I recently wrote an article about stress in the workplace, in which I touched briefly on what to do when stress arises. It seemed to resonate with readers, so I thought I would expand on the practical part.
In general, I think of my articles as either food for thought or practical guides. Typically, they are a combination of the two. When I offer advice, however, I make sure it pertains to things that I've actually tried and found useful in my own life.
In this article, I offer simple, step by step advice on what to do when stress arises. I don't claim these steps will immediately eradicate all stress from your life, but they will help right away.
When you get stressed, whether it be at work, or outside of work, try the following steps in order.
1. Notice it
When we get stressed, we have a tendency to not even be aware. We're so caught up in the effects - our body temperature rising, the tension in our upper body, the tornado of thoughts swirling in our heads - that we're unaware it's even happening.
We quickly assume the problem is something or somebody else, which automatically puts us in a position of "us versus the world."
Once we're caught, we're caught. We're so deep inside the storm, with little chance of escaping. At this point, since we've deemed the problem to be outside, we're then dependent on external circumstances to pull us out of the miserable state.
So, the first step is to simply realize that the storm is brewing inside us. If you don't do this, you will not have the awareness to move on to the next step.
Yes, it's simple, but here's the key. I'm not telling the stress to relax. I'm telling you to relax.
When you notice the stress arise, who is noticing what? The simple fact that you're noticing stress, should tell you that you are not it.
Take a deep breath and say to yourself: "Oh, there's the stress again."
Know that it's not your fault you're feeling stressed, and that there's a reason for it. Yes, it's your fault you created an environment inside yourself that responds with stress. But no, it's not your fault that stress is arising in this moment. Don't beat yourself up over it.
Remember that it's a feeling, and a feeling passes when you give it space. The whole point of relaxing is to give space.
You have a choice of whether or not to get involved. Getting involved means getting sucked in and removing space (you already know what happens when you do this), whereas relaxing means letting go and providing space.
So how do you relax? Breathe. Relax your chest. Smile, even if it's subtle, even if it's internal. When you feel stress, you tend to tense up, right? Well, to relax, you do the opposite of tensing up. You relax your muscles. You lean away from the feelings, not into them.
When you do this, you're immediately creating distance between yourself and the stress you're experiencing. At this point, it won't necessarily make the stress any less unpleasant, but you will be able to refrain from getting sucked in.
Doing this over and over will create a habit of distancing yourself from the whirlwind of emotions. The farther away you are, the less of a grip stress will have on you, ultimately leading to freedom from it.
3. Keep relaxing
You will notice after your first attempt to relax, your thoughts and emotions will pull your consciousness back into the mess. At this point, you repeat step two by relaxing again. If you haven't caught on, this is the most important step. Never stop relaxing in the face of stress.
4. Shift your attention, and action, to the event at hand
Once you've consciously noticed the stress arise, and have taken a breath and relaxed, you're now free to shift your attention to the external event at hand.
Notice that I call it an event, not a problem, because events are not problems, they're just events. They become problems when we can't handle them. They become stressful when we resist them. There's no point in resisting that something is the way it is.
Now that you've relaxed and you're centered, you can say to yourself, "Okay, something happened, it caused stressed inside of me, and I'm okay with that. Now what do I need to do?"
Do you need to send an extra email? Spend an extra hour at work? Turn back home to pick up something you forgot? Whatever it is, you can now approach it with a clear head.
You may not want to do it, but really, you just don't want to feel stress, that's all. Think about it - if you felt joyful while you were taking care of the thing, it wouldn't matter what you had to do! So it's not the event that's the problem, but rather your inner feeling of stress while you're doing it.
5. Notice how you're feeling now
You've noticed the stress arising. You've taken a breath, relaxed, and leaned away from it, multiple times. Then you've approached the situation with a clear(er) head. Now what do you do?
The final step is to notice how you're feeling as you take care of business. Did you lose yourself in the stress? Notice it again. Are you still resisting? Relax again.
Or are things in fact a little easier? Did the stress magically go away? Do you feel marginally better than you would've felt had you not followed these steps? Consider that a win.
Think about how you'll feel when you do this over and over, day after day, week after week. You'd probably get pretty damn good at handling whatever life throws at you.
The next time stress arises (which likely won't be too long from now), I invite you to try these five steps. See what happens. You can always revert back to your original ways.
If you found this helpful (or not), I'd love to hear from you.
Until then, take charge of your inner state. Keep relaxing. Keep breathing. Keep distancing yourself. You got this!
Live with substance!
Whenever you're stressed, you must first notice that you're stressed. Then relax. Then take care of business. Don't do these steps out of order.