guest post by Padraig O'Morain, author of Daily Calm - 100 daily reminders to help you build the mindfulness habit
We all know a little stress can go a long way in pushing us to get something done - I wouldn't want to put my money on a football team that never felt stressed during a game, for instance - but we also know that prolonged and constant stress is bad for us.
So when you are stressed too much or too often you need some simple ways to get yourself back into a more balanced emotional state.
External vs. Internal Stress
We are not looking here for a magic bullet. For instance, if you lose your job, or you can't get by on what you earn, or if you're waiting for a possibly life-changing medical test result, then stress comes out of the situation you are in. Even so, tactics to reduce stress can help you to get through the experience in better shape than if you had no emotional resources to draw on.
A lot of the stress most of us feel, though, comes from inside ourselves. When you relive a stressful experience from the past, then although the stress may originally have been caused by somebody else's actions, re-living is something that you are choosing to do. (I am not talking here, I should add, about post-traumatic flashbacks, which are outside the scope of this article.)
Then there's the future. If you "catastrophise" about the future, dramatising it out of all proportion to the likely reality, then you are adding extra stress to what might be a legitimate anxiety. (See 'Stop pushing the snowball', below, for more on this).
Over-attachment to outcomes can be another source of stress generated by ourselves. If you are over-attached to the idea of your tetchy teenager keeping the room as neat and tidy as if they were in the marines, then you are generating a lot of stress for yourself - because this is a battle that only time and maturity can win, not you.
So one way to approach stress is to divide your stresses into what is coming from sources outside your control and what is coming from inside you - you can do something about the latter.
Three More Ways to Reduce Stress
First, interrupt rumination. Rumination means going over and over painful thoughts beyond the point at which anything helpful can to be gained from doing so. It takes our awareness away from the things we could be doing or enjoying and shuts us into a dark cellar. I find that switching my attention to whatever I'm physically doing at the moment can take me out of the cellar and into daylight. So can using a phrase such as "Not happening now" to interrupt the thoughts.
Second, Stop pushing the snowball. The snowball is, of course, metaphorical and made up of a succession of gloomy, scary thoughts that takes us far away from likely reality.
So, I have to give a presentation to my colleagues:
What if I forget something really important and everybody notices?
What if the head of department finds my performance dismal?
What if that person who is my enemy leads everyone else in sneering and sniggering?
What if everyone spends the entire time on their phones because they're bored?
What if the ghosts of all my old teachers gather around cackling "I told you so, I told you so"?
You probably know the sort of thing I mean.
I find I stop pushing that snowball if I ask three questions of myself.
- The first is “What do I fear will happen?” Let’s say the answer includes all the above.
- The second is “What do I hope will happen?” Well, I hope to give a presentation that people will love and that they will even applaud me at the end and mean it.
- The third question is “What do I expect will happen?” The answer to the third one probably is that I will give my presentation reasonably well, I will stumble here and there but for the most part it will be smooth enough, it will be reasonably useful and that those who are interested will be engaged with it.
My final idea is this: remember what Richard Carlson wrote in his still-terrific book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff:
“.... when we’re blowing things out of proportion, we are the ones doing the blowing.”
Don't attack yourself, though, if you discover most of the stress is self-generated - that just adds a further layer of turbulence to your already-turbulent mind. Apply some self-compassion by reminding yourself that many, many millions of people in the world also generate their own stress and that a lot of them are actually very nice (though stressed) people.
About the Author: