There are essentially two ways to handle stress, and nearly everyone leans toward one way or the other.
#1 - The first way offers a short-term respite. It doesn’t require much thought. In fact, it’s often done as a reflex — an instant reaction against uncomfortable feelings and emotions.
Examples of this way of handling stress include:
- Using drugs
- Over-consuming food or alcohol
- Spending money frivolously
- Engaging in other mind-altering (often risky) behaviors
#2 - The other way of handling stress offers longer-term results, but in the short-term, this way can be more of a challenge to engage in. It also requires more thought. That’s because, quite frankly, this way of doing things is not as fun as the other way of handling stress! Instead, these activities are more about getting quiet, slowing down, and soothing yourself in healthy ways.
Examples of this way of handling stress include:
- Practicing yoga or doing some stretches at your desk
- Going for a run or hitting a punching bag
- Taking a bubble bath
- Cleaning out your desk
So … how do you handle stress?
If your answer is the first way, you’re not alone. In fact, many people handle stress this way. That’s because it stinks to be stressed! Anyone would agree that it’s a negative emotion that we all want to get rid of as soon as possible. Stress makes us sad, frustrated, and even angry. As a result, it’s no surprise that stressed out people want to feel good … as soon as possible.
This leads to the first way of handling stress — those instant reactions that you usually regret right after you do them: Cracking one too many beers, calling an ex, vegging out in front of the television, consuming too much junk food, avoiding your responsibilities, ignoring your plans to exercise, etc.
The good news is, if you can see yourself choosing this path, that’s the first step to getting off of it and onto a smarter one.
The Wise Way to Handle Stress
We already know the smart and wise way to handle stress. It’s about getting quiet, slowing down, and soothing yourself in healthy ways.
But it all starts with realizing when you’re starting to get overly stressed.
Think about it. How do you know when you’re stressed?
Do you know when you’re already three or four scotches in?
Do you know when you get into a huge fight with your significant other?
Or is it when you find yourself breaking down in a fit of tears when something relatively minor goes wrong?
Ideally, you want to spot the initial signs of stress far before getting to these points. This starts with learning how to be keenly aware of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If you’re not used to self-monitoring, this can be a new skill for you, but it will benefit you for the rest of your life.
To learn how to self-monitor, an excellent place to start is with mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness practice stems from ancient Buddhist practices. At its core, mindfulness is about staying in the present moment and monitoring and observing all you can from both your internal and external worlds.
You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere. The goal is to stay present, and the best way to do that is to focus on your breath. That’s because your breath is ever-present and always happening.
Inevitably, however, your mind will wander. It will wander to good things and bad things, worries, happy thoughts, intense emotions, daydreams, and everything in between.
Observe these thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Try not to judge them.
Instead, accept them for what they are, and do not shove them away. As soon as you can, simply shift your mind’s focus back to your breath.
In this way, you will learn to see exactly when your thoughts, feelings, and emotions begin to drift to a “stressed out” state. For example, if you are practicing mindfulness at work, and you observe your mind wander to the past and a terrible fight you had with your spouse last weekend, you will see that this is a thought and set of feelings that are latently bothering you. That’s a good place to start to rectify the situation.
If numerous other stressful thoughts and emotions filter through your mindfulness practice in a frequent manner, these are signs that you’re getting overly stressed.
When you realize you’re getting overly stressed, it’s time to take a beat before immediately acting.
This step is crucial, and it can be done even if you miss the initial cues that you’re getting extra stressed.
The core goal here is stopping before you mechanically act on your stress. Because remember: It’s those automatic reactions (reaching for the sweets or alcohol, telling yourself you should skip exercise for the day …) that get you into trouble when handling stress.
How can you “stop” when you know you’re stressed?
The best way is to find a quiet place to go for at least three or four minutes. This might mean excusing yourself to the restroom if you’re at work at school. It could mean heading to the bedroom and shutting the door for a moment if you’re at home. You can even find a moment to yourself in the car.
During this time, it’s crucial to ask yourself a few questions:
1. What’s bothering me?
Sometimes, you won’t know right off the bat. It might be a combination of things that are bothering you, or maybe it’s just an elusive annoyance that you can’t put your finger on. If you can pinpoint what’s causing you so much stress, however, this can be helpful.
2. What do I want to do with these emotions right now?
What’s your gut reaction to the excessive stress? Do you want to lash out at your co-worker? Head to the grocery store and buy a bunch of junk food? Cancel exercise plans with your workout buddy?
Figure out what you’re up against.
3. What will happen if I do what I really want to do right now?
In all likelihood, you’ve done whatever it is you want to do before, and if it’s something like getting in a fight with someone or vegging out and ignoring responsibilities, most likely, the results were not positive. Try to focus on the negative consequences of acting mechanically and irrationally and not thinking your actions through.
