Sitting in my graduate classroom on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus in Waterloo, Ontario, I had my first panic attack. It was 2:11 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in October, 2007. I started to Read
What's the best way for me to piss off a stressed-out client? Tell them to manage his stress by getting more sleep. Or eating better. Or fitting meditation into their day. It's a sure way to make someone want to throw a chair at me.
Everyone wants to know how they can reduce the stress in their lives, but so many of the "solutions" increase responsibilities and thus increase stress.
I frequently see people who say things like, “I already have so much on my plate, AND on top of that I know I have to reduce my stress!!! My doctor told me I should find time to meditate! And I need to be drinking more green juice! If I don't, my risk for heart disease goes way up! Adrenal fatigue! Weight gain! Cortisol! Oh my!”
My clients are stressed, and then they're stressed about being stressed.
Now, I don’t want to minimize the negative impacts of stress, nor do I want to devalue the typical stress-relieving techniques that we add to our days. Meditation, eating a healthy diet, exercise, sleep, social connection, fun — all can be solid strategies for feeling calmer and more relaxed.
But, at least for me, when I'm feeling completely overwhelmed, the only green I'm worried about having enough of is in my bank account.
So, rather than adding to your already packed agenda, here’s some information that might actually ease some of the pressure:
1. Behold, the stress equation: stress = perceived responsibilities are greater than your coping skills.
Some stress is actually a good thing, so long as it's met with an equivalent degree of coping. Stress can indicate you have meaning in your life, responsibilities you value, people you care about, and integrity, for example. So, don’t beat yourself up for feeling stressed — it's normal and healthy to a point. However, if it's not within your realm of coping, take it as a sign you might benefit from changing things up.
2. Ask yourself: who or what is putting pressure on you?
Often, the anxiety, sense of urgency, powerlessness and frustration that come along with stress are a reflection of the gap between our expectations and our reality. If you’re experiencing those difficult feelings, there's a good chance there's a significant disparity between your expectations and your reality. Ask yourself where the expectaitons are coming from: you, a boss, a friend, society? Who is saying you have to keep an immaculate house or avoid gluten at all costs? Are some (or most) of these high expectations coming from within?
3. Cut things where you can, and lower your expectations where you can't.
Sometimes, you've just gotta put yourself first and cancel those plans, drop that course, or give the baby-shower organizing duties to someone else. In areas where you truly can't quit or give up responsibilty, change your expectations for yourself. Make sure they're realistic and based on objective behavior rather than an opinion or outcome (e.g. "I intend to work on the proposal for two hours today" rather than "I will write an excellent proposal" or "I will finish the proposal.")
4. Acknowledge what's in your control and what's not.
Take a moment to step back and ask yourself what's truly in your control (hint: not a lot) and relevant to right now or the immediate future. For example, you can't control another person's perception of a situation, and there's no point in worrying about something that won't be relevant for two weeks or two years.
Acknowledging that things are out of your control can be terrifying, but it can also be liberating. I love this quote from Robert Schuller: "When we are in the midst of chaos, let go of the need to control it. Be awash in it, experience it in that moment, try not to control the outcome but deal with the flow as it comes.”
5. Give yourself a reality check.
What's the worst that's will happen? Will the office really break down if you take a sick day? Will your friends forget you or never understand if you have to bail on the lunch date? Will you gain 10 pounds if you skip the gym? I'm not saying no one cares, but it's likely no one is losing sleep over the thought of you not completing your task list except for you. Make room for some flexibility around your responsibilities.
6. Give yourself permission to be a human being.
Remind yourself that you’re an imperfect human being; try, for a moment, giving yourself the go-ahead to just be, to do things but not always to do them well, and to feel stressed and anxious. You can always go back to treating yourself like a machine if you don't like the new way.
7. Learn to pay attention to stress.
See if you can take away some cues for noticing when your stress is getting high so you can slow things down before it gets to this point next time. To give you an example, here are some of my cues that remind me I'm getting a little overwhelmed:
- When I feel angry with my friends for texting me.
- When I start writing detailed lists about what I will do for the next two hours for the next two weeks.
- When someone asks me if I want to grab a coffee and I have to "schedule" them in next month.
- When I can't remember the last time I did laundry.
- When I can't remember the last time I got to the gym.
You get the idea.
Sometimes all you need is a reminder that very little is in your control, you're usually the one whose expectations are the most pressuring, and, fortunately, you can change those. And fortunately for your therapist (or friend or partner), nobody gets a chair thrown at them.
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To learn more about happiness or dealing with stress, check out our video courses How To Create More Happiness & Meaning In Your Life and How To Manage Stress With Meditation.