Do you ever lie awake at night, stressing less about the stresses in your life and more about their effects on your mental and physical health?
You’re certainly not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that well over half of Americans are troubled by the same nightly thoughts. Perhaps that’s for a good reason: Stress has been linked to obesity and heart disease, not to mention the general impact it has on our moods and the people around us.
Given that there is little to zero chance we’ll be doing away with stress anytime soon, we need to develop new and healthy ways to relate to stress so we don’t get buried by it.
Skill # 1: Change Your Perception of Stress
The idea that stress is always bad is an often unchallenged belief. It’s promoted in medical centers, it’s doled out in books and articles, and it even lurks at the core of stress-reduction programs that promise to replace the discomfort of stress with feelings of ease and calm. However, this belief is not only false, but can be counterproductive. Research by Stanford psychologist Alia Crum shows that our “stress mindset” determines our biological response to stress. When we believe stress to be good for us, our bodies actually release hormones that enable us to face our challenges, and grow as a result.
Skill # 2: Modify the Meaning You Attach to Stress
Often there’s an underlying fear of incompetence that leads to stressful reactions to stress. When we believe that we won’t be able to cope with the situation, we debilitate ourselves with worry. The way out is to think of past experiences when you’ve risen to challenges, or to think of others who have done so in similar situations. This helps build self-efficacy and gives you hope that you can do the same. It’s also important to notice if you’re catastrophizing about what can potentially happen, thus blowing the situation out of proportion.
Skill # 3: Appreciate the Larger Perspective
Spend a minute or two reflecting on why a particular situation is stressful for you. Rather than focusing on wishing it away or doubting your ability to cope, focus instead on why the situation is important for you. You likely wouldn’t worry much if your neighbor’s child was doing badly at school, or if a colleague at work had a bad relationship with her parents, although you certainly may offer support. Think of worrying as a signal that the situation is meaningful to you—and, as such, something worth addressing wholeheartedly.
Skill # 4: Learn to Handle Uncertainty
Sometimes your ability to take action toward the source of stress may be limited for reasons beyond your control; it’s important to respect this. Otherwise, you try to control what you have little power to change, such as other people’s behaviors or natural events. This leads to getting caught up in insecure striving, which leads to unhappiness if you don’t achieve your goals, and a false sense of security if you do. Mindfulness, especially self-compassion meditation and body scans, can help you stay with the discomfort of uncertainty while staying open to possibility. Another powerful way of letting go of the desire to control is to imagine it as a load that you’re dragging uphill. Loosen your hold and free yourself to the mystery of the unknown.
Skill # 5: Build Your Inner and Outer Resources
Stress can take a toll on our mental and physical well-being, especially given that we’re wired for periods of short-term stress followed by longer periods of recovery. That’s practically impossible in today’s stressful environment, and building our inner and outer resources is the only way we can face the barrage of stress with grace and equanimity. Look after your sleep, diet, and exercise. Stay engaged in meaningful work. And reach out to others—not only for support, but for connection. As Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains in her book The Upside of Stress, connection releases oxytocin that initiates the “tend and befriend” response (as opposed to the “flight or fight” response), and makes us courageous in the face of stress.
So the next time you’re tossing and turning in bed and wishing your stress away, take a deep breath and stay present with it. Then you can decide whether to do something about it—or drop it like a hot potato.