All of us experience stress at times, but some of us seem to find almost every day to be a stressful experience. You might experience stress in your relationship with your partner, at work, or simply commuting to and from your job. Or you might feel stressed thinking about finances, your health, or coping with your children. It’s all around us.
Let’s start with some simple ideas. A stressor is something that causes strain or tension and stress is the resulting strain or tension that you experience. This is a distinction made by Richard Lazarus, whose stress appraisal theory was a seminal influence on the study of stress. Lazarus proposed that our resulting experience of stress is directly related to our belief about our skills in coping with the stressor. For example, if I have to write a five-page paper and I think that I won’t have enough time and I lack the skills, I will likely experience some stress. The stressor is the requirement to write the paper and the stress is my resulting frustration and anxiety. But if I actually have the skills and I believe I can do it, then I'll have less stress.
There are many ways that we can think about coping with stress or demands on us. No one can provide an exhaustive list. But in this post, I'll describe seven things that can affect how much stress you experience and how you can cope more effectively with the demands that you face.
1. Describe Specifics, Not Generalities
People who are prone to depression often have what is called “overgeneralized memory” (Sumner et al., 2010). This is the tendency to remember, or think about, things in vague and general terms rather than specific descriptions. For example, rather than think “I have a lot of work to do” you might try to be more specific—“I have to write five pages.”
The advantage of being more specific is that it seems doable—writing five pages is something that you can imagine doing. But doing “a lot of work” is amorphous, vague, and even ominous if you are anxious. Try to specify precisely what the task is that you are working on. Avoid generalities.
2. Break It Down into Small Parts
As many of you may know I have written a lot of books. But it may surprise you that I am not a workaholic, I never write at night, and I almost always get eight hours of sleep. What I do to cope with the “demands” of writing is I assign myself small steps. For example, rather than sit down and “write a book,” I will sit down and write for one or two hours two or three times each week.
Your doctor may tell you that you need to drink eight glasses of water each day. But let’s imagine you were thinking of drinking all the glasses that you would need to drink over the next 50 years. That’s 146,000 glasses—right in front of you. Start drinking. It’s overwhelming. OK, try this. Drink this one glass of water in the next hour. If you can break down your tasks to simple steps, one at a time, you will find that you will stress less.
3. Do One Thing at a Time
I have noticed that a lot of my depressed, anxious, and stressed patients will start describing one thing that stresses them and when we put that in perspective they jump to another and another. You can imagine how stressful life is when you are jumping from one demand to another demand, chasing around every thought that pops into your head.
I suggest staying on one thing at a time. Focus on this task for now and when you have completed it you can then go on to the next task. People with Attention Deficit Disorder often experience this cascade of demanding tasks, one after another. Take one at a time. That will help reduce your stress.
4. Give Up Maximization to Experience Satisfaction
Individuals who expect close to 100 percent levels in performance are far more likely to experience stress than those with more realistic expectations of performance. People holding perfectionistic beliefs may also endorse a motivational theory that “the highest standards are necessary to preserve motivation.” For example, one patient commented, “If I accept less than perfection I will lose my edge, I won’t be motivated, I just want be able to do as well as I can. If I let my standards relax I am afraid that I will become lazy and mediocre.”
Research comparing “maximizers” and “satisfiers” indicates that maximizers who uniformly seek the best possible outcome are more dissatisfied, more indecisive and have more regrets (Schwartz et al., 2002). The research on perfectionism also supports this observation. You can reduce your stress if you consider changing your expectations to a “satisfaction” level that is less than perfect. As Salvador Dali once said, “Don’t worry about perfection because you will never see it.”
5. Fixed vs. Growth Beliefs
One source of stress at work or study is the belief that one’s abilities are stable and cannot improve or change. Carol Dweck has described differences in “Mindsets” that individuals utilize in approaching challenging tasks. Drawing on decades of research on cognitive factors that underlie helplessness vs. persistence or resilience, Dweck describes a mindset that some individuals have that abilities are fixed versus the belief or mindset that abilities can grow.
If you believe that your abilities are frozen then you will believe that trying harder, persisting, and giving yourself time to learn more won’t work. If you believe that abilities can grow, then you will give yourself time to learn new skills and solve problems. Some of my patients who experience stress often think if they don’t “get it” immediately” then they will never get it. They give up and feel defeated.
6. How Do You Explain Your Performance?
How would you explain not doing well on this task? Would it be due to lack of effort, ability, bad luck, or that the task was just too hard for almost anyone? If you explain your failure on a task as due to lack of ability, then you will feel helpless and hopeless. If you explain your failure as due to the task difficulty (“No one does well on this”) then you won’t feel badly about yourself, although you might give up on the task.
If you explain the failure as due to lack of effort, you might try harder and eventually get it. How do you explain your failure on something? You can also ask yourself, “Is there something that I learned from this experience that can help me cope better in the future?”
7. Put Things in Perspective
Stress is always greater when you give enormous significance to how you do on a task. For example, one young man thought that if he couldn’t get this project done at a level that his boss would like then he was a failure and that he would then lose his job and then feel disgraced among his family and friends. This is like thinking you are walking a tight-rope 10 stories high.
But as we looked at the work task, it was one that a lot of people had difficulty with. And he also realized that in his group at this company very few people lasted more than three years. Many moved on to more rewarding, less stressful jobs. He could also recognize that there were a lot of things in his life that he enjoyed independently of this job. As his stress lessened, he was able to concentrate better on his job. And when he turned it in his boss did raise some criticisms (as she was likely to do with anyone) but that this simply came with the territory. Everyone got criticized at some point. So, don’t take it personally. I discuss this and many other techniques in my book, The Worry Cure.
One way of thinking about any stressor is to ask yourself what you will still be able to do even if this doesn’t work out. For example, the man described above could still see his family and friends, still work on other projects, still go to sports events that he enjoyed, still travel, still consider other possible jobs. In fact, the list became exhaustingly long. You can also ask yourself how you will think about this a week, a month, or a year from now. I am willing to bet that a lot of things that you found stressful in the past are things you almost never think about now. The stress fades. There is life after this task.
Stress has a lot to do with how you think about it. Take a deep breath, use your mindfulness techniques, stand back, and observe how you are thinking about things. Keep in mind: There is always another way of thinking about things.
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Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178-1197. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1688
Sumner, J. A., Griffith, J. W., & Mineka, S. (2010). Overgeneral autobiographical memory as a predictor of the course of depression: a meta-analysis. Behav Res Ther, 48(7), 614-625. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.03.013