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Dealing with Stress: 2 Simple Ways to Get Perspective

Man standing on mountain

“I vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Whenever worries and anxiety overwhelm your life, people tell you, “Just relax.”

Thanks, that’s wise advice, but how the hell do you do that? You’d love “to be light and free,” but that seems impossible when you’re feeling heavy and enslaved. How do you do it?

What follows are two practical yet profound ways to let go of your worries and anxiety. Use these two skills to lighten your load and unchain yourself from everyday frustrations.

I learned these two techniques from pilgrims who walk the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail. In their honor, I call it the Pilgrim’s Perspective.

A Quick Quiz

First, consider how you would react in these five situations:

1. You’re on a subway train that’s stalled in a tunnel and you’re told to exit and take a bus because of a “mechanical problem.”

2. You have to make an important call when your cell phone battery dies.

3. You’re remodeling your kitchen when the contractor makes an error that sets you back two weeks and $500.

4. You need cash fast and there are ten people in line at the ATM.

5. You’re going out to a job interview, all dressed up, when a taxi cab hits a puddle of water and drenches you.

Do you feel worry and anxiety rising in you now? If so, let’s see how you can make it go away by using the Pilgrim’s Perspective of Space and Time.

Skill #1: Perspective of Space

The second you feel stressed, step out of your body and imagine that you’re filming yourself at that very moment. Slowly begin to pull back the camera so that you no longer fill up the screen, but that there are others in the camera frame.

Pull back further so now you could see the entire building you’re in, with the room being just a minor part of the structure.

Next, pull back even more so you could observe the city you’re in, then the state, then the country, and then, perhaps, even the Earth itself.

At some point during this process you should start to realize that whatever just happened is really not that important. It may seem important in the place where you’re standing, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not important.

However, if you are still upset, continue pulling back the camera. See the moon with the Earth in the background, then Mars with the Earth as a little blue globe, then out past Pluto where the Earth would be a speck of sapphire against a black canvas.

If you’re really having a bad moment, pull back to our celestial neighbor, Proxima Centuri, and realize that you can’t see any planets, and that the Sun is simply a bright star in the heavens.

And just for fun, pull back to our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, where there is no hint that our solar system is dangling near the edge of a spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.

It is usually at that moment that you will realize that surely someone from the Andromeda Galaxy really cares about the subway’s “mechanical problem.”

“When he feels the wind blowing through him on a high peak or sleeps under a closely matte white bark pine in an exposed basin, he is apt to find his relationship to the universe.” ~Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid hiker

When I walked across America four times, there were plenty of challenging moments during my pilgrimages. However, months of hiking in the mountains and sleeping outside in the wilderness under a tarp helped me master the Pilgrim’s Perspective.

Countless times it helped me overcome the adversities of wicked weather, pesky mosquitoes, and nasty slips. It also let me survive forty-five days without a shower.

However, the guys walking behind me didn’t fare so well.

Try having a Pilgrim’s Perspective of Space next time something gets your goat. Someone may have cut you off while you’re driving, but the world continues to function.

You may not have closed the sale, but your country will probably survive and frankly doesn’t care. You may have broken a nail, but the planet Earth will pull through, barely.

“Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought—particularly for people who can never remember where they have left things.” ~Woody Allen

Skill #2: Perspective of Time

The second technique is similar to the Pilgrim’s Perspective of Space, but instead puts you in relationship with time. Let’s return to the example of your outfit getting drenched right as you’re about to go to an important job interview.

You’re worried and anxious about what your potential employer will think. Here’s how to use the Perspective of Time.

The moment you get drenched, freeze that moment in time—just stop. Next, fast forward your life and see what kind of impact this event would have on the very next day.

Often, it’s already meaningless. In this case, however, it might still be stressful, so you need to fast forward to the next week. Chances are this event will begin to fade in importance, although it’s possible that you’ll suffer from getting rejected for the job.

To gain some more perspective, fast forward to the next month or the next year. By then, getting drenched before your interview will no longer be a traumatic event; on the contrary, you might even be laughing about it with your friends. It became a quasi-tragic story that’s fun for the whole family.

