I am a high-stress person. Throughout my life, stress has manifested itself in nervous tics, chronic pain, and a wide range of emotions and behaviors. For a long time, the advice was to just deal with it, but deal with it how? I’m sure many of us could rattle off a long list of things that are supposed to reduce stress, but how many of us can actually do those things when stress strikes?
For me, stress is not something that occurs only during objectively stressful situations, it’s something I feel daily. Of course it increases and decreases, but it feels like it’s always there on a low flame. Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies to keep that flame as low as possible, mostly by predicting when it will flare up and having coping mechanisms in place to temper it. So whether you’re stressed about work, family, COVID-19, the current state of the world, or the future in general, here are a few ways to proactively set yourself up for stress-reduction success.
I used to confidently proclaim that I’d never be able to meditate. It’s extremely difficult for me to sit still because of my chronic pain, I have a racing mind, and I like to think! Why would I want to stop? I also spent years not sleeping well for similar reasons. It was impossible for me to fall asleep because my mind would not shut off, but the time before I fell asleep was often the only time I had to myself, so I didn’t do anything to change it or take care of myself. Even if I wanted to change, it’s incredibly difficult to sit down and meditate when you’re stressed or in pain or convince yourself to drift off to sleep when your brain is going one hundred miles a minute.
Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. Something had to change, but I just couldn’t see myself meditating or falling into a blissful sleep when I was so stressed. So I figured out what would work for me and started to build those de-stressing activities into my day naturally—I did them when I wasn’t stressed very much at all and they became a habit.
Like when we create a preventative self-care practice, figuring out what works to help you de-stress ahead of time and building it into your daily life can help. Then, when you find yourself going through a rough patch, your strategies will already be in place and you’ll be better positioned to do what is more important—taking care of you.
I did a 30-day yoga challenge in January of 2020 that helped me form a yoga habit, and now I do yoga nearly every day. Instead of something I do at a specific time and place that I have to go out of my way to complete once or twice a week, it’s now as natural for me to toss out my mat in the living room and do a quick practice as it is to brush my teeth. There’s no pressure to finish an entire class, no commute, and low or no cost. The moment I start to feel my day become a bit overwhelming, I pop on one of my go-to practices and I’m able to completely reset myself in as little as twenty minutes. If I meditate (yes! I meditate now!), I can feel refreshed in less than ten. But I don’t just do yoga when I’m stressed. I still keep it as part of my (almost) daily routine.
A healthy way to respond to our totally normal and natural stress response is to invoke the relaxation response, a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways. With regular practice, you create a well of calm to dip into as the need arises. But it does take practice! And yoga isn’t for everyone, which is totally fine. All you have to do is find what works for you and make it a habit.
Every time I talk about being stressed, someone inevitably suggests a long, relaxing bath. The problem is, I hate baths. It’s not relaxing for me to sit still (chronic pain!), if I try to read, the pages get wet, and I despise being hot. I just won’t ever be a bath person. And that’s totally fine.
The what, why, and how behind determining which activity you choose to do are important factors in how that activity helps to increase positive feelings or decrease negative ones. We can of course try new things, but it’s important to do what feels right to us.
Something that works for me that certainly doesn’t work for everyone is a bit of a nihilistic approach. When I fixate, ruminate, stress about small things, or find myself engaging in “checking behavior” (did I lock the door, did I leave the coffee machine on, did I turn the stove off?), I remind myself that it doesn’t matter, as in, matter in the grand scheme of the universe. Most people shudder at this thinking (including my husband) because everyone wants to matter, except me, in these specific situations. I have scripts I tell myself and everything. Not mattering helps me let go of the stress and it’s incredibly calming.
Again, my solution is not for everyone (or most people!), I’m simply giving an example of the wide range of things that can be considered “stress relief” and to point out that your strategies don’t have to show up on Top Ten Ways To Reduce Stress lists. The number one thing is to find the few (healthy) stress coping mechanisms that work for you and embrace them.
I have had PMS since I was eleven years old, but I didn’t know it. Because of movies, I thought PMS was all craving chocolate and getting zits and being a little cranky. For some people, it is. For me, PMS is paranoia, heightened anxiety, and a rollercoaster of sadness. Unfortunately, I didn’t put two and two together until I was in my late twenties. I thought it was “just the way I was sometimes,” and that is true. It’s also true that knowing it ahead of time makes it so, so, so much easier to take care of myself. I don’t cancel my entire life the week before my period (could you imagine?) but I am incredibly kind, understanding, and proactive with myself as well as communicative with the people around me when needed (it’s not an excuse, simply an explanation).
Especially when I feel the paranoia coming on, I stop myself. You are feeling this way because of your PMS, I think. Everything is okay. You know this will be done in just a few days. The heightened self-awareness and self-compassion often means my paranoia is simply a flare-up instead of a day-ruining event.
Effective stress management starts with identifying your sources of stress and developing strategies to manage them. Make a list of your stressors or even a stress calendar for yourself and add anything that stresses you out: PMS (even if you can’t use menstruation to track your month, you can still observe how you feel over the course of a day or month and see if you have any personal fluctuations), work meetings, family events or interactions, and more. Even though we can’t get rid of these things (although it’s certainly a good idea to look at your list or calendar and see if there are things you can eliminate), you can use the preventative de-stressing activities you’ve added to your daily routine to help you when times are tough.
When I was a kid, I used to ask my mom to tell me that everything would be okay. Most of the time, nothing was “wrong,” it was simply my anxiety (although I didn’t have that word in my vocabulary yet). Now, I can often do it for myself, but I literally treat myself like I am another person, replacing my mom with a super chill version of me. As Michael Scott on The Office once said, “No one talks me down like myself in a video talking me down.”
When I feel myself start to spiral or find myself already inside a stress tornado, I take a step outside of myself and give my stress-self a pep talk. Think about what a kind friend or therapist or trusted family member would say to you if they saw you so stressed. It’s going to be okay, this is a minor setback, times are tough now but you’ve got this, this totally sucks, you know you have coping strategies in place to help you get through this, I’m here for you. Your other-self can say whatever would be most helpful for you, and they know exactly what will work, because it is you!
While talking yourself down is a great skill to have in your back pocket, you don’t have to deal with your stress alone—a therapist can help. Positive self talk and a great support network are super important, but a therapist can serve as a neutral third party to help you look at situations from different perspectives and test out new methods and coping strategies to help you manage things like stress. If you’ve been thinking about whether you would benefit from therapy, you’re hoping to start, or you’re looking to overcome what’s been holding you back, we’re here for you.
This is a super stressful time, and it’s so much harder when we don’t have the support we need. If you can gain some self-awareness and put a simple coping strategy practice in place before the stress burner is on high, you’ll be in a better place to manage when things get tough(er). And we’ll be with you every step of the way.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.