“Pick the day. Enjoy it – to the hilt. The day as it comes. People as they come… The past, I think, has helped me appreciate the present, and I don’t want to spoil any of it by fretting about the future.” ― Audrey Hepburn
This is Part 1 of the 2-part series on Stress.
Do you have more stress in your life than you would like to have?
Do you feel like life is one to-do list after another, one appointment after another and feels like a perpetual treadmill?
Do you feel like you have residual stress from a lifestyle that you are unable to catch up with and do not know how to relieve?
Here are ten steps to deconstruct the stress in your life and provide a feeling of relief and some ideas to take action on to reduce the amount of stress in your life.
1. Become Aware Of The Role of Stress in Your Life
“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”- Śāntideva
The first step in the journey towards lower stress is to assess how much stress you have and under what circumstance?
Become acutely aware of the role of stress in your life. Society seems to reward the idea of a stressed out person. Running from appointment to appointment and going through the local coffee store drive through while “being stressed out” seems to be a virtue.
The medical effects of stress are too many to mention in this post but chronic stress is the genesis of many mental, physical and spiritual problems. You can read some of the effects of stress here.
Here are a few questions that might be useful to shine the light of awareness on how stress operates in your life:
What are you stressed about?
Where does your stress begin? Is it location specific?
How often are you stressed out?
When are you stressed out? Is it temporal or time dependent?
Why are you stressed out?
Is stress productive or useful?
Becoming aware of how stress functions in your life makes you aware of automatic and sometimes sneaky ways that stress comes upon you and begins overtaking your life.
The Different Types of Stress:
Productive stress vs. Unproductive stress
Stress that is under control and makes you take action or gets your work done can be termed as productive stress. This type of stress can also be termed as the tension that you might experience while doing a creative project.
When you have a clear beginning or awareness of the current situation and a clear end or how you want the finished product to look like, you generate structural tension. According to Robert Fritz, the author of The Path of Least Resistance, this tension begs resolution and propels you forward towards the completion of your project.
The mild tension generated by an ongoing creative project or task can be categorized under the realm of productive stress, the edgy nervous energy most of us might experience when we plunge into the unknown. There is both a feeling of fear of the unknown but also a feeling of excitement of unraveling the finished product.
Unproductive stress is stress that brings no benefit and usually with no end in sight. Whenever the fear and worry part of a project far outweigh the excitement, the stress becomes unproductive.
Another way to define stress is acute and chronic. According to the article from University of Maryland Medical Center:
“Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the fight or flight response. The threat can be any situation that is perceived, even subconsciously or falsely, as a danger.”
The article defines chronic stress as:
“Frequently, modern life exposes people to long-term stressful situations. Stress, then, becomes chronic. The urge to act (to fight or flee) must therefore be controlled.”
The stress response or the fight and flight response was designed to keep us away from life threatening dangers in the past. However, most modern societies do not have the same threats. It seems that humans have created occupational and life stresses that have become chronic and slowly rob the quality of life that we can experience.
The Stress Set Point and Range
You might have noticed that you have a range of stress that you are habituated to experience in your life. The point where your stress levels calibrate much like a thermostat that is set at a temperature can be termed as the stress set point and range. If you feel too happy, you might be inclined to sabotage the moment and induce more stress or worry in your life to compensate.
According to Dr. Gay Hendricks, the author of The Big Leap:
“Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.”
Become aware of the role of stress in your life and determine if it is preventing you to take the big leap into greater success and fulfillment.
2. Scratching Below The Surface: The Deeper Reasons Behind Stress
“Worrying is like a dominoes effect, that rolls from one day into the next, into a week, a month, a year; never accomplishing anything but stress, until it hits that last tile, which drops unfulfilled to an empty ground.” ― Anthony Liccione
When you peel off the layers of stress, you may be surprised to find other unresolved issues that sustain the foundations of stress in your life.
For example, one of the most common inducers of stress is a deep-seated feeling of “I am not good enough” or “worthy enough” or “I do not measure up” to some invisible standard set by society. Often, stress may be induced by fear and worry of maintaining a particular lifestyle and “keeping up with the joneses.”
According to Dr. Brené Brown:
“Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.” ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Not owning our authentic self and story can also be very difficult and become a source of ongoing stress. Living a life true to your deepest desires and purpose might seem like a scary proposition especially if you have been living another story for a very long time.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ― Brené Brown
When there is a conflict between the way you are living and the way you are drawn to live from your most authentic self or your true story, the result is stress and unrest. You may feel unease but you are unable to pinpoint the source of unhappiness and ongoing stress.