However, let’s assume that you have a propensity of envisioning some pretty dire scenarios. A year from now, you imagine you’re still reeling from your drenched-outfit experience because your career is now somehow ruined because of it.

So maybe you need to jump five, ten, or twenty years ahead and see yourself having overcome this career disaster. You finally adopt a new career, find a great job, and live happily ever after.

However, let’s say you’re feeling pretty negative. You imagine that because you didn’t get the job offer, an evil person did. This jerk rises to the top of the industry and uses his money to sponsor nefarious operations that lead to the destruction of the United States and the domination of the entire planet.

This is when you need to hold the fast forward button for a while. Maybe 500 years from now the unholy kingdom will finally be overthrown when the power shifts to the Eskimos thanks to some serious global warming.

Finally, if that doesn’t make you feel better, there’s always the ultimate fast forward—jump five billion years ahead. Our sun will run out of fuel, expand, consume the Earth, and then fizzle out. End of drenched-outfit story.

One hopes that at some point during the fast forward, you will realize that getting drenched before a job interview is not a big deal in the infinite stream of time.

As absurd as this exercise may seem to some, it can truly help place any event in context, giving you perspective to deal with it in a calm, stress-free manner.

The most happy man is he who knows how to bring into relation the end and beginning of his life.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

ACTION: Practice using both of these Pilgrim’s Perspective techniques by retaking the quiz at the beginning of this article. Instead of magnifying such events, do the opposite: pull back the camera and fast forward the clock.

You will quickly realize that events that initially produce worries and anxieties will instantly fade away as you change your perspective. Now, at last, you can truly be light and free!

Man standing on mountain image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Francis Tapon

About Francis Tapon

Francis Tapon is a personal coach, world traveler, and author of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. You can get a copy at the WanderLearn Shop. His second book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, will come on August 20, 2011.

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  • Jennifer

    This couldn’t have come on a better day for me. Today I am feeling unwell and that’s fairly common for me, but I’m trudging through work because I want to. It’s hard to see that tomorrow will be better because I feel so terrible right now, but I know that this will pass.

  • Thanks for your creative perspective. I especially love your situational “stressors”. Yesterday I was on my way to a women’s circle and stopped by a store to purchase goods even though I was running late. The woman at the checkout, the only one open, realized she was purchasing the wrong coffee blend and left the checkout to wander the store and get another brand. I watched myself hold my breath and clench my teeth. I focused on surrendering to trust the perfection of the present moment. Next, I started breathing deep breathes. After reading your article, I realize, I can play with the movies of my mind to change my state and experience. Your suggestions transformed my stressful situation into a creative and fun playground to transform. Thanks!!!

  • India’s Roses

    I really liked what’s being said here, but I find it a little hard to put into practice. I love the idea of pulling back and stepping away from a problem until it doesn’t matter any more, but it’s a really harsh way to look at life. It works wonders for anxiety and stress, but it’s not a habit I’d like to get into in my life for fear of it carrying over to the things in life that may be meaningless to the universe, but are completely meaningful to me, such as the birth of a child, or some other sort of positive accomplishment, I’d hate to have gotten into the routine of pulling back farther and farther from my personal life to a place where the things that are going on around me don’t matter or seem unimportant against the opinions of another galaxy.

  • Ali

    I think you might be looking to deep into this, this practice is for negative experiences and how to make them less dramatic than you think they are. Positive experiences do not need to be thought of in this light. Positive experiences can be taken anyway you want them too and make you as happy as you want. There is just simply no need to try and look at positive experiences and make them less important than they are. That’s just my thoughts though.

  • ccrow

    I enjoyed this post and wanted to add a different perspective: #5, getting drenched on the way to an interview. Why do you assume the job would be lost? Perhaps I would show up at the interview anyway, in a demonstration of perseverance in the face of adversity. The interviewer would be impressed with my ability to put aside a relatively unimportant setback, and would give me the job on the spot.:-)

  • Dondet

    very helpful. thank you.
    I like to look up at the sky and try to absorb the entirety of it all; after a while my physical presence is reduced and my spiritual one is expanded.

  • Looking up at the stars always helped me put my “problems” into perspective! I used to take night walks in the park with my dog, just to remind myself of this.

