The deadline is tomorrow. Your stomach is tight and cramping. Your throat is dry. That anxious feeling comes from stress.
Stress arises when we experience a sense of pressure. It arises also in situations in which bad things seem to be possible ahead or where external circumstances impinging on your well-being trigger feelings of emotional or physical vulnerability.
When we feel stressed, we feel anxious that we will not be able to accomplish what is needed to alleviate that pressure or to accomplish what feels necessary. What therefore is the single best strategy for reducing stress?
You may be surprised. It’s not a strategy that most therapists, blogposts or books about stress reduction even mention.
What stress reduction methods do therapists usually suggest?
I’ll start by reviewing key suggestions from an excellent, recently published book on managing stress.
Authored by Melanie Greenberg, PhD, The Stress-Proof Brain offers understandings and suggestions for coping with stress. While my #1 stress-reduction technique is not included, all of Dr. Greenberg’s stress-reducers are ones that I also teach to clients in my psychotherapy practice, so I agree with her that they can be helpful.
What is your current stress level?
Dr. Greenberg begins her book, appropriately, in a manner that strong therapists would begin. She starts by offering readers a simple quiz to assess their stress levels. I like her set of 10 factors that indicate stress. These include, for instance, worrying that blocks you from relaxing into a solid night of sleep, experiencing a racing heart or stomach butterflies, and a feeling that you can’t handle all that’s on your plate.
Clarification of your initial stress level is a good idea. Measuring your stress again after you have implemented stress-reduction procedures can clarify how much progress you have made.
Close your eyes and pick the number from 0 to 10 that sounds accurate for your stress level right now. My hunch is that if you, right now, close your eyes and ask yourself on a scale from 0 to 10 to assess your level of stress, you will come up with a useful stress-level number.
Many life situations can trigger stress for people. The most common stress-inducers I see in my clients—and myself—include:
In chapter three Dr. Greenberg writes, “If I had to pick just one tool for dealing with stress, I’d pick mindfulness.” (Page 57)
In this regard, Dr. Greenberg represents well much of the current psychological thinking about what to do to feel calmer when stress seems to be overwhelming you. She gives particularly clear instructions on how to utilize mindfulness.
My #1 technique for dissipating stress is to solve the problem that is producing the stress. Unlike most stress-reduction methods, solving the problem removes stress at its roots.
Problem-solving usually has three steps.
1. Face it.
Problem-solving begins with turning around to squarely face the problem that is causing the stress. Stress, like anxiety, generally indicates that you are aware of a problem but not focused yet resolving it. Facing the problem squarely launches thinking about what to do about it.
For example, you might face the problem of stress by saying, "I'm stressed because I have too much to do and not enough time to do it."
2. Clarify your specific concerns.
To accomplish this step, complete the following sentence:
“My main concern(s) regarding this problem is(are) _________________________.”
For example, if you feel stressed from too much to do, you might say to yourself,
"My main concern is that I have to finish doing my taxes. I also have to finish painting the kitchen before my relatives come to visit next month. And I need to clear out the extra bedroom so they will have a place to sleep."
3. Create a plan of action.
Now you are ready to create a solution, a plan of action with pieces of the plan responsive to all of the specific concerns that you have identified.
I think that I will get out a calendar and assign a specific day and time for doing my taxes. I'll also assign a specific day and time for each of the other items on my To Do list, treating each To Do like an appointment.
Knowing when I will get each project done keeps them from feeling like too much pressure all at once. Phew. Now I feel lighter, like "I can do this!"
Yes, that’s it. The #1 strategy for reducing stress is problem-solving, that is, finding a plan of action to address and resolve the problems that are causing your stressed feelings.
Let's review the three steps of problem-solving. The first step is to identify the situation that is triggering your stress. You may then have to do some seriously insightful thinking to clarify your underlying concerns. Lastly, it make take some major creative thinking to come up with a plan of action that will satisfy your concerns.
Here's another example. If your stress comes from having a boss who continually criticizes your mistakes and ignores your positive contributions, your concern might be how to keep the boss’s criticisms of you from spoiling your day. What might you do then to feel better? Change departments? Change jobs? Start looking at the boss in a new way that entails you feeling bigger and the boss to shrink in size? Choose to feel fortunate that you have a boss who gives you so much feedback with regard to how to get better at what you do? Find an ally that enables you to regard the boss in a humorous way?
For further help with problem-solving, the #1 strategy for reducing feelings of stress, you might want to check out my book Prescriptions Without Pills. In addition, my free website called prescriptionswithoutpills.com offers worksheets and videos designed to help you reduce the sources of stress in your life that challenge your emotional well-being.
The bottom line: stress is not for tolerating. Stress is a warning signal. It's a blinking yellow light that says, Pay attention. Do something different. Take care of yourself!
Susan Heitler, PhD, author of Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, is a Denver clinical psychologist. A Harvard graduate with a doctorate from NYU, Dr. Heitler has written 5 books plus blogposts on this website that have received over 11 million clicks.