Having limiting beliefs and emotions that support a stressful lifestyle do not assist in managing stress. For example, you may have a belief that stress is great for productivity. You may have gotten used to the last minute stress of getting a task or project done. However, it does not have to be that way.
Another great source of chronic stress is holding a grudge and not being able to let it go. If you are unable to forgive some person or some event, it may cause a great deal of stress.
Recognize that some situations or locations may be acting as triggers that activate and sustain your stress response. When confronted with a trigger, you may be automatically doing actions that enhance your stress and experience a reward in the form of feeling safe or perhaps a feeling of temporary relief. Research from MIT has shown this trigger or cue, action and reward cycle to be active in habits and since chronic stress can become a habit, it is relevant in this case also.
The Thoughts-Feelings-Overwhelm-Worry-Stress Cycle
Become aware of the cycle of thoughts and feelings that lead to overwhelm and excessive worry and as a result cause chronic stress in your life. Negative thoughts supported by non-empowering feelings may snowball into excessive worry and cause overwhelm and stress that significantly decrease the quality of life. Become aware of negative thoughts and if they are repeating themselves like echoes in your head.
The best solution to the snowball of negative thoughts is to distract yourself with something that you enjoy doing when the mental chatter becomes high. Replace negative thoughts with powerful thoughts of self-empowerment and possibility. Attempt to replace every thought that induces stress with a counter thought that induces a sense of relief and joy.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
3. Turn the Tables on Stress: Your Specific Stress Management Toolbox Or Set of Practices:
“Stop stressin’ and be a blessin’.” ― T.F. Hodge
Develop a unique set of practices that you can use to counter the stress in your life and use them frequently. One of the most effective methods of reversing the stress in your life is consciously selecting and engaging yourself in activities that induce a feeling of very deep relaxation in you. If you do not have any activities that induce deep relaxation, you may need to find some that do.
What makes you really happy? Next ask yourself the question if you are doing the activities that make you very happy on a regular basis to counteract stress in your life.
For example, some people love to journal and writing and expressing their feelings and articulating them as words in their own handwriting is deeply relaxing to them and releases stress.
Another technique is to create temporal or time spots where you can confine the stress in your life. For example, you may make a pact with yourself that the stress at work remains at work and you will not allow it to trickle into the rest of your life.
Alternatively, you can set us a small period to allow yourself to feel the stress about a project even if you are not feeling the stress. When you bring it to the conscious awareness, it may lose its power and grip on you.
For example, if you are used to getting angry in a certain circumstance and if you allow yourself to get mock angry at a similar situation, you will see the futility of reacting in a certain way. This puts the stress or other difficult responses in a different perspective and allows you to see it from a different angle and not when you are within the situation.
Increase the incidence of things that genuinely make you happy and allow you to release stress. This could be watching cartoons, listening to music, taking a hot bath or spending time with friends.
Make radical self-care part of your routine and do not allow work or other commitments to bleed into it. This also includes eating foods that nourish your body, drinking enough water and thinking thoughts and beliefs that support your growth. Much stress is induced when you refuse to take proper care of yourself and continue to overwork yourself.
There are many scientifically proven methods to deeply nourish your body, mind and spirit and reduce stress. One of those methods is getting a lot of sleep and taking several breaks to relax. It has been shown in studies that working for longer periods without breaks causes attention decrement and diminishes the quality of work, creativity and productivity. Taking short breaks does wonders for attention and I have seen that taking a very short intentional “power break” is great for breaking the accumulation of stress.
Other scientifically proven methods to decrease stress include exercise, meditation, yoga, pilates and breathwork. Simple deep breathing from the belly instead of shallow chest breathing allows for states of deep relaxation. This is perhaps the reason that ancient practices such as yoga and tai chi place a huge emphasis on the correct form of breathing and breath work.
One of the reasons that people do not meditate or sit in silence or engage in other deep relaxation techniques is due to the lack of time that it may take to do them on a regular basis. However, I believe that sitting in silent meditation for as little as five minutes can reduce stress and create a new habit.
When you begin taking charge of your energy and begin activities that promote expansion such as exercise, walking or spending time in nature and similar activities, you may begin to notice that the constricting feeling of stress gradually diminishes.
