“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
It is inevitable that we all experience stress in some form or another. When stress is experienced as motivating and energizing, it is eustress. When stress begins to take a negative toll on your life and daily functioning, it is distress. The important thing to remember is that stress is not always “bad.” Often times, stress is useful information that is telling us that we need to accomplish, change, or take care of something important in our lives. Without the ability to experience stress in this form, we would not receive the necessary “alert” to motivate us into productive action.
Other times, stress takes the form of distress and leads to significant anxiety, fear, or depression. The exact same event could be experienced by two people in dramatically different ways. One person may experience a stressful event, such as losing one’s job, as a proverbial “kick in the butt” that motivates that person to take action, make necessary corrections, and seek out a new/different job. Another person may experience the same job loss as emotionally debilitating and respond by isolating themselves from other people and falling into a depression.
In the September/October 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind, Dr. Robert Epstein discusses the implications of a recent study of his that examined the ways that different people managed stress. Participants in his study answered questions about the typical ways that they choose to manage stress. The results of his study indicated that prevention is the most helpful competency when it comes to managing stress.
Stress Prevention Strategies
Adapted from Dr. Epstein’s study results are six strategies for dealing with stress before it starts:
(1) Seek & kill
Choose to take a few minutes each day to mindfully identify specific sources of stress in your life. Actively brainstorm ways that you can reduce or eliminate those significant stressors. Do you find yourself continually stressed by the same person, place, object, or event? Notice this pattern and seek out ways to alter your relationship with the source of stress.
(2) Commit to the positive
Many people choose to cope with stress in self-destructive ways that may provide short-term relief, but only lead to greater long-term suffering and stress. Some common negative ways of coping with stress are through the use of drugs, alcohol, or overindulgence in food. If you struggle with self-destructive tendencies, mindfully recognize this pattern and begin to make a commitment to avoid the self-destructive habit for a specific period of time. For example, if you usually have a few drinks when feeling stressed, choose to avoid alcohol for one week (or one month) and replace your old habit with something positive, such as going to a yoga class, taking a walk, or talking with a friend. Take the time to notice the difference in how you feel.
(3) Be your own personal secretary
Dr. Epstein suggests that people who actively keep lists of things end up actually doing more things. Rather than have a vague notion of things that you need to accomplish or self-care strategies that you know will relieve stress, choose to write these things down. Putting your goals and stress-relieving habits onto paper is an excellent way of maintaining conscious awareness of your commitments. When you are experiencing significant stress, you can then turn to your list of typical activities that are helpful to you. Additionally, you can prevent stress from arising in the first place by staying on top of your activities and commitments through choosing to be more organized.
(4) Immunize yourself
Exercise, mindful awareness of your thoughts and feelings, and daily practice of relaxation techniques all place you in an advantageous position when it comes to preventing distress. When you take the time to “fill up the gas tank” through taking proper care of yourself (i.e., self-care), you will be better prepared to actively face the inevitable stressors that life brings without it leading to disabling distress. It is impossible to be prepared for “anything” that may happen in life, but you can be prepared to meet stressful situations head-on from a centered place of mindfulness and health.
(5) Make a little plan
Take a few minutes during the morning of each day to orient yourself to “the plan” for the day. Almost all of us have five minutes to take in the morning to do this. Perhaps it means going over your calendar or to-do list. The point is that you feel as best prepared as possible for what the day will bring because you are aware of your commitments and responsibilities. Taking a few moments at the beginning of each day to “check-in” with yourself about the day’s activities is an excellent way to prevent the unnecessary stress that comes along with forgetting about important tasks and events.
(6) Make a big plan
Did you know that the famous behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner not only planned out his day and year, but that he also maintained a 10-year planner? While it is unrealistic and unnecessary to plan out your daily activities for the next 10 years, it is realistic to have a general life plan or map of where you would like to see yourself over the course of the next decade. When you have a clear sense of where you would like to go, you are in a better position to consciously direct your present-moment activities to be in accordance with your long-term goals. Before you know it, it will be 10 years from now. What can you do today, tomorrow, and throughout the next year to bring about the future you would like to see in 10 years? Each day builds upon the next, so choose your daily intentions, thoughts, and behaviors mindfully and deliberately.
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If you are interested in completing the online test that Dr. Epstein’s participants took in his study on stress management, you may take that test for free at http://MyStressManagementSkills.com
Epstein, R. (2011, September/October). Fight the frazzled mind. Scientific American Mind, 30-35.
Featured image: stress by bottled_void / CC BY-SA 2.0