You’re at your desk, about to log off for your lunch break, when you hear the ding of an incoming text. You read the message from your partner saying, “Meeting got moved. Can’t get kids from school today.” By the time you glance back up at your screen, an email has come in from your boss, asking about the progress of a lagging project. As you craft your reply, your phone beeps again, and you eagerly check for the life-saving words of your best friend saying she can pick up your kids, but instead, you’re greeted by a news alert about some unspeakable thing happening in what seems to be an increasingly insane world.
Fill in the blanks of your own latest text, email, and news alert, and most of you can probably relate to this scenario. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) recently reported that the constant checking of devices is contributing to high levels of stress for the majority of Americans. This year, results from an APA survey also showed a “statistically significant increase” in stress for the first time since the survey was first conducted in 2007. Stress is on the rise for myriad reasons that are worth examining. But here, I want to explore how to best handle the new waves of stress that have entered our lives. No matter what it is that’s making each of us anxious, we can all arm ourselves with the tools to help us stay calm, centered, and feeling strong in the face of challenges. Here are some techniques we can adopt to better handle moments of stress.
1. Get a hold of your inner critic: One thing we should realize about stress is that so much of what we worry about is based not just on what’s happening in our lives but the messages we tell ourselves about what’s happening. Facing a deadline is stressful, but it’s those nagging thoughts telling us, “You’re never going to finish” or “This is all gonna blow up in your face” that really get us worked up. Getting our kid to finish their homework is tiring, but it’s made all the worse by attacks like “You’re a terrible parent” or “You can’t even get your own kid to listen to you. What a failure!” Take the time to ask yourself, "what are the thoughts around my stress that perpetuate it?"
There are a lot of things in our lives that don’t go our way or that we can’t control, but what makes matters much worse is a “critical inner voice” we all possess that punishes us unnecessarily and escalates our stress. “How can you sleep? You have so much to do.” “What makes you think you can just relax?” “This is just too much. You can’t handle it.” This voice is a friend to our stress, paving a tunnel for it to pour in and consume our state of mind. Identifying our “inner critic” by noticing when it starts yammering away will help us peel away its negative messaging from whatever our actual circumstances may be.
2. Practice pressing the pause button: The saying, “whatever you practice gets stronger” is a useful one to remember when it comes to stress. If you practice stress, it will become the norm. If you practice calming yourself, it can also become the norm. When you feel your emotions start to spiral out or overpower you, remind yourself to take just one moment to pause and tune in to yourself. Take a few deep breaths, and slow down your thoughts. You might even put one hand on your belly and another on your heart, while you breathe in and out. This will help you feel more centered.
3. Embrace mindfulness (without judgment): William James said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” Mindfulness is a practice of, not necessarily choosing our thoughts, but choosing how we react to our thoughts and not letting them take over. Mindfulness meditation, for example, teaches us to focus on our breath and tune in with our bodies. As we do this, we can notice individual thoughts as if they are train cars passing on a track. We can acknowledge each one without choosing to board the train and disappear into a land of worry.
Mindfulness teaches us to remain in the moment. The philosopher Lao Tzu said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” So much of our stress has to do with feeling bad about the past or worrying about the future, but what many of us find is that in the present moment, we are often okay.
4. Give yourself permission to stop worrying: A lot of our stress is about what we can’t control, yet we all indulge in some degree of magical thinking that tells us that somehow worrying or considering every potential negative outcome will solve the problem or at least protect us. Rather than repeatedly setting off warnings in our heads that tell us to panic, why not give ourselves permission to stay in the moment and deal with what is rather than what might be? We could give ourselves permission to let go of the bad thoughts and feelings as much as possible. We can do this each time we're faced with a challenge. It’s possible to confront the reality of a situation without adding the extra weight of torturing ourselves about the possible scenarios of this reality or its potential consequences.
5. Be around people who make you feel good: In a recent article in The Atlantic addressing post-election stress, Jack Saul, the director of the International Trauma Studies Program, said, “Strengthening connections with families, communities, and organizations is the most important preventive approach.” Studies show that friendship itself is a natural and effective antidote to stress. It’s important to surround ourselves with the right kind of friend, one who keeps us on the right side of ourselves.This means a friend who doesn’t perpetuate our stress by encouraging us to ruminate or wallow in our worries or who doesn’t add to it by joining in and stressing along with us. Find positive people, who have an easier time staying calm or who are more resilient and less hyper-reactive to problems.
