Keeping Your Cool:  Managing Your Reactions to Stress

Dinner’s on the stove, the kids are complaining they’re bored, your boss is calling about a project that was due 20 minutes ago, and someone is knocking on the door.  You’re silently screaming as an internal war is raging.  Your stress hormones, known as cortisol, are under rapid fire.  Suddenly you’re overwhelmed and see no way out.

Maybe you’re buried under a mountain of debt and your spouse just lost their job.  Maybe you’re simply trying to balance too many tasks at once.  No matter the catalysts, we all experience stress.  Even minor stress occurs on a daily basis.  In the mist of the panic, we forget we alone have the power to manage our stress.  Because stress is linked to many chronic illnesses, it is important to learn healthy strategies for managing and preventing excessive stress.  We can’t always control what happens throughout the day- but with a little practice, we can manage our reactions which will make all the difference between a nuclear melt-down and frolicking through a spring meadow, metaphorically of course, we don’t actually have the time for either scenario.

Some of us have a knee-jerk reaction to directly remove the stress entirely from our lives.  But this is not always possible and, in some cases, it may not be the best approach.  Sure we can dream about avoiding a nagging mother-in-law, but come Christmas morning there’s no escape.  So your avoidance hasn’t really worked.  As much as we’d like others to change, we can only control our own reactions.  Instead of arguing back with said in-law, simply envision batting her over the head with that loaf of bread she so lovingly points out ‘is a terrible brand that she wouldn’t eat on her death bed’ while smiling and thanking her for her input.  It’s about picking your battles.  Ever hear the term don’t sweat the small stuff’?  Remember to refocus on the big picture.  During a time of overwhelming stress we can easily lose sight of what really matters.  It’s ok to take a step back, evaluate the situation or stressor objectively.  If there is no immediate harm or danger, set your intentions on something more productive.

There are a lot of mindsets that contribute to excessive stress.  Perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, and winner-take-all attitudes can hinder one’s ability to effectively work through stress.  Striving to be perfect at everything is not realistic, and frankly is rather dull.  There is beauty in imperfection.  Without making mistakes, how would we ever learn anything new?  We can get so focused on a task that we forget to live in the moments surrounding us.  Think for a moment, why does x need to be perfect?  Are we compensating for other shortcomings?  Are we hiding from rejection?  No matter the reason, trying to be ‘perfect’ is not accepting who we are or what we’re capable of.  Rather than striving for perfection, why not simply do things to the best of your own ability.  In the end if something isn’t done to your liking, identify this as a place for improvement.  Think about how things could be better, and how to achieve the desired outcome next time.

The need to always be right or to ‘win’ can be extremely destructive.  While it’s nice to be right, this implies that someone else is wrong.  Let’s turn this around.  How would you feel if someone made you feel like your opinion or way of doing things is always wrong?  You probably wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time with that person.  Needing to always be right can lead to isolation.  Life throws a lot at us, not having a support system can exasperate any stressful situation.  This can be the difference between getting through or sinking deeper.

Procrastination.  This can without a doubt provoke a stressful situation.  The more you put off completing a task you’d rather not do, the more stress you put on yourself to get it done.  Just avoid it.  Give yourself small goals to complete until the task is done.  If you’re already beyond the point of avoiding, put your big girl (or boy) pants on and go do it.  Right now.  You can finish reading this after.  If you need to be bossed around a bit, just e-mail me, it’s a talent of mine!

Now that we’ve identified some potential stress inducing mind-sets, let’s take a look at methods of dealing.

Some people, especially those of you who struggle with realizing the big picture, such as myself, may benefit from making lists.  I am addicted to post-it notes.  My desk is covered!  But trying to remember all the tasks that need to be completed can lead to stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed.  Lists can help prioritize what needs to be done when.  While earning my Master’s degree I was also working full time.  I’d often have multiple projects going and could quickly feel myself sinking much like being in quicksand.  Every move I made I just sank further.  Once you start to panic, your focus becomes completely skewed.  Tunnel vision sets in, and the big picture is lost.  I learned being organized and making a To Do list helped me keep my head above water.  I would organize tasks by due dates.  And upon completion of a task there is nothing, I repeat, nothing, more rewarding than checking off an item from the list.  Don’t forget to take a moment to praise yourself for completing a task, no matter how small.  You may even want to set up a reward system for yourself.  Try to avoid rewarding with food, as this can lead to unhealthy habits as well.  Maybe there’s a new book or movie you’ve wanted to check out.  Or a Groupon deal you’ve had your eye on.  Whatever it is, set a goal and reward yourself for accomplishing it. (Maybe keep it in proportion to the size of the goal; making your bed one morning doesn’t warrant a trip to Jamaica. Or does it?)

I once spoke with a counselor who taught me the art of what she called ‘interrupt, redirect, reset’.   It takes practice, but it really works!  First you have to try to identify the feeling in your body that arises when you are experience that overwhelming stress.  Maybe it’s deep in your gut, or tightness in your chest.  Whatever it is, these cues will help you quickly identify what’s happening internally.  Eventually you won’t even have to think about the cues anymore, as soon as they happen your brain will take over.  Once you are experiencing a stressful situation, or negative thought, try to interrupt this way of thinking, and redirect your thoughts.  I’ll’ give you an example.

Let’s say you’re at work and 3 different projects land on your desk.  The panic starts to set in.  You begin thinking about all the negative consequences of not completing a task on time.  At this point you have 2 options.  Give up, which isn’t realistic, or interrupt your negative thoughts before they spiral out of control.  Redirect your thoughts, in a gentle way, no reason to be harsh.  Simply tell yourself everything will be ok, you can do this.  There may be times when you are just too worked up to redirect your thoughts internally.  No problem.  Get up and go for a walk.  Just get away for a few minutes.  Finally, take a deep breath.  This is called a reset breath.  This deep breath will help calm and reset your brain.  Take several deep breaths if needed.  Once you’ve achieved a more Zen state, look at each project individually.  You may find they won’t be as difficult as you anticipated.  Maybe one isn’t due until next week.  Perhaps you’ve already done the research for another.

I highly recommend finding a form of yoga that suits you.  By having to practice breathing through physically uncomfortable (not painful) poses, you condition yourself to get through stressful times off the mat as well.  My personal favorite is Yin Yoga.  Any form of regular exercise will help bring balance in times of heightened stress.  At the very least, check with yourself throughout the day.  Is your face relaxed?  Probably not.  Most of us are in offices under unnatural lighting and our eyes are under constant strain from staring at a computer.  The tightness triggers a constant release of cortisol, flooding our bodies with toxic levels of stress hormones.  Because of the steady stream of cortisol, we are ready for fight or flight at a moment’s notice which can cause minor issues to escalate rapidly.  Simply remind yourself throughout the day to relax your face.  This is also a good time to take a few long calming breaths.

When all else fails, remind yourself that stress leads to premature aging!  No amount of over the counter creams and potions can do what disrupting the unneeded release of cortisol can do.

Homework: here are 2 books I’ve found extremely helpful in reducing stress in learning to live in the moment.

  1. Mindfulness for Life by Dr Stephen Mckenzie and Dr Craig Hassed
  2. Yoga The Spirit And Practice Of Moving Into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann

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