The most annoying thing about stress is that it is so immediate, so urgent, and so dramatic. Stress blows life out of proportion and takes over our otherwise rational thinking.
Oh stress, how we loathe thee.
There’s plenty of good advice on how to deal with stress. And it all seems so simple, so obvious.
That’s because we read the articles and listen to the podcasts when we’re not stressed!
Stress management doesn’t seem hard when we learn and talk about it in a non-stressful state.
But when we are in the middle of experiencing stress, stress management becomes a distorted, abstract concept, far from applicable to our present situation.
We can’t practice stress management when we’re not stressed. We must practice in the heat of the moment.
Personally, I believe the most effective stress management strategy consists of just a couple streamlined tactics. The last thing we need on our plate during a stressful situation is more stuff to remember and do.
So, before banging your head up against the wall, give these three simple stress management tactics a try:
1. Is it worth it to feel this way?
Stress can cause a lot of physical discomfort. Ask yourself, “Is the stress that I’m experiencing worth feeling this way?”
Yes? Fine. Allow that heart rate to increase. Have fun trying to catch your breath while sitting in a chair. Oh, and be sure to snap at the people you love when they ask if you’d like more coffee in your cup…and do drink more coffee because caffeine is grrrreat for stress. (Did you sense the sarcasm there?)
No? Good. It’s not. No job or argument or mistake is worth putting your health at risk.
So, close those eyes.
Notice how fast that heart is pounding and how shallow that breath is.
Intercept your breath and take a big inhale. Do it now. It will feel awkward and maybe even painful at first. Then a big exhale. Do it again, slowly.
Big inhale, try to pause very momentarily, then exhale completely.
Keep going. Count if you need to. Inhale, brief pause, exhale. All through your nose. Inhale, pause, exhale.
Try filling up your whole lungs, then inhale a bit more and fill up your whole belly. Stick that belly out as far as it can go. Brief pause. And slowly, in a controlled manner, release that breath, let it all out. Pause briefly. Again. Full breaths in and out, pausing in between.
Now, notice your heart rate. Has it decreased?
No? Keep breathing deeply.
Yes? Give yourself a few more controlled, deliberate breaths, then open your eyes. Look at life straight in the eye and keep breathing. Get that oxygen pumping into your brain so you can think rationally, clearly, and make sound decisions.
2. Realistically, what is the worst possible thing that can happen?
When we are stressed, we tend to over exaggerate the consequences of the situation. I know I do. I think of all the bad things that will happen, but these bad things are usually not practical or even related to the current situation.
For example, when I make a mistake at work, my thoughts go to, “I’m going to get fired!”
In reality, I’m not going to get fired and no one will think less of me.
When my husband an I argue, I think, “We are so incompatible! How could we ever possibly raise children together!”
Umm…we disagree because we are different people, but really our disagreements don’t separate us.
Once you’ve caught and controlled your breathing, really think about the worst possible thing that can realistically happen.
Is it really that bad? Could you be over exaggerating a bit? Is the situation really as urgent as you’re making it out to be? Or are you letting your thoughts run rampant to places that aren’t useful or real?
There’s a good chance that when you step back from the situation, you’ll find that your actual worst-case scenario isn’t that bad. It might take work and responsibility to fix, but it’s not going to destroy your life.
3. I accept this moment.
Did you make a mistake? If not, then your job is to figure out how to make things right. If so, then your job is to figure out how to make things right.
Notice how the action part doesn’t change regardless if the mistake is your fault or not.
We tend to stop dead in our tracks when we are the cause of an error because we are fearful of embarrassment, social sanction, and losing people’s trust (but as stated in Trust Is Not Earned Or Given, It Is Let Go, we know we can’t control that anyways).
During times of high and immediate stress, we must accept the current moment for what it is – not what it should be or could be if everything were perfect, but what it actually is.
And we must remove our egos from the situation.
When we make the situation about our egos, that’s when the fear, embarrassment, and health risks comes into play.
When we leave the ego out of it, our brains are able to function very well, rationally, and we can make good decisions. (Remember our Monday Motivation for March 23, 2015?)
Again, regardless if the mistake is our fault, the action part is the same: figure out how to fix the problem, then fix it.
Later, reflect back on the moment. Why did that moment occur in the first place? Was it completely someone else’s fault? If so, we must learn to accept what comes, increase our ability to adapt to change, and do whatever we can to prevent the same mistake in the future. Often this involves coaching or confronting another person to address the issue.
If it was our fault, what did we do or not do to cause it?
I know a lot of my personal troubles come from mismanaging my time. I have a lot on my plate, so I must continually work on managing my time so that I don’t fall behind then rush through my work, which leads to dumb mistakes, which leads to larger mistakes.
Ultimately, we must accept responsibility when we do something incorrect and work on improving ourselves.
Okay, here’s the part that’s tough. We can memorize stress management tactics all day long, but they don’t help us unless we remember to execute them during stressful situations.
The three tactics above are simple things that we can do everyday regardless of the presence of stress or the intensity of stress.
If we practice valuing ourselves, our health, and our minds; if we stay in the present moment and accept what comes; if we increase our skills and knowledge so that we can adapt well to change; then we put ourselves in a much better position to handle stress when it arises.
And when stress does arise, we simply crank up the volume on these tactics. Match the intensity of our stress with the intensity of acceptance and self-love.
Try it. What’s the worst thing that could realistically happen?