6. Try out a different perspective: On a survival level, our brains are wired to notice danger and focus on potential problems in an attempt to protect us. Unfortunately, this can make it much too easy to become overwhelmed by things we can’t control. Dr. Salvatore Maddi, who’s studied “hardiness” or emotional resilience for more than 30 years, has found that people with more hardiness see challenges as part of the human condition and regard them as opportunities to change and gain strength. Imagine that moment when life hands us something we could so easily stress about. If we feel overpowered by our circumstances, we may give up, get upset, or engage in a lot of thoughts and behaviors that amplify our stress. If we take a moment to pause to see this instead as a challenge, a natural bump in the road of life, we can change the way we feel inside when facing the very same external circumstances.
7. Make self-compassion a permanent goal: Dr. Kristin Neff is a lead researcher on self-compassion. She has discovered incredible benefits to practicing self-compassion, as it helps people avoid self-evaluation, while allowing them to be kind to themselves. Self-compassion is sometimes mistaken for feeling sorry for oneself, but it is actually the opposite. It allows us to feel for ourselves and our circumstances and accept our suffering as part of the human condition. It allows us to see our flaws or limitations without hating ourselves, and therefore, we can take steps to make changes. Self-compassion can be a powerful tool when we feel stressed, because it reminds us to be kind and sensitive to ourselves and treat ourselves the way we would a friend facing these same circumstances.
8. Develop strategies to calm yourself down: There are many good exercises for reducing our immediate feelings of stress. Breathing exercises such as taking a few long, slow breaths or simply paying attention to our breath, even yawning or inflating a balloon, can help us lower our heart rate and calm down. In terms of our thinking, there are practices to help us better process what’s occurring. When something painful or distressing happens, for example, psychologists Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach recommend the RAIN Approach, which involves Recognizing the trauma or loss, Acknowledging/ Accepting/ Allowing that this trauma occurred and may not be resolved, Investigating the experience as it relates to your past and present life, and Non-identification with the experience, which means we don’t over-identify with what happened or allow it to define us.
Learn more tools and techniques for coping with anxiety.
9. Notice the triggers that set you off: We all have real stressors in our lives (bills to pay, work to do, schedules to manage), but why are we able to handle some things with calm and competence, while others seem to push us over the edge? We all have specific buttons that set off our stress more than others. The more we learn what triggers our strongest emotions, like fear and frustration, the more we can understand ourselves and control our reactions to these triggers. For example, does a tone of condescension set off critical inner voices of being incapable? Is the nightly news making you feel like hiding under a desk? Does a certain way your child cries leave you feeling unbelievably overwhelmed?
When we identify these triggers, we can go deeper into exploring why these particular things stir us up so much. Maybe they remind us of feeling helpless as a child or having a parent who flew off the handle. Maybe they trigger real or existential fears about ourselves and our family. Knowing our triggers can help us face more core emotions that are pumping life into our stress, and they can also teach us what may not be best for us in our daily lives. We should ask ourselves, “Can I avoid, limit, or better handle certain things that make me feel stressed?” Can I put away my phone after 9PM? Can I turn off the news when my heart starts to race? Can I take a couple smaller projects off my calendar? Can my partner handle this tantrum when I’m not feeling myself? This approach isn’t about eliminating or avoiding real responsibilities or circumstances, but about actively seeking better strategies to deal with them.
These actions can also be a direct response to whatever is causing our stress. For example, if we feel frustrated by the state of the world, we can set up time to volunteer or donate to a cause that matters to us. If work is chaotic, we can seek out strategies to keep calm. One friend of mine found it helpful to just check in with herself every hour to ask, “how are you hanging in there?” and taking a few moments to breathe. If we’re overwhelmed at home, we can engage in a healthy conversation with family or friends about how we can all help one another. My sisters often pick up each other’s kids once or twice a week to allow the other to have an extra hour at the end of the day. Another friend makes a game out of late-night grocery shopping with his whole family when he or his wife has trouble making time to get to the market. Whatever it is that helps, give that action the time and importance it deserves. Anything we can do to help squeeze more joy, peace, and meaning out of our day is a worthy pursuit that everyone deserves.