Dealing with Stress

The dictionary defines stress as:

A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

Where does stress come from? It comes from demanding situations at home or work, and it can also come from results and relationships.

We get stressed in many ways, such as difficult situations where our natural tendency is fight-or-flight (the instinctive physiological response to a threatening situation), which readies one either to resist forcibly or to run away. We respond to stress by escaping to food/drink, distancing ourself from work, etc.

We experience stress when we imagine failure in advance so much so that we get paralyzed and don’t even get started. When we are stressed as a result of others, we may keep things inside us and suppress our emotions, which unless dealt with quickly, might come out later in uglier and unexpected ways.

We get stressed when we are thinking about something (our work, let’s say) and not doing anything about it (for whatever reason). For instance, while I was away on a business trip, my mind was preoccupied with writing (and publishing) a draft for this week. And because of travel and health issues in the recent past, I had exhausted my writing buffer.

A lot of times we get stressed because we have things on our mind, but we aren’t necessarily stressed because we haven’t done these things, but because we haven’t decided what to do about them. We don’t always have to do things to take them off our mind (more on this below).

Then there are times we might be stressed because we are facing imminent (work) deadlines and we have less time to do the work. Other times, we might be putting off having a difficult conversation with a loved one or a coworker. It’s possible that we keep violating each other’s expectations because we haven’t clarified them with others as is often the case in close relationships.

Countless studies and polls have shown that most of us are disengaged at work because we are burned out. Our stress levels continue to increase at work with no signs of slowing down. This becomes even more critical as our lives get more frenetic. When we are stressed, we undermine our potential to perform at our best; we are less likely to be productive, creative, and happy unless, of course, we decide to do something about it.

Here are some ideas for dealing with stress:

  • A lot of times we get stressed when we react to things by saying/doing things that we inevitably regret later. We get hurt more from our actions than the difficulty of our situations. We need to learn to be calm in those stressful situations, pause before our responses, and remind ourselves to be proactive.

  • One way to deal with stress is by managing our expectations with ourselves and with others. With ourselves, we need to keep our commitments so we don’t diminish our self-trust. With others, we might choose to do this (at work) by defining our dealbreakers, for instance.

  • When things get challenging, take a step back to reflect and gain perspective. Take a break, go out for a walk, spend some time in solitude, and try to see the forest from the trees. Always remind yourself how far you’ve come and be grateful for what you have.

  • Practice mindfulness through daily meditation. Start with 1 minute, and slowly work your way up to 21 minutes. Do this in the morning before you start work. This will improve your attention span and will calm and relax your mind and body. When you combine this with writing morning pages, you have the ingredients of a beautiful warmup that lets you capture what has your attention so that you can let go and be present. It also ensures that you arrive at work in the best possible state.

  • You may also choose to practice meditation for 90 minutes on a weekend. If you want to take it up a notch, sign up for a 10-day meditation camp. Though I haven’t done this personally, I have some friends who are big proponents of it, and they always come out calmer, lighter, and more relaxed than when they went in.

  • Plan for outcomes in stressful situations. For instance, when you find yourself on the road with a flat tire, that is not the time to think about what to do. That thinking should have already happened in advance so that when you come across such a situation you know exactly what you need to do. In this case, you might have decided earlier to call for roadside assistance, let’s say. Learn more about separating the thinking from the doing of things.

  • Use checklists for when you anticipate things might go wrong. For instance, you might use a travel checklist to ensure that you haven’t forgotten anything important before you leave for a trip.

  • We get stressed when there are inputs coming at us faster than we know what to do with them. We deal with them by keeping it in our heads. The thing is that our mind is for having ideas, not for holding them, which is why we need a trusted system to manage any potentially meaningful inputs.

  • We need to make sure that we eat, move, and sleep consistently as those are the first things to get ignored when life gets tough. Spend at least an hour every day on exercise of some kind. This should be non-negotiable. Even better, do it at the same time every day to avoid making that decision. Learn to do these things consistently.

  • No matter what you do, there has to be downtime scheduled at the end of every day. I discussed this in my piece on planning your week. Setting aside some time toward the end of the day ensures that you always have time for recreation no matter how busy you might get, as work and play often go hand in hand. This way you’re not living to enjoy some day.

  • We often get stressed because we have taken on more work than we can handle. We oftentimes do this because it’s hard for us to say no to others, but we forget that by not saying no (especially when our hands are full), we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to others. If you really want to help others, you have to help yourself first.

Although, it’s beyond the scope of any single piece to discuss this topic at length, I hope this gives you a few ideas for dealing with stress, which, for better or worse, is an inseparable part of our lives. Stress always comes from our work or relationships, and we can always learn to prevent it and to deal with it proactively rather than choose to become its victim.

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