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  • RC

    Quite timely. Just got some unpleasant news and went searching Tiny Buddha for some perspective. It still hurts at this time, but keeping perspective should help speed the healing. Thank you.

  • Mara

    love the article , thank you!!! i can not explain it but yesterday i got very worried about my future, the changes that I’m planing to do… My boyfriend, who takes astronomy classes, loves to show off all the newly acquired knowledge, and of course i love listening to him. After a small discussion i forgot about all the worries as i felt that they were sooo insignificant in comparison to the universe 🙂 these perspectives will stick in my mind for sure now 🙂

  • I didn’t assume the job would be lost! 🙂
    I simply assumed that most people would find such a drenching experience stressful.
    The question my article tried to address was: when you’re faced with a stressful moment, how do you immediately relax and calm down…….so that you can go to the interview anyway, in a relaxed and joyful state, and get the job! 😉

  • India’s Roses: I agree with Ali’s thoughts.
    I understand your concern and you’re right that we can apply the same perspective to any event, which may depress those who enjoy basking in the joy of a positive event.
    However, when you use the Pilgrim’s Perspective is up to you. my article is meant to give practical advice to those who want help in dealing with anxiety and stress.
    It seems most humans are wired to have a narrow, short-term perspective. That’s our default.
    So let yourself enjoy the birth of your child and screw what the Andromeda Galaxy thinks! 😉

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  • Thank you so much for this post.  It has been on my mind lately with so many stressful things going on and it has really helped me to lighten my load.  Tremendous gratitude for you and your words.  So insightful and inspiring.  Thank you.  And my children thank you.  

  • Ysuarez21

    This article is great, helped me realize something I had been dreading for a long time. For those of you who suffer from stress check this article out for ways to relieve stress on a daily basis: relieve stress!

  • Astha Kaushik

    wonderful post…i think we think too much sometimes..its better to keep aside ur worries and live ur own life..

  • Graham Fraser

    This is incredibly depressing. Why do anything? Good, bad or indifferent… you and your actions mean less than nothing to the grand scheme of things.

    Which means nothing I could ever do will ever matter.

    And before you say “you matter to someone,” let me remind you that person(s) you refer to are equally meaningless… so who cares if I “matter” to them? I certainly don’t and neither – according to your words here – does existance/grand-sceme.
    p.s. It’s not that I. don’t care if I matter to someone – though I never understand why – it’s that “mattering” doesn’t do a thing for me – mostly I just resent the obligation.

  • Indeed, these thinking strategies are awesome! I love how everything can change just by thinking and realizing that it’s not “all about me” all the time. Unfortunate events happen and they always will. The only difference is how we handle these situations and how we move on after finally accepting painful truths. Thank you for sharing!

  • Shawn

    Really love this article. Humouros as well!

  • Chris

    thank you oh so very much!!! you don’t realize how much this has helped me thank you so much.

  • I just had a most negative experience that upset me so much with my GP and there´s no withdrawing to another galaxy that I can see that can fix that. I am chronically ill and needed help and this doctor made me feel like a piece of sh*t and wasted both my time and his. I came out of there crying. I know *he* is the one with the attitude problem and not me, and he shouldn´t be in the medical profession in the first place, but it still made me fall into a horrible depression since Monday (when it happened). I had (and still have) no energy to make a complaint in which my word from behind closed doors with the doctor will mean nothing anyway. This is the national health service (in Spain) so I don´t have a choice of asking for a different doctor, I just get whoever is on duty that day and when I make an appointment they don´t know who will be on duty, so I cannot even avoid him in future.

    Even after putting the above problem into perspective, I am still left with nobody helping me with my painful illness (RA and fibromyalgia), and I cannot see how the perspective thing can help me with this in feeling better tomorrow, when I´m still in pain.

    I´m really desperate to *try* and make this perspective thing work for me – or maybe I´m missing something, and someone here could give me a pointer? Thanks.

  • Vic

    Your perspective is what makes it depressing. This is actually very insightful, to me at least, and possibly to you if you change your lens.

  • thepurevixen

    The Perspective of Time technique might be confusing for me because it seems contradicting to “living in the present” or “being here NOW” which I’ve been practicing/applying lately.