April is stress awareness month, and I think we’d all agree, we’re about as aware of our stress as we can be. But what can we do about it? As we round out the month, just in the nick of time, I invite you to pause and consider what may feel like a radical idea: we don’t have to be as stressed as we are. Yes, there are so many things we don’t have control over in our lives, and with the tragedies in Boston this month we are painfully reminded of this, yet there is still something very powerful that we can do: we can choose to respond differently to the small, daily stresses we encounter. When it comes to those, we are the deciders. How we respond is up to us.
When world events increase our sense of vulnerability, it’s a good time to consider that all the ways that we increase our daily stress by worrying, catastrophizing, or judging ourselves or others harshly are actually optional. They don’t need to be there. They don’t add to or enhance the outcome, they detract from it: taking up our time, compromising our health, eating up our patience. There will always be things that we can’t control, but what is up to is the suffering we create for ourselves by entertaining— often lavishly— our worry and negative thinking. So, take a minute and commit to eliminating the unnecessary self-imposed sources of stress in your life. Here are six ideas to get started.
Wait and See: Don’t Fill in the Blanks with Worry:
Much of our stress comes from a simple question which consists of two words: what if? Whatever comes after—what if people hate my presentation, what if my child is left out at recess? What if someone gets sick in my family? —we race ahead to try to anticipate how something will turn out—it’s never well, of course— just to borrow suffering and unhappiness that are fortunately and usually a no-show when the time comes. Well, here’s a new what if… what if instead of letting those questions run our lives, we decided that there is nothing to be gained from negative forecasting and instead, we do something different: we do our good planning and beyond that… wait and see. Not just how things work out, but that things work out. Most of the time, we can count on that, and when we can’t, well, worry wouldn’t have been a help anyway, so we’re still better off without it.
Think in Twos: Worry First, Then Voice of Reason:
For those of you who will find it hard to resist racing ahead and filling in the blanks, here’s a different idea. We know how to freak out on a dime about all the things that could go wrong in our lives, but if we ever did an exit-interview with ourselves we’d find one thing: the terrible thing didn’t happen. Even if it didn’t go fantastically, it probably didn’t go terribly either. Let’s not wait till the post-game recap to realize that, instead borrow that logic now. Think in twos. Whenever you have worry thoughts, match the worry with a different kind of thought: what you actually think will happen. If you’re going to anticipate… make sure that at least with your second thought, you anticipate wisely.
Ask Yourself the Million-Dollar Question:
Perhaps you are convinced that you will make a total fool of yourself, or already have, and why are you so convinced? Because you feel so worried that you did or you might have… well, that’s what your head keeps telling you anyway. Worry isn’t a good measure of actual risk in a situation. Worry impacts our feelings, but it can’t change the facts. Get out of the vicious cycle. Ask yourself the million-dollar question—if you could win a million dollars by guessing the right answer of whether these imagined catastrophes will come true—what’s the answer? Would you be able to be the big winner? Of course you would. Put this way, we would all be rich. Even though there’s probably no one handing out the cash, the good news is that this exercise will help you feel less stressed. You might not feel like a million bucks, but you will feel much better.
Watch Your Language in Your Head: Tone Down Your Self-talk:
This is the worst situation ever, I'm so overwhelmed, I have no idea what to do to make it better. That was so stupid! I am so incompetent! Nothing is working in my life.
What was the infraction that turned on that faucet of self-deprecation and doom? Maybe what you said wasn’t your most brilliant moment, maybe you did blank out. So what? You are in the best company—all of humanity has had many moments just like that. And life went on— often quite well— after that. Don’t personalize or exaggerate the meaning of these moments. When we are struggling, we talk to ourselves in absolutes, which only makes everything sound and feel worse: Call in a more realistic editor: Re-tell the story more accurately by substituting words which distinguish between feelings and facts, and that distinguish between a permanent situation and a temporary one. "I'm feeling overwhelmed, right now. I haven’t figured this out, yet. There are some things I can do to help myself. Some things are going well now, some other things are not." Which version of the story would you rather hear? Which one would pass a fact-checker’s desk?
When in Doubt, Cut Your Expectations in Half
There’s a little game that we play with ourselves—often behind our backs. It’s not a good game. We always lose. It’s called: bring it on. It goes like this: people ask you to do things, and you say yes to everything people ask, even though you know it is totally unrealistic to do so. And we don’t limit ourselves to today’s goals, we pile on things for next week or month and consider those in the current rotation and assume that we’ve got to get them all done (and p.s.: it had better be spectacular.) In this game of unrealistic expectations, we manufacture unnecessary disappointment that we then have to waste our precious energy consoling ourselves and overcoming contrived failure. What a waste. Solution? Don’t be comprehensive and ambitious in your to-do lists, instead: be generous with yourself, pad your expectations, allow yourself extra time. Notice how good it feels. What’s the worst thing that would happen? You’d end up with some extra time. Bring it on.
Call it What It Is: Perfectionism is a Disorder
The kids I see with perfectionism spend hours erasing, fixing and redoing their homework as if it were going to hang in a museum rather than end up in a recycling bin when the test is over. While we might not spend so much time on small things, that doesn’t mean we are at peace with that. Whether we do a good-enough job, or even an excellent job, the perfectionist in our head isn’t ready to give up the ghost. Hang on, it could have been even better, it’s not your best work. Remember: at any given moment we do our best work under the current circumstances, not our best work possible under ideal conditions. There’s a big difference. It’s called reality. Ask yourself a different question: What is the purpose of what you are doing? Is the additional time you are spending going to make an appreciable and important difference in the outcome, or are you just paying your perfectionism tax?
Some people worry that stress is what makes us great, what makes us perform best. If this describes you, give yourself a gift: see how much better you function and how much better you feel (and p.s., how much happier the people around you feel) with a reduced-stress approach to your life. Your life, only better. Some of this is actually up to you. Make good choices.
©2013 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.