existential in nature, even life-threatening.

It is perfectly natural that we would feel some stress in such extreme situations and yet no two people respond identically to the same situation, meaning the response is individual and hence a choice to some extent.

This is more obvious in daily life when we get stressed for widely different reasons. It can’t therefore be the situation that is objectively stressful in most cases.

My question to myself and to you is therefore:

  • What can we learn from those situations?
  • And what life lessons might that learning offer?

Life everyone, I have certainly had my share of what most people would classify as stressful situations: 2 car accidents, death of both parents and a number of near-death encounters. The first car accident was when I was 6 and I still remember the headlights of the other cars. More than anything perhaps is the memory of my parent’s stress.

My dad always bottled up his stress but thinking back now it is palpable. The second accident was more life-threatening, with the car summersaulting and ultimately written off. I suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and started having hallucinations that essentially relived the accident.

That second accident taught me one key lesson, which has been reinforced throughout my life: that life can be random.

As Robert Burns put it the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry“.

The front wheel of our car caught the hitch of a car backing out from a side road. Just think about the fine margins – what needed to come together for this accident to happen? And yet, there is nothing to understand – no deeper truth beyond the randomness of the universe.

Accepting this has allowed me to be more present in each moment and to go with the flow. Seeing as I don’t truly expect anything from the world and primarily take everything as it happens, my stress is triggered much less often than might otherwise be the case. Wanting the world to be somehow different and railing against it when it doesn’t live up to our expectations is a major source of stress.

The experience and the post-traumatic stress disorder also taught me that stress is largely internal – it is our reaction to what is happening in the world. It wasn’t my fault that I reacted this way and yet it may be possible to learn to respond differently.

In the regular course of life, the only thing that truly stresses me is public speaking and it isn’t standing in front of people but more being unprepared and not knowing what to say. Power dynamics and status also probably play a part.

This is also a strange one because my experience has changed over time, from scared when I was a young teenager in high school to absolutely chilled by the time I left that institution. I could perform in front of 700 or 800 people without a second thought, albeit with some preparation.

As I moved into my working life, I had (or created) fewer opportunities. Now, once again, the stress is back to some extent and I’m curious: What is it trying to teach me? What have I forgotten? It has also got me asking How might I make it my friend? It is clearly telling me something about not thinking beyond the occasion in terms of consequences – the what ifs – and pointing me to an area of my psychology that needs work.

More broadly, it has taught me that our psychology is not fixed but rather constantly evolving in response to outside stimuli. I therefore know, from my experience, that facing this stress head on will change how I perceive the situation and likely stop being stressful.

  • What about you?
  • What stresses you?
  • What is this trying to teach you?

Questions in the Image:

  • What can my stress teach me?
  • Where might I not be listening?
  • How might I befriend it?

Want to Read More Around This Topic?

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (link to Amazon.co.uk). The book offers insights and practices for living in the present moment and breaking free from the grip of the past and future. It emphasizes the importance of being fully present in order to experience true joy and fulfilment.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day – even feeling a knot of stress in my chest truly is an opportunity to ask How might I be trying too hard? What is at stake here? How might I turn up differently? What might I learn from this?

About Tom O’Leary

My mission is to help others think differently – meaning more broadly and deeply – and thereby make better decisions. The key to thinking differently lies in our curiosity.

The more we question, the more possible answers we uncover, and the more we expand what we thought possible. Life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential.

And yet, in a culture obsessed with efficiency and productivity, the paradox is that much energy and resources are wasted by a bias towards action over contemplation. If you are answering the wrong question, it doesn’t matter how ‘hard’ you work, you are still answering the wrong question.

That is why I am a big advocate of nurturing curiosity and innovative thinking at all ages, particularly amongst leaders because of the impact they have on us all. In my vision, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are curious, open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning.

How Might Tom Help?

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