Feeling stressed? Join the crowd. No matter your viewpoint on what’s going on in the world, the reality is that you have burdens a little closer to home — as parents, leaders, students or simply as adults who need to pay bills and navigate the complexity of your environment.
Yep, stress can suck. It wreaks havoc with both your mental and physical health, to say nothing of your peace of mind.
This is about the time to remind yourself that stress is timeless. Life has always been hard. People got sick, survived wars, endured famines and raised teenagers. People have had to learn how to deal with stress since the beginning of time — and survived, hopefully a little wiser than when they started.
Most hack advice about how to overcome stress comes with platitudes like exercise regularly, take vitamins, light a candle and reduce your intake of caffeine. For adults who deal with serious stress, this advice sounds a bit like a second-grade tutorial.
What is stress? Dr. Cynthia Ackrill describes stress as your physical and mental reaction to what you perceive is happening. The majority of stress is created by how you view your world — and yourself. If your perception doesn’t meet your expectations, you feel stressed.
Stress is a fact of life. Feeling stress is a choice.
You have the ability to relieve your stress because your enemy is not external; stress is an inner battle, and only you can decide how to control it.
Let’s look at four effective and easy ways to relieve stress at work:
1. Differentiate between stress and anxiety
People often interchange the words stress and anxiety, as though they were one and the same. While the symptoms can be similar, there are distinctions.
Stress rears its ugly head when the tasks at hand are perceived to be more than we can handle. We feel overwhelmed and try to juggle several roles or projects throughout the day as our to-do list lengthens.
Symptoms of stress include:
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Changes in breath and heart rate
- Decreased energy levels
These symptoms are not pleasant, but they are normal reactions in your body. The symptoms of stress are your body’s early warning system that are designed to protect you. In the days of saber-toothed tigers, these alerts were essential. Nowadays, we create most of our own stress (not counting health and trauma issues).
Anxiety, on the other hand, is more intense and happens when stress is not acknowledged or managed. Anxiety tends to linger long after the perceived threat or challenge has passed.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous and tense
- Repetition of thoughts either based in the future or the past
- Inability to concentrate
- Excessive worry or the need to control
It’s essential to recognize your stress first so you can manage it before it morphs into anxiety.
How to make it work for you:
- Do not resort to multitasking to get everything done. You may believe you’re helping yourself but in reality, you’re only creating more stress.
- Develop self-awareness to recognize stress. Identify how you typically respond to the unexpected in both life and business. Understand your limits and triggers.
- Nip thoughts and behavior that feed your anxiety in the bud.
2. Practice mindfulness
When we’re stressed, our mind becomes a jungle gym of thought patterns. If our stress spills into anxiety, we tend to ruminate about our past or speculate about the future. We fall into an “anywhere but here” thinking and refuse to stay in the present moment.
But being present is key if we want to control our stress. When we let our thoughts free-float, we can end up in a cesspool of fear and regret. It’s ugly and self-defeating because that type of thinking always stinks.
Research published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 2016 shows that present-moment awareness, a key feature of mindfulness, increases our ability to be resilient when we’re stressed.
Present-moment awareness involves paying attention to the present rather than trying to predict future events or dwell on the past. The same study suggested that if we’re aware and present in the middle of stressful situations, we’re more likely to be resilient because our attention is focused on the matter at hand rather than wasting precious energy on other things.
Mindfulness is deceptively easy. All it requires is the mental toughness for you to be control of your thoughts instead of letting them control you.
How to make it work for you: Slow down. You don’t need to stop but you do need to notice what is in front of you, whether it’s eating a meal, working on a project, taking a walk, or talking to a friend.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. Work through your problem now, in the present, rather than let your thoughts dominate your mind and drive you crazy!
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3. Separate your life Into piles
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control? Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own” — Epictetus
Once you come to terms with the things in your life that are not under your control, the more time you have to focus on the things that are. There’s nothing you can do about a weedy gene pool that gave you knobby knees, but a strong mind is something you can develop.
Again, this is an inner battle. It’s easier to whine, complain about the unfairness of life, and hope that someone else will relieve you of your responsibilities.
If there are no heroes to save you, you be the hero.
When you place the things in your life into separate piles — those you can control and those you can’t — it helps you allocate your resources more productively and efficiently. Put more time and energy into the things over which you have influence.
How to make it work for you: Don’t sit on your butt and fret — you’ll only stress yourself out more! Take action because stress can become debilitating if you let it fester. Allocate your time and energy in a wise manner; focus on the things over which you have influence and control.
4. Get serious about a hobby
When people mention hobbies, our mind instantly envisions activities for people who live quiet, relaxed, and uneventful lives. While that might describe some of us, hobbies can serve a much more pivotal role when it comes to slaying stress.
Hobbies provide a slice of focus and attention that is not tethered to our work life. Ironically, people who are overwhelmed often do not give themselves permission to take a break from their busy schedule. It takes all the running they can muster just to stay in place.
Good hobbies, however, provide a break with a purpose. It’s not about sitting around and twiddling your thumbs; whether your hobby is gardening, cooking, painting, or restoring vintage cars, your downtime is being used for something productive.
Winston Churchill was a man with many responsibilities as British prime minister World War II. One could say he felt the “weight of the world” as he thwarted Hitler’s attempts to conquer Britain. Nevertheless, he made time for hobbies. One of them was painting. In 1943, he painted “The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” in oil and gave it to President Franklin Roosevelt as a present. The painting recently sold for $11.5 million.
Churchill was a distinguished statesman, author, and artist. He found many things to engage his interest. As a result, he was able to restore and renew his mind when under stress.
We all find solace in different things. When we engage in a hobby, we are present and we are in control. No one is making or asking us to do it. A good hobby takes our mind off work.
How to make it work for you: Follow these tips:
- Choose something that is relaxing but also challenges your mind.
- Find something that is productive and gives you satisfaction.
- Make it colorful. Color has strong effects on your brain.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.