Because stress is an inevitable part of life, these steps help us to live with it better. Click the link to access a worksheet that you can use with the following steps: Get Better at Stress Worksheet.
Name it to Tame it.
Stress is an umbrella term (both broad and vague). Lack of clarity about our own stress may cause more stress making it hard to know which resources are needed to cope (1). Here are some guidelines for naming your stress (writing down the answers helps):
- Name the stressor. The ‘future’, ‘job’, or ‘relationship’ are too vague to be useful. What particular part of your job, your future, your relationship is stressful? Be as specific as possible.
- Name your reactions. What thoughts, emotions, and actions occur when you are in a stressful situation? What is your role in maintaining the stress level? For example, do you tend to procrastinate when you have to do a difficult task?
- Name the changeable. Identify which aspects you are able to change, which ones are challenging but doable, and which ones you can’t change.
- Focus on what you can change. Choose one thing for this exercise.
Increase confidence in your ability to cope.
- Reflect on a past occasion when you have shown resilience or coped well with a stressful situation. Which skills and strengths did you use (imagination, resilience, determination, knowledge, compassion)?
- Focus on your skills and resources. Which of your strengths can you use to cope now? What external resources can you employ to help (support from others or training)?
- Learn and prepare. Stress is often caused by uncertainty. What more can you find out about the situation? The more you know, the more you can prepare for eventualities (2).
- Imagine that your stress response is helping you cope well with the stressor. When you change your perception of your stress, your brain chemicals change too. And when the situation is outside your control, positive visualisation can alleviate stress (3).
- Make and complete small attainable goals every day. When we set a goal such as Get a Degree or Learn Spanish, we clump all of the time, effort, and resources that it will take into one image of far-off, fuzzy, unachievable-ness. Then every day that we don’t achieve it, we let ourselves down.
This repeated sense of failure conditions our brains to associate the goal with unpleasant feelings, which means that we are more likely to procrastinate (4).
Decide what the next step will be, no matter how small. We may make today’s attainable goal, Sign up for Spanish school. But if we haven’t decided which school or how we are going to choose one from the many schools available, we are likely to put it off. Getting Things Done author David Allen suggests that people have a tendency to procrastinate when faced with making even small decisions (5).
Your daily attainable goals should be a list of specific next steps. For example, Monday: Write down five school criteria that are important to me. Tuesday: Look up 10 schools and compare using criteria.
Include rewards. Just as we avoid unpleasantness, our emotional brains thrive on positivity. (Even something as small as a pat on the back facilitates a sense of accomplishment and releases positive brain chemicals). Stick with it. The positive effects are cumulative (4).
Change the way you view stress.
Changing attitudes towards stress may not change the stressful situation. However, when we believe that our stress response is evidence that we are not coping well and that our stress is harming our bodies, we are piling stress on top of stress. Consider the amount of times per day, week, or month that we think about stress and the cumulative effect that negative self-talk has on us.
Changing our stress perception makes us less fearful of stressful situations. According to Health Psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, if we believe that stress is an inevitable and a normal part our everyday experience, it is more likely that our brain will react with a healthier stress response (6). Read how this works: The Science Behind Stress.
Connect with others.
- Even a brief phone call or physical contact causes our brain to release oxytocin (responsible for bonding and pleasure) and has a calming effect.
- Help someone. Research shows that altruistic or compassionate acts are not only helpful to the ones you help; the acts reduce your stress levels as well (7).
- Share your stress-reduction process with others. One of the quickest ways to learn something new is to explain it to someone else.
We all know that physical exercise, healthy diet, and sleep can rebalance a stressful life. But psychiatrist and play expert, Stuart Brown, says that making these things fun can be that much more effective (8).
- Take a cooking class, play Frisbee golf, get a pet (or look after someone else’s pet), or schedule a lie-in and breakfast in bed.
- Set aside specific times to play. Guilt free. Turn off your phone and computer.
You Don’t Have to Figure It Out Alone. You can contact me and we can work on your stressful situation together. To find out more: How Psychotherapy Helps You Alleviate Stress.
References and Contributors
- Dan Siegel. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
- Kelly McGonigal. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
- Gabriele Oettingen. (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
- Nick Hall. (2007). I Know What To Do, So Why Don’t I Do It?
- David Allen. (2002). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free.
- Kelly McGonigal. (2013). How to make stress your friend. TED Talk.
- Paul Gilbert. (2010). The Compassionate Mind.
- Stuart Brown & Christopher Vaughan. (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.