4. What else would I be happy to do right now that wouldn’t end with bad feelings later on?
There are other things you can do to make yourself feel better that aren’t irrational and unhealthy.
Here are some of the best options for handling stress, and remember that everyone and every situation will be different.
- Go for a walk outdoors
- Punch a punching bag
- Go out to your favourite restaurant for a dinner or lunch that’s delicious and relatively healthy
- Take a nap
- Call a friend
- Do some yoga on the floor
- Take a hot bubble bath
- Write in a journal
- Light a candle and read a book
The goal here is to do something that isn’t unhealthy (like eating too much or spending money you don’t have) but that still gives you some much-needed relief from tension and stress.
Again, what gives you stress relief will inevitably change. That’s why it’s good to have a lot of options. You may decide to take a relaxing bath to reduce stress one week, while the next week, a warm bath may sound horrible and you may prefer to go to a boxing gym and get out some frustration on a punching bag.
Keep a running list of stress-reducing behaviors that can help during difficult times.
Later, identify your main sources of stress.
Once you’re in a calmer, stress-free state, consider what caused your over-abundance of stress in the first place. The goal is to be able to identify your core markers for stress. That way, you can stop the “snowball effect” of stress before it starts or at least before it gets out of hand.
In general, stress can be caused by feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities. Therefore, for many people, excess stress stems from saying “yes” to too many things.
If this is the case for you, it’s time to start saying “no” to more things. Overworking yourself is a recipe for disaster. Taking time for yourself and the things that matter to you can help you stay far away from super stressful moments in life.
In some cases, on the other hand, stress cannot be avoided. For example, if your children are sick at the same time that you are super busy at work and you’re getting ready to move house … can any of these things really be avoided?
The answer is probably not. So, your best option is to first, do the best you can. Take it slow. Use your healthy stress-reducing habits as often as possible.
Second, you’ll want to lean on some new behaviours that can help reduce the impact of even unavoidable stress … on a larger scale:
Engage in new healthy habits and behaviours that inherently reduce stress on a regular basis.
There’s no way to eradicate all stress, nor should we aim to. Not only is regular stress a part of life, but believe it or not, it can actually be good. Feeling stress about a big presentation or a competition you have coming up simply means that you’re concerned about these events.
By engaging in regular, healthy self-care behaviours, however, you can reduce the overall negative effects of any stressful occurrences.
Here are the habits you might consider trying on a regular basis:
- Mindfulness practice
- Healthy eating
- Regular exercise
The last two behaviours are fairly straight-forward: Eat a well-balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats and move regularly. In some cases, yoga can also be a form of regular exercise (although cardiovascular activity and strength training should be focused on as well).
Meditation, mindfulness practice, and yoga are a bit more involved, but their effectiveness on stress levels can be life-changing:
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and is one of the best ways to engage the “relaxation response.” With just 10 minutes of meditation a day, you can decrease stress and anxiety in your life, learn how to concentrate better, and teach your body and mind to engage in deep relaxation whenever you like.
Meditation can be done alone, with a partner or group, or in a class. Many people find that short periods of meditation can help calm the mind during those times when you feel like engaging in unhealthy behaviours because of stress.
Mindfulness practice is something we’ve already gone over, but it’s worth mentioning again. This practice can be used anytime, anywhere. In fact, you can even teach yourself to be mindful all the time — an idea supported by ancient Buddhism and practiced by Buddhist monks and nuns.
Why is mindfulness so useful for stress reduction?
It teaches you how to avoid rumination and a wild mind that can’t stay focused. It helps you enjoy your life by stressing the importance of the present moment. Finally, it helps you identify those various thoughts, feelings, and emotions that might be bothering you so that you can learn to either fix or attend to them or radically accept them as part of the up and down momentum of life.
Yoga can also be practiced almost anywhere. While you can certainly take yoga classes, you can also do yoga at your desk at work, at home on your bedroom floor, and even while waiting in line at the post office.
Yoga helps reduce stress by teaching you how to focus on the breath and how to breathe more effectively in general. Yoga poses and movements relax the body, so they also inherently relax the mind. This can help you release emotional energy and develop a stronger connection between your body and mind.
Start Slow Reducing the Stress in Your Life Today
Keep in mind that learning how to live a more stress-free life will be a never-ending journey.
The good news is you can start slow, but just be sure to start. Add stress-reduction practices in one-by-one. While your progress may move gradually, the rewards you’ll reap from a less hectic, less stressful and anxiety-filled life cannot be matched.
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Written by Clint Johnson
Clint teaches Yoga, Pilates, breathe, and mediation to students and teachers all over the world. Prior to joining the wellness world, CJ as his friends call him, started his career as a MBS derivative trader and portfolio manager on Wall St. Clint is the founder of Anahana, and holds an MBA from INSEAD.