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take a deep breath and relax.
the three-step way to a stress-free life.
by matt morin

The American Institute on Stress recently issued a report based on a nationwide study of adults ages 24-65. The results, rather expectedly, proved to be stress-inducing themselves. 43% of adults will suffer stress-related health problems this year. More than one million people miss work each day due to stress, and HR departments are actually adding "mental health days" to benefits packages. (Which brings up the question: Do you take a job where they admit from the start that it will make you go crazy?) Stress is recognized as a major factor in six of the seven leading causes of death. The report went on to make strong links between stress and workplace/school violence, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders and the divorce rate. The Institute made the grand but obviously not entirely unfounded claim that stress is the #1 health problem in the United States.

And I just don’t understand it.

I’ve never been a stress case. As long as I can remember, I’ve been able to deal with stress without it affecting me in the long-term. As a kid, I never worried that Mom was going to find out I traded my entire lunch for three Tootsie Pops and an NFL pencil set. In school I never worried for weeks about an upcoming French test. (I really never understood the people who stressed after they took the test. You’ve already taken it. No amount of worrying is going to change your grade.) At work I don’t stress about getting projects done, and the two times I’ve been laid off, other people seemed to stress that I didn’t have a job more than I did.

Here’s where I should probably back up and define my terms, because I do worry and I do get angry about things. But here’s my (possibly semantical) difference. I consider worrying or getting angry about something to be completely natural, but also short term. Stress, on the other hand, is worry or anger over a prolonged period. Example: One morning you discover someone has sideswiped your car. You’re angry. But if you have trouble sleeping that night because you’re still pissed at whoever did it, you’re stressed.

Of course no one believes me when I say I don’t stress. So in trying to explain myself to everyone over the years, I’ve come up with a way of describing how I do it. Coming to an infomercial near you – The Matt Morin No-Stress System! Only four easy payments of $49.95.

Step 1: Everything in your life breaks out into two categories. A) Things you can control. B) Things you can’t.

Step 2a: Something happens that you can control. Since you are in control, you affect the desired outcome and there is no need to stress. Example: What to eat for lunch? You pick something. Eat it. No stress.

Step 2b: Something happens that you can’t control. Since you can’t control it, no amount of worrying will change it. So stressing about it is useless. Example: No matter how long you’re angry, the guy who sideswiped your car ain’t coming back to admit it.

Step 3: You’re stress free!

Now like 6-minute abs or buying property with no money down, this isn’t quite as simple as it seems. It’s very easy to live by in theory. A little more difficult in practice. First, it’s hard to admit there are things you can’t control. Usually, there are plenty of things you want to control, but can’t. Like getting to work on time. There’s no need to get all road raged because traffic is making you late to the Monday morning status meeting. Unless you arm your Honda with James Bond-style rocket launchers and clear yourself a path, the fact that you’re 30 minutes behind schedule is completely out of your control. So relax.

Another point to realize is that things slide back and forth between the two categories a lot. The key is recognizing when something has moved from a situation you can control to one you can’t. If you’re making dinner, there’s no need to stress that you’re going to burn it – that’s something you can control. But what happens when the ballgame game goes extra innings, you forget about the casserole, and dinner’s a little extra-crispy? Well, unless you can reverse time, it has now moved into category 2b.

A side benefit to this anti-stress system is that you begin to learn to put things into perspective. You start to realize that if someone spills wine on your carpet, it’s not the end of the world. At worst, it’s just the end of your carpet. If you get laid off, there’s another job out there somewhere. Or if George Bush becomes president we only have 4 years to wait.

Of course there are always exceptions to any rule. Love tends to throw a big monkey wrench into things. I lost 15 pounds in two months stressing about why my last girlfriend broke up with me. (I never claimed my system was perfect, and I offer a money-back guarantee.)

It sounds crazy. It sounds like it’ll never work. And honestly, it doesn’t always. However there are plenty of people who’ll say that a little stress is a good thing, so even if this only works half the time you’ll be better off than you were. It’s a somewhat fatalistic way of looking at life, but I think it’s something everyone should try. Maybe it won’t help you. After reading the AIS report though, it sure couldn’t hurt.


Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

more about matt morin


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adam kraemer
8.20.01 @ 12:24p

What about those things you can control, but are to afraid or lazy to?

adam kraemer
8.20.01 @ 12:24p

Sorry. "too afraid"

matt morin
9.14.01 @ 12:27a

You can't control anything you're too lazy or afraid to try and fix. So it falls into category 2b. (Until you decide to do something about it, then it moves back to 2a.)

jael mchenry
9.14.01 @ 8:33a

If you're too lazy to control it I don't think it becomes something you can't control -- it's still something you can control but you're not. Controlling. It's that "you affect the desired outcome" substep of 2a that's the hardest.

But if you don't complete 2b, you never get to 3. And 3 is where you need to be to be stress-free.

I feel like that last sentence should be set to a catchy tune and used as a commercial jingle. Who's with me?

tracey kelley
9.14.01 @ 9:38a

Once again Jael, your brilliance shines through.

I don't have any problem with stress and control. Although I used to try to control what birds came to my backyard feeder, rushing out to chase away bluejays and grackles because the cute little finches and chickadees were too scared to eat and couldn't get to the feeder and...

...I'm much better now. Really.

lee anne ramsey
9.14.01 @ 12:04p

I'm not buying the main assumption of your article that everything falls into one of the two categories: things you can control and things you cannot. And that stress is all about control.

matt morin
9.14.01 @ 1:04p

How so, Lee Anne? Stress is defined as: A problem or situation causing emotional or mental tension or pressure.

So if you can control the outcome of that problem or situation, you can also control the emotional or mental pressure that goes along with it.

lee anne ramsey
9.14.01 @ 2:56p

I've already duked this out with you a million times, so I won't force the nice intrepid readers to listen to our stale arguements.

matt morin
9.14.01 @ 3:37p

Probably a good idea.

But I'm more than happy to argue my point with anyone else.

jael mchenry
9.14.01 @ 4:25p

You know I'm always happy to argue, even if I happen to agree with the control theory.

I suppose the other side of the argument is that stressful things far beyond your control happen all the time, and are stressful regardless of your involvement or lack thereof. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, moving to a new place, losing a job -- these are all potential stressors.

At the same time, your level of stress in reaction to these things is always, always within your control. I know people who burst into tears and spiraled into depression thanks to being laid off; and I know people who regarded it as a wonderful opportunity to rexamine and improve their lives.

And if you're stressing about the possibility of losing your job, well, that's utterly useless.

Okay, I really intended to disagree, but I don't think that happened. Oh well. It's still a discussion, and certainly more on-topic than my usual offerings.

roger striffler
9.14.01 @ 8:09p

Ok, while I have to agree with you in general, I don't think it's quite as simple as control vs. no control.
Although you may accept that something is out of your personal control, you may still have expectations as to how it will turn out. Having the result not meet your expectations can be the source of a lot of unhappiness and stress.

Expectations are far more subtle, insidious, difficult to identify and manage than the simple situation itself.

matt morin
9.15.01 @ 12:06a


True about expectations. I'm not saying that when something doesn't go your way you shouldn't be bummed or upset. All I'm saying is, realize you can do something about those feelings so they don't linger to a point where they're affecting other things. What's done is done. It's the don't cry over spilt milk maxim.

chris freire
9.16.01 @ 11:58p

Now I know what you have been doing instead of copywriting.

Stree-free life isn't about control. It's about priority.
Stress is natural, we all have it, some more than others. It can be as good as it is unhealthy.

The key is to use your stress like money, wisely. Spend it, if you will on important things. Health. Family. The Giants playoff hopes.

This week more than
a few of us have been making huge withdrawls our own banks of stress.

And it is Okay.

lee anne ramsey
9.17.01 @ 9:27p

Hi Chris!

matt morin
9.17.01 @ 10:18p

My greatest fear has come true: My Art Director is on a writer's web site critiquing my writing.

jael mchenry
9.19.01 @ 4:13p

Hmmm... does your Art Director have some art on an art site you could go critique in retaliation?

(Also, has it occurred to you also that charging the four easy payments of $49.95 doesn't work if you don't withhold the system until after we actually pay you? Honor system schmonor system.)

matt morin
9.19.01 @ 4:24p

Maybe that's why the phone's not ringing off the hook...

joe procopio
9.20.01 @ 10:07a

I agree wholeheartedly with Matt. It's a theory/practice thing, and your success depends on how well you can carry it out. Traffic is a good litmus test. If you can brush off the rush-hour commute every day, you're in good standing, stress-wise.

Something to watch out for is to make sure that, as you live your comfortable, stress-free life-style, you don't put EVERYTHING into category 2b, thereby shutting out the entire world. This happens to me a lot, yet somehow it doesn't bother me.

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