A lot of stress is also residually held in our body and muscles. Deep muscle relaxation or gradual muscle relaxation by awareness and letting go is a great practice to become aware of stress pockets in different muscle groups and areas.
Develop a stress management technique toolbox that you use regularly to decrease the amount to stress in your life.
Take charge of your energy and make taking radical self care an integral part of your life.
4. Letting Go Of Judgment And Comparison And Replacing with Acceptance and Letting Go
“Take a step back. Draw in a deep breath. Now ask yourself, ‘So what?’ Then, after answering, ask yourself again, ‘So what?’ And then a third time—‘So what?’ Chances are you’ll come to realize that the issue at hand is not as dire, detrimental, or important as you first thought.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich
One of the most powerful solutions to stress induced by poor self-image is deeply feeling and firmly believing that you love and approve of yourself, regardless of your life situation.
Judging yourself unfavorably against others induces a great deal of stress in your life since you are always trying to measure up to an unreachable and invisible standard set by yourself or by others.
“I need to be a certain way,” or “my friends are doing better then me,” or other judgmental self-talk erodes into your self-confidence and causes a great amount of stress. Do you engage in automatic judgment and comparison in your mind that decreases the quality of your life?
There will always be someone faster, better, richer and seemingly more together than you and externalizing success is not a very productive way to manage and counter stress. Since it is nearly impossible to satisfy the judgmental and the comparing mind, it is best to recognize those plays and decouple from the cycle.
When you decide that enough is enough and decide that you are good enough and realize that true happiness comes from not externalizing or measuring success, you can breathe a sigh of relief.
Now, your mantra may be: “I am doing the best I can with the knowledge, wisdom and understanding that I have.” I learnt this deceptively simple but enormously powerful mantra of acceptance from the wonderful teacher, Louise L. Hay, the author of You can Heal your life.
Now allow the message of acceptance to permeate your consciousness when and if you are being excessively judgmental or critical of you or others. Judging and being excessively critical are great energy sappers and can be sources of huge stress for you. If you do not believe me, next time assess how you feel when you are enmeshed in the energy of judgment and criticism.
Acceptance does not mean stagnation or a lack of excellence. In reality acceptance frees you from taking the actions towards becoming highly successful and towards excellence. Let go of judgment and comparison and allow the cool breeze of acceptance to release the stress in your life.
Catch yourself when you are excessively judgmental or critical towards yourself or others.
Replace judgment and comparison with acceptance and letting go of the stress.
5. Expectations, Control and Setting Boundaries
Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day-to-day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life.-Marilu Henner
When you have expectations that are not realistic, the result is uncontrolled stress. If you cannot meet the expectation of your idealistic expectations and the expectations of others, you experience stress.
There is research indicating that having an attitude of great expectation makes people perform better when compared to the outcomes of people who have little or poor expectation. However, when things do not go as expected, as they often do, if the expectations spiral into negativity and into stress, you have a problem.
It is best to limit unrealistic expectations and set yourself and others a clear and reachable goal. If what is expected of you from yourself or from others is fuzzy, the lack of restrictions makes the satisfactory completion of those expectations almost impossible. The solution is to set clear expectations right from the start and not be too nice and concede on a fuzzy plan.
Dr. John Medina, author of the New York Times bestseller Brainrules says:
“The perfect storm of occupational stress appears to be a combination of two malignant facts: a) a great deal is expected of you and b) you have no control over whether you will perform well.”
There are things that are within your immediate realm of control and then there are things outside your realm of control. Become very aware of how control plays a role in your life and take action within your realm of control and practice letting go of stress induced by what is out of your control. It is best to remember that exercising too much control on the outcome is never productive and a sure way to more stress in your life.
Learning to say “no” and setting clear boundaries is one of the most effective ways of limiting the amount of stress that we might experience later on. There is a big difference between being amicable and “a people person” and “a people pleaser.”
If you are constantly attempting to please others and never say no even when the task is unrealistic or makes you cut too many corners, you are setting yourself up for stress.
Create clear boundaries and have reasonable expectations from you and from others.
When you take action within the realm of control and let go of what you cannot control, you decrease stress in your life.
Now over to you! Please let me know in the comments below about how you manage stress in your life?
Photo Credit: Rick via Flickr CC