Many people complain about being stressed out.
Some even take some sort of weird pride in it, wearing their stress like a badge of honour.
But most of us just don’t like it. It’s painful, we can’t figure out how to escape it, and everything we do just seems to make it worse.
What starts out as being a little frustrated escalates quickly into feeling overwhelmed. A helpless feeling starts to wrap itself around you until it’s like you can’t even think at all.
Being “stressed out” means you get much less out of life. Long term stress is pointless. We are raised to believe that stress is a normal part of life; our teachers, caregivers and all other adults showed signs of stress.
Therefore, it’s just normal to be stressed out, right?
WRONG. It may indeed be normal, in that many people are suffering from long-term stress, but that doesn’t mean that it should be normal. Considering how detrimental a state of stress is on the average human, it really does need to be addressed.
One of my clients used to be stressed all the time. She worried about the next sale she needed to close at work, what other people thought of her in public, and where she was going to find a loving man. Every day these thoughts battled for her attention. Until she started managing her stress, with the following stress management plan.
Now she gets to tackle each day from a place of power and calm, simply through controlling how she prevents stress and reacts to the warning signs. She is killing it at work, she doesn’t give a damn what other people think of her, and she’s willing to be patient in her search for the perfect guy.
This plan is devious in its simplicity. If you can find 30mins to sit down and complete this exercise for yourself, you will improve your life beyond measure in the long term. Preventing stress build up has an untold number of benefits, including:
- Increased self-confidence and feelings of certainty in decision-making
- Well managed time
- Priority tasks and actions always get done quickly and to a high standard
- You will be socially relaxed and present
- Massive reduction in feelings of anxiety and depression
The list goes on and on. So set aside some time tonight to complete this plan for yourself. This also serves as a way to become more productive over time, as the behaviour we engage in when stressed is quite often unproductive.
1) BACKGROUND FACTORS
Identify all the external situations you experience which are breeding grounds for stress (for you at least). Look at your work, social life, home life etc. These are not things that cause stress, but things that you might react to by becoming stressed.
Write these all down. For each of these steps I’ll include the most common examples I see in my clients. These will probably apply to most of you also:
Common background factors:
– Big changes within the last year (the top stressors are divorce, death of a spouse, moving house, and getting a new job)
– Multiple deadlines or obligations without clear priority rankings
– Unfinished arguments with your spouse, family or close friends
– Financial insecurity
2) EARLY WARNING SIGNS (EWS)
If you observed yourself when you started to become stressed, what would you see?
How do you feel physically? Do you start to act differently? What emotions start to dominate your life? How does your routine and productivity change?
Look for abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviour for you. Hint: most of the time stress will focus your attention towards short-term solutions, so your thoughts and actions are all about right now; “putting out fires” rather than taking time to solve problems long-term.
Write down what you are likely to experience and what others will notice.
Common warning signs:
– Getting snappy or short with people, and avoiding small talk
– Feeling like you have to rush around to do everything
– Lack of confidence in your decision-making ability
– Feeling the need to ask for help but refusing to do so
– Anxiety prior to normal events, like feeling anxious about work on a Sunday night
– Daydream desires of “escaping”, like wanting to quit your job, spontaneously travel, or break up with your partner
– Immersing yourself in unimportant busywork and avoiding uncomfortable tasks
– Feeling exhausted without exercise
– Constantly frustrated and blaming (either yourself, others, or the Universe)
– Changes in eating patterns and sleep disruption
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3) HIGH RISK SITUATION (HRS)
What happens when you get burnt out? Think back to the time you were the most stressed you’ve ever been (we’ve all got one). Describe what it was like, what other people would have seen, and how you felt.
What you are likely to see are “running away” reactions, like irrational explosive emotional tantrums or making big decisions spontaneously. When I experienced burn-out 4 years ago, I wanted to quit my steady career and move to another country. I couldn’t think properly, I couldn’t solve problems, and I just felt numb and shocked.
A high risk situation is where you are about to wreck your life just because you cannot handle your stress. Write down what that situation would look like.
Common HRS factors:
– Severing long-standing close relationships, usually through an emotional explosion at someone you love
– Quitting long-term commitments, like work, living situation, or relationships
– Feeling unable to think, constantly crushed by demands you cannot handle
– Suicidal or self-harming, including excessive alcohol/drug use or dangerous risk-seeking behaviour
4) EXIT STRATEGIES
This is the important bit.
Go back over the lists you’ve just made and create an uncomplicated exit strategy for each of the factors you’ve identified. A straightforward tactic to undo the potential stress damage caused by the factor. The simpler the better. Include how you could reduce the impact of background factors, as well as how you should react to EWS and HRS.
Some helpful strategies that work in general:
– Slow the hell down. When you feel like rushing, do the opposite. Take plenty of time to do each task, including things like showering and eating. When someone says Hi, engage them in conversation rather than rushing away to work harder. This will allow you to calm yourself and see the forest for the trees, increasing your effectiveness.
– Create daily to-do lists that are ranked according to priority rather than time. #1 is the most important task and must be done first. #2 is very important too, but will not be started until #1 is completed. And so on. By the end of the day, whatever is not completed gets DELETED. It probably didn’t matter much anyway. Click here to get my top time management techniques. This process will allow you to stop thinking and start doing, as well as remove the fear of leaving important work unfinished.
– Talk about your stress to someone you can trust. Vent it out and talk through what is bugging you. Rather than avoiding these scary overwhelming thoughts, face up to them and admit them. This will actually reduce their potency. It’s avoiding stress that increases it, so by exploring it you will reduce it’s perceived power over you.
– Increase the amount you exercise. The more stressed you feel in any given day, the more you will have acidic-like hormones surging through your system. Burn this stuff off because it will damage your body if it’s left to sit.
– Practice Mindfulness meditation each morning for 5-10 minutes. Stress is often related to anxious thoughts about the future, so keep bringing yourself back to the present moment. Just focus on doing one thing at a time and remove distractions. This will get more things done and make you feel more productive, increasing your sense of control.
Usually, when stressed the secret is in doing the opposite of what you FEEL like doing. So if you feel like avoiding people, increase the time you socialise. If you feel like rushing around, slow down. Stress creates poor problem solving strategies; if in doubt, go with the opposite of what you think is a good idea at the time.
5) STICK TO THE PLAN
Each week review your prevention strategies (aka productivity strategies) and make sure to catch yourself BEFORE you get stressed out. Even when you feel like everything is fine, you must stick to the plan.
That way you nip stress in the bud before it becomes something damaging. Better living everybody.