By Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH
Now that I’ve discussed how harmful chronic stress is to your health…what can you do about it? The very necessary next step (after recognizing what is causing your stress) is to make the decision to take control of it. To decide to take control means that you are determined to start making positive, proactive changes in your life to effectively manage your stress—as opposed to allowing yourself to feel like a victim to it and merely trying to cope with it. This difference in mindset can make a significant difference—the difference between feeling like you’re keeping pace while staying ahead in a race as opposed to lagging behind trying to catch up.
So really, what does this all mean? This post will introduce the most practical way to start taking control of your stress: by practicing the “4 A’s.”
Feeling stressed out right now? Take a few seconds to do one of these quick relaxation techniques.
– 1 –
AVOID unnecessary stress
While you should not try to avoid facing a stressful situation that absolutely needs to be addressed, take some time to identify which stressors in your life you can reasonably eliminate.
➢ Learn how to say “no.” Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can handle is one of the ways to guarantee stress. Before taking on a task, ask yourself: “Is this something I must do or just something that I could or should do?”
➢ Prioritize your To-Do List. Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list….or eliminate them entirely if possible. You will be surprised at the weight that falls off your shoulders.
– 2 –
ALTER the situation
If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try altering it. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate with others or respond to events in your daily life.
➢ Take control of your environment. For example, if watching the news makes you anxious, turn off the TV. If traffic makes you tense, try taking a longer but less-traveled route. Make an effort to find alternative ways to approach stressful tasks. While this takes some planning, once you find something that works for you, it’ll bring immense relief.
– 3 –
ADAPT to the stressor
If you can’t change the stressor, try adjusting yourself by adapting to it. You will not only feel a sense of control but will find that many things are not as stressful as they appear when you change your expectations and attitude.
➢ Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favorite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
➢ Look at the bigger picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
➢ Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.” Does this mean you will end up letting the quality of your work suffer? Not at all. Rather, often by giving yourself a break, you’ll find that you will be able to better focus on whatever task is at hand…and end up with even better results.
➢ Practice gratitude. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy is a powerful way to help you keep things in perspective.
– 4 –
ACCEPT the things you can’t change
Some stressors–such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one, the economy– are simply unavoidable. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, you will see how much energy and frustration it saves.
➢ Discover a way to benefit from each situation. When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own actions contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them, learn from them, and then move on.
➢ Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of bitterness and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.
➢ Don’t bottle things up. If a certain thing or situation is bothering you, find a way to communicate it to someone so that resentment and stress doesn’t accumulate. If that is not possible, try venting to a trusted friend or write it out in a journal.
Before I go on further, I encourage you to incorporate some of these tips into your day today. Even if it doesn’t seem to make a difference at first, give it a chance, as even Stress Management is like a skill that needs to be practiced and perfected. In a subsequent post, I will discuss more about utilizing self-care, social support, and time management as ways to take control of your stress.
Ready for the next step? Click here to go to part two of this article.