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6 Tips for Managing Stress When You Have to Keep Going

Life can be overwhelming. These tips can help when cutting back isn't an option.

Key points

  • Life can be overwhelming these days. Small changes can help make it more manageable.
  • You probably know to breathe and be mindful. What else can help?
  • Changing your perspective can make a difference.
  • The light at the end of the tunnel may not seem so far away, after all.

“I’m so stressed,” said Liam*, a hardworking parent, spouse, and caretaking son for an elderly mother.

“I’m exhausted. I don’t know how I can keep up this pace,” said Maria*, also a hardworking parent and spouse whose grandmother had recently moved in with her and her family.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Adi*, who is single and dating and looking for a new job while trying to manage the demanding one he is currently working.

“I’m juggling too many balls at once,” said Jodi*, whose wife wanted to know when they were going to be able to take some time off together. “And don’t tell me I need to set boundaries or take care of myself. That just makes me feel worse, like I’m a bad person for not being able to do those things.”

Life these days tends to be overwhelming and exhausting for many of us.

Finish a stressful job assignment. Manage the complicated tasks of your intimate relationship, or cope with the stress of searching for and starting a relationship. Look for a new job. Deal with parents who are aging, difficult, needy, or unavailable. Make sure your kids are happy and thriving. Find a new school for said kids. Clean the house. Get yourself and all the people who depend on you to the doctor. Oh yes, and manage the emotions that go along with life, perhaps made even more difficult in this time when conflict over climate change, politics, identities, and war pervades every news story and many personal conversations.

So what can you do to get through—or just survive—these times in your life? You have probably already tried mindfulness and deep breathing. If not, I highly recommend both, which can help you to take a few minutes to calm both your body and your mind. But sometimes, that’s not enough.

So here are a few other ideas to help you make it through the tunnel that is your life right now without depleting yourself completely, without losing the joy of living.

  1. Consciously shift your thoughts. Adi kept going over and over everything he had to get done, everything he wasn’t doing right, and everything he didn’t want to do but had to do anyway. If you find that you’re doing the same thing, take a deep breath, and force yourself to think about one thing you are doing or will be doing that gives you some small pleasure. Changing the path your thoughts take isn’t easy and it won’t make everything better, but it will help ease your way as you do what you need to do.
  2. Pair unpleasant tasks with pleasant ones: In an article in the Harvard Business Review my PT colleague Alice Boyes, who is also the author of Stress-Free Productivity, suggests that you try to pair unpleasant tasks with pleasant ones. For example, my husband, who is in charge of laundry in our house, listens to his favorite news shows while he folds the stuff he takes out of the dryer. It doesn’t make him like the activity any better, but it makes it less unpleasant to get it done.
    123rf stock image #184888732 photog skawee
    Source: 123rf stock image #184888732 photog skawee
  3. Break big jobs into smaller, achievable tasks: I’m in the process of moving out of the office space I’ve worked from for many years. Although it makes total sense in this world where most of my work is remote, it is, at times, an overwhelming process, both emotionally and logistically. I’ve found that if I look for small tasks I can accomplish relatively easily—for instance, unpacking three boxes of books or taking one load of items to Goodwill—I feel a tiny sense of accomplishment that makes it easier to keep going.
  4. Stop to celebrate: In a similar vein to pairing unpleasant tasks with more pleasant ones, it’s important to reward yourself when you accomplish your small goals. After you do whatever is your equivalent to unpacking three boxes of books, give yourself a break. Do something that will give you a few minutes of pleasure. It might be taking a 15-minute walk outside, chatting with a friend, or taking ten minutes to just let your mind and body rest.
  5. Talk to someone else: Sometimes we get so caught up in our own perception of things that we can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel even when it’s there, in the distance, blinking at us. Talking to someone else about what’s going on, getting another perspective, or even hearing that they’re going through the same thing, can help make that light seem a little brighter, a little closer.
  6. Clarify your values: One of the tasks therapists assign clients in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is “values clarification,” and one of the exercises is to write your 80th birthday party speech. In the process of writing what you would like to hear, what you would like to be remembered for, you will also clarify your own values. For instance, do you want to be remembered for completing this project at work? Do you want to be remembered as a hard worker and good team member? Do you want to be remembered as a loving partner and engaged parent? As a fun-loving friend? When Maria did this exercise, she told me that she wanted her children to know that she loved them, and she wanted to know that she had done the best she could with whatever tools life had given her. The night after she had done this exercise, she asked her grandmother to sit with her and read to the children before bedtime. “The dishes were in the sink, the kitchen needed to be swept up, and I didn’t do any of that. But everyone went to bed much more easily than usual; and I got a chance to kiss everyone goodnight,” she said.
123rf stock image #184888732 photog skawee
Source: 123rf stock image #184888732 photog skawee

Like most of these ideas, clarifying your values does not make the work or the problems go away. But each of these suggestions can help you shift your focus in some way, and no matter how small it might seem, such a shift might help you get through a difficult, stressful time without forgetting some of the good things that are still happening in your life.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy



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