With five new strategies under your belt from my last post, are you letting stress roll off your back like water? If not, never fear. These skills take time to practice, learn, and incorporate into your every day life. Keep working on them and you’ll see results. Here’s the next five to double your strategies!
6) Make a list. Write it all down and get it out of your head. Letting your mental to-do list roll around like a crazed tumbleweed in your brain is not good for your psyche. It takes valuable mental resources to continually process and remember perceived responsibilities. That effort diverts mental resources from your task at hand, making you less efficient, and potentially increasing your stress level even further. Designate a notebook or a computer file as your mental download destination–whether it looks like a number list of things to do, a series of goals, or a list of worries that are taking up valuable cerebral storage space. People often find that this kind of information is easier to deal with once it’s outside of your head. You can evaluate list items and cross of things that really aren’t your responsibility. You can evaluate the likelihood of your worries in a more rational manner. You can make progress towards goals in small steps, rather than being overwhelmed and paralyzed by staring at the “big deal” ending point. And you can get a better night’s sleep by emptying all those items from your brain, putting them on paper, and making a deal with yourself to handle them in the morning. They somehow always look better in the morning.
7) Live in a soothing environment. Most adults have the privilege of structuring their environments to a certain extent. Certainly there are some things we cannot control or change. But if we are creative, there are a vast number of things we can change. I joked with someone the other day about how we covet certain pens while we are at work–a small thing, but the pleasure of a pen that writes smoothly makes a difference. There are enough other things to think about in your day, a pen that skips and jumps on the page should not be one of them. In the grander scheme, think of the colors, sounds, smells, and sights that soothe you and incorporate them into your world. A few personal touches on your desk at work, your favorite color painted on the bedroom walls, coming home to the relaxing smell of lavender in your home, a calming playlist queued up in your i-pod… all these things may take a little forethought but not a lot of time or money. By structuring your environment in a way that is pleasing to you, you are sending YOURSELF a message that you are important and worthy of such efforts. A stress relieving thought if I ever knew one.
An additional consideration in your environment is clutter. Some of us can function just fine with clutter or disorganization, others can’t. I fall into the second camp. Making the time to re-organize a messy drawer, clear my desk and file papers appropriately, and de-clutter the junk repositories in my house and office allows me to work more productively. The environment becomes more visually calming, I’ve minimized any distractions, and I can focus on the task at hand.
8) Limit stressful relationships and experiences. Again, we don’t have total control over these, but we often have a lot more control than we realize. Learn to listen to your stress level, your internal stress-o-meter, and figure out when it rises. If you find certain situations are very stressful for you and you can avoid them without negatively impacting your life responsibilities or important relationships, do it. Gardening not really your thing but you live in suburbia and “everyone” has a “perfect” flower garden? Let it go–if you don’t enjoy something and it causes stress, don’t do it. (Plus you can just tell people your gravel yard is “xeric” and that you are being eco-friendly, very in right now.) If there are stressful situations you must attend to, try to schedule them so that you are most able to handle them. If you dislike dental work and need to have 3 teeth filled, you might want to schedule the appointment at a time other than your yearly performance evaluation at work. If a relationship contributes to your stress level, set boundaries to appropriately protect yourself from unnecessary stress-exposure. If you have a co-worker with whom you share lunch who constantly harps on how much she hates the boss, you could gently tell her that you are trying to be more positive at work and you would prefer not to talk about work related issues on your lunch break. Of course if she then starts harping on her boyfriend, her dog, and her auto mechanic, you might reconsider your lunch companion options.
9) Re-evaluate your “stress thoughts”. There is no way I can do justice to cognitive therapy in one paragraph or less, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying. Find those stress thoughts that replay in your mind like a skip in a record (remember records?). If they seem to be general senses of dread, flesh them out and give words to them. Write them down on paper. Now step back and objectively evaluate them. Usually stress thoughts are general and global, with an overestimation of the likelihood of a negative consequence and an underestimation of our ability to handle the problem. For instance, ”I always (global) screw up everything (general), now I’m sure to get fired (most likely overestimation) and there’s nothing I can do about it (most likely underestimation).” There is usually a more situational and specific interpretation (“I sometimes make mistakes in some areas of my job”) which can be used to replace the former stressful thought. The next step is to evaluate the likelihood of the perceived negative consequence and your ability to change that (for instance “Realistically, no one has ever been fired for setting a meeting on the wrong date. I could explain to my boss about my mistake and offer to make personal phone calls to apologize and change the dates, in which case he/she might be annoyed but is not likely to fire me. It may not even register as a “big deal” to him/her. He/she may appreciate my honesty and perceive me as the trustworthy person whom I am.”) That’s cognitive restructuring in a nut shell. A moment to learn, a lifetime to practice.
10) Ask for help. There is no shame in admitting that you are having difficulty handling a situation. Whether it is with your partner, your kids, your parents, or your work colleagues, you can always identify the areas that are causing you stress and ask for some assistance. Have a family meeting and come up with goals for delegating housework. Talk to your parents about the competing obligations of your work life, your own family, and your extended family, and ask them to help you come up with solutions. Tell your co-worker that you tend to get overwhelmed with a certain task and ask him or her to give you pointers on how they are able to accomplish it with minimal stress. If the stresses in your life are steadily increasing, and your ability to handle them diminishing, ask for professional help. Anxiety is no fun to live with, and the great news is that you don’t have to. Anxiety disorders have one of the best treatment outcomes in mental health treatment–about 80% with cognitive behavioral therapy alone. So don’t suffer, take charge and take back what stress has taken from you!