Our lives are often bursting with things to worry about, but have you ever found yourself stressed about being stressed? If you haven’t, imagine being in the middle of a hectic routine, struggling with responsibilities that don’t seem to let up, able to see that with less stress you’d be a lot happier and more effective… How would you respond? This article will discuss our relationship to stress and a few simple ways to break stress management into bite-sized pieces. 

Symptoms of stress 

The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America 2020” report found that 52% of all adults reported feeling restless, while 53% also reported that they had felt so tired that they spent their leisure time sitting and doing nothing. This statistic points to the programs that get activated in us whenever we’re stressed. When we’re stressed, we often feel like we’re being pushed or pulled, and the inevitable symptoms of this are being either driven to exhaustion or kicked into overdrive.  

Stress is our body’s alarm system being triggered. Humans and wild animals both get stressed, but what is unique to us is our ability to think about our stressors. We develop an idea of what the world is, and this idea is often closely tied to our fight-or-flight response even if we don’t know it. Sometimes this can be a help, because we can think beyond the limits of our stress and can do what we need to do despite fear. However, this is also the root of all overthinking, and the situation can flip so that our preconception of a situation agrees with our fear and limits us. 

Experiential avoidance 

All too often, “do more to manage stress” can turn into one more item on the to-do list. We may start searching for steps to take, but with so much information out there we may feel unsure. Maybe we read about a promising lifestyle change, but we struggle to stick to it and get discouraged. As a last resort, maybe we double down on leisure activities that don’t really help our stress but do put it out of our minds.  

This last case is something called experiential avoidance. It’s when we do things to avoid a difficult experience without thinking beyond the moment, sometimes with a justification – for example, watching the news before bed won’t help you sleep, but you can tell yourself that it’s keeping you informed. Experiential avoidance does relieve some stress for a while, which is why it’s so easy to reach for it, but it often comes with trade-offs when the relief ends. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Jill Stoddard offers three simple questions for considering how you handle stress: 

  • What do you do or avoid doing when you feel stressed?
  • What stress or discomfort does this relieve?
  • What are the costs of doing this? 

Answering these questions can help to put our stress responses in perspective. Through this lens, actions like smoking or “stress eating” are clearly harmful and don’t stop the base level of stress running through us and motivating this avoidance. This framework can also help you to see what things you’re doing that actually are helping you. Acts like throwing stress into a creative outlet or venting to a friend can sometimes still be experiential avoidance, but they can also move you toward greater self-awareness and willingness to practice self-care. Finally, here are a few small steps for stress management that don’t cost anything and can give you great relief.  

Four steps to shift your paradigm on stress 

1. Begin with incremental changes

All that this takes is a small mental adjustment: after assessing your situation, choose to do your best to focus on steps that are manageable and realistic to your situation. If you’ve struggled with your mindset, start by setting reminders to spend a few minutes watching or listening to something encouraging. If you’ve had difficulty maintaining health habits such as staying hydrated, get a single water bottle for your daily intake and use that to keep track of your goal. The secret to making a lifestyle shift that works is a change in perspective, because when you change your point of view those small changes may actually be massive. 

2. Accept that you will feel stressed sometimes

Acceptance is a key part of building resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from stress. When we can’t accept a stressful situation, we tend to fight against our being in the situation. We have thoughts like, “I feel awful, it shouldn’t be like this, when will this end”. While understandable, this reaction takes away energy that we could be using to respond to the situation. Notice those resistant thoughts and be compassionate to yourself – acknowledge the feeling underneath them and choose to still do your best and meet the situation head-on. 

3. Reconnect with your breathing in the moment

“Take a deep breath” is a go-to suggestion to someone acting stressed for a good reason! Our breath can act like a bridge connecting our thoughts, our emotions, and our bodies. When we’re worried, we often tend to engage in shallow or irregular breathing. Likewise, when we’re calm and grounded we also have a naturally deep and regular breath cycle, so consciously breathing in that way will bring us back to relaxation.  

Checking in with your breath can take your mind off stressful thoughts and put more of your attention on the incremental changes you’re making to better manage your stress. Some types of breath practices, like diaphragmatic breath (belly breathing), require no special technique and can be used for relief in the midst of stressful situations. 

4. Say no to additional stressors when you can

It may take a little confidence and assertiveness, but learning to say no when possible can be a great tool for managing what stress you allow into your life. Sometimes we take on extra stress because we feel pressured to by our role in a relationship. Maybe an employer offers heavy overtime, or a senior member of a social club assumes without asking that you will be volunteering to cook or set up for a gathering.  

Your work contract may not require overtime, but maybe there is an unspoken and unofficial “rule” about overtime at your workplace. Maybe that club member assumes that their seniority means that they have authority and that you as a junior member ought to “pay your dues”. There are trade-offs in either choice – saying yes can get you some overtime pay and favor within a social circle – but the bottom line is that you are responsible to yourself before those voluntary commitments you have made.  

In conclusion, good stress management is all about having perspective on what you’re thinking and feeling. It’s not about mapping out every single day, but rather it’s about starting small and making progress with each individual choice. As the choices add up each day, you’ll find that you have more to be proud of and more momentum toward the life you want to be living. If you’ve struggled with stress management in the past, a care provider can help you to gain that perspective and encouragement you may have lacked. Schedule an appointment with EPIC Health today!