- Cognitive techniques allow us to see through the stressful stories our minds tells us.
- Careful scheduling prevents us from adding excess stress to our lives and preserves room for fun and relaxation.
- Mind-body practices connect us with the present and soothe the nervous system.
- Mindful acceptance releases the stress that comes from resisting our experience.
A few years ago, I was so stressed out I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alive. Up to that point, I had paid lip service to stress management, implicitly seeing it as something I didn’t have time for. When I finally realized the toll that stress was taking on me, I knew I needed to get serious about taming it.
Many of us are feeling overwhelmed by stress these days, whether related to the pandemic, our finances, war and suffering around the world, or the day-to-day demands of being alive. Whatever the source, I lean heavily on three research-based ways to manage stress. They come from mindful cognitive behavioral therapy (MCBT), and I summarize the three components as “Think Act Be.”
Think, the cognitive part of MCBT, helps us challenge the thoughts that drive stress. With the Act component, the “behavioral” in MCBT, we lower stress by doing (or not doing) certain activities. And through Be, the mindfulness part of mindful CBT, we practice being in the moment and letting go of resistance to our circumstances.
Here are seven techniques that I often share with my patients to help with managing stress, and that I rely on myself (adapted from The CBT Flip Chart).
1. Think: Examine Thoughts
Notice when your thoughts are triggering a stress reaction. Common stress-related thoughts include:
- I have to finish this.
- I should be doing more.
- This is taking too long.
- I’m going to fail.
- I don’t have time to rest.
Often these kinds of thoughts are just stories our minds are telling, and they’re not completely true. Begin to question these assumptions. Do you “have to” finish a project today, or is it an arbitrary self-imposed deadline? Perhaps the thing you’re working on takes exactly as much time as it needs to. See how it feels to let go of stress-inducing thought patterns.
2. Act: Enjoy Yourself
Plan to do things that bring you pleasure every day. Schedule them into your calendar, and protect the time as you would a work commitment. The work of self-care is as important as anything else you’ll do today.
3. Act: Move Your Body
Consistent physical exercise is one of the most reliable ways to manage stress. Find movement that you enjoy—maybe running is your thing, or maybe you’re more of a dancer. The best form of exercise is the one that we’ll do consistently.
4. Act: Find Rest
The most important things you do today might be the things you don’t do. Plan short breaks into your schedule, ranging from full-length vacations to mini-breaks throughout the workday. Also look for opportunities to say no to activities that aren’t necessary and that drain you mentally, physically, or emotionally. Reduce the stress of committing to things you hate doing.
5. Be: Present Focus
Much of our stress comes from having our attention somewhere other than right here and now—worrying about the future, dwelling on the past. When we’re not in the present, there is no limit to the stressful things our minds can throw at us. Simply bringing your awareness to this moment can be a powerful stress antidote, because whatever is happening right now is something you can manage.
6. Be: Mindful Acceptance
Stress also comes from silently insisting in some way that what is happening shouldn’t be. That internal resistance creates an extra layer of tension on top of whatever actual problems we need to solve. Practice opening to all of your experience, instead of resisting it. For example, greet unexpected problems as opportunities to problem solve, rather than as disasters that never should have happened. That doesn’t mean we need to rejoice in the things that go wrong, but we can receive what is happening as a part of life. (Yes, I know this isn’t easy.)
7. Be: Mind-Body Exercises
Joining our minds and our bodies tends to automatically relieve our stress. There’s something about grounding our awareness in the body that dissolves tension and helps us to let go of things we can’t control. Examples of mind-body exercises include yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, slow breathing, and tai chi.
NIP stress in the bud by Noticing, Intending, and Planning:
- Begin by Noticing when you need to manage stress; it’s easier to relieve stress before it reaches crushingly high levels.
- Next, set an Intention to find rest, giving yourself permission to take your foot off the accelerator and pump the brakes. You might remind yourself, for example, that “I’m allowed to look after myself,” or “I don’t need anyone’s permission to take a break.”
- And finally, make a specific Plan to follow, drawing from the Think Act Be practices above.
Stress management practices are most effective when we use them consistently. Stress is built into your life, so stress management needs to be similarly predictable. Look for ways to build these techniques into your daily schedule. We’ll never eliminate stress—nor should we aim to—but we can enjoy lives that are calmer and more centered.
Gillihan, S. J. The CBT Flip Chart (2021). Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.