Blog Short #139: How to Effectively Deal with Stressors
Photo by konstantynov, Courtesy of iStock Photo
Over the last several weeks, we’ve learned about how stress affects the body and mind and some strategies to release it. This week we’re talking about stressors. That will conclude our three-week discussion devoted to stress management.
I’ve got six strategies you can try for dealing with stressors. Let’s go through them.
1. Avoid “avoidance.”
There are two parts to this one.
Part 1: Do your best not to resist the stressor.
That’s easier said than done, but you can get better at it by adopting the mindset that things happen unexpectedly. That doesn’t mean expecting things to go wrong but staying flexible and prepared to pivot when they do.
Part 2: Avoid stressors by planning ahead.
Many stressors occur because you cut things too close. You wait until the last minute to do something or don’t take care of things that need doing, and they rear their ugly head at the most inopportune time. Do what needs to be done in a timely manner and stay on top of your stuff.
2. Watch your narrative.
The stressor is one thing, but the story you tell yourself about it is what most influences how you react.
The narrative that gets you in trouble is catastrophizing and focusing on worst-case scenarios.
Cognitive distortions can run wild when you’re stressed and inflate your negative emotions – fear, despair, anger, overwhelm – so that you begin to react to your fantasy of what’s happening more than the actual reality in front of you.
It’s easy to do this when facing a possible loss, such as harm to someone you love, your finances crashing, a job loss, etc. These stressors are harder to manage and require some soothing self-talk or support from someone else who can be a voice of reason.
When your emotions take over, step back if you can and be mindful of the story you’re telling yourself about what’s happening. When you do that, you activate your prefrontal cortex and get into a thinking mode. That allows you to calm your emotions and adjust your narrative to something more realistic and also move your focus toward dealing with the situation.
3. Set boundaries.
Stress is sometimes the result of someone else’s problems or unrealistic expectations of you. Relationships, especially close ones, blur the boundaries of what belongs to who and what each person’s responsibilities are. This is especially true when co-dependency is strong, or one person takes advantage of the other.
If you tend to be a “caretaker” who habitually rescues or kowtows to the other person’s needs at your own expense, then you likely feel chronically stressed. Over time, you feel depleted emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
No amount of stress-release activities can alleviate this kind of repetitive pressure. Only you can do that by setting boundaries and recognizing your part in the dance, although it doesn’t feel like a dance. It’s more like being repeatedly tackled on the football field.
Take time to assess your relationships (including those at work), and ask yourself if more boundaries are needed.
If you’re the person that’s often rescued, then you need some boundaries for yourself, which requires looking closely at how you can manage your responsibilities better.
This isn’t something to beat yourself up over, but something you can use to improve your life.
4. Narrow down.
Many of us are stressed because we do too much. You might argue with me with the retort, “It’s not my choice! I have to do too much!”
Some people are trapped in daily responsibilities that seem necessary, and they may be. An example is the single parent with three kids who works full-time, doesn’t make enough money to make ends meet, and has no support system. That person has too much to do – every day. Still, a careful examination is helpful.
Most of us have some room to make choices but don’t. We take on too much, then feel overwhelmed and complain about not having enough time.
- Write out everything you do on a daily/weekly basis.
- Now put it all out on a calendar. Where do you do it? During what hours?
- Next, prioritize. What’s most important, and what could you let go of?
- Where do you waste time?
You likely don’t know how much time you waste.
I did this exercise once. I wrote down how I spent every minute for a full week. It was rather grueling but eye-opening. I got a better feel for how much time things took versus how much time I thought they took and where I wasted time. It helped me decide what to let go of and how re-position some tasks to be more efficient.
5. Find the value.
Progress comes from overcoming obstacles.
You’ve heard some version of this, I’m sure, and that’s because it’s mostly true.
When things come easy, we might perform well, but when there are obstacles to overcome, we seem to rise higher and perform better. It’s like working out – when you push your muscles just a little harder than is comfortable, they acclimate to the challenge and get stronger.
Stressors you consider to be obstacles or roadblocks often have something to teach you. You groan when they come up because you aren’t in the mood or ready to learn that lesson right now, but that’s how things go, isn’t it?
So look at the situation and ask yourself what you might gain from it. Even when you have a job you don’t like, there’s something you’re learning either about yourself, or perhaps a skill, or how to deal with adversity. What are you getting you can use later?
This is called “positive reappraisal” (Nagoski, 2019). It’s a valuable concept you can tap into when you feel stuck and unhappy with where you are. That doesn’t mean you should pretend everything’s fine. Using positive thinking this way is not beneficial. See things as they are, but push yourself to see the silver lining until you can make a change.
This leads us to the last one.
6. Know when to quit.
Sometimes dealing with a stressor is deleting it. This is when you decide to cut your losses because staying in the situation is not feasible or advisable.
This applies to bad jobs, bad relationships, and self-destructive habits.
In Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest doing a cost-benefit assessment. Ask yourself:
- What are the costs of staying in?
- What are the costs of getting out?
- What are the benefits of staying in?
- What are the benefits of getting out?
Make sure to consider both short and long-term costs and benefits. This will help you see it more objectively.
Sometimes you know even before you do the exercise, but it helps to apply some soul-searching and see it on paper.
One More Thing
We usually see stressors in the present tense as something we’re experiencing now. Yet, it helps to look at them in terms of the big picture. The question is:
How does this situation fit into my overall “why”? Why am I here, what am I trying to accomplish, and what’s truly important?
What you do daily feels different when you see it in terms of your bigger picture. It aligns you with what’s meaningful for you and allows you to sync your actions, goals, and attitudes toward your purpose(s). Stressors become part of that larger landscape, and you feel more appreciative of what they teach you, or you know when to let them go.
I’ll end on that philosophical note.
That’s all for today.
As always, have a great week!
All my best,