Become Aware of Your Stressors and Reactions
Before you can reduce the negative effects of stress, you have to find out what causes your stress and how you cope. One tool that can help is mindfulness, which is a practice of becoming more aware of what’s going on—in your body, mind, and the environment around you. Rather than running back to a habitual pattern of avoiding or obsessing, mindfulness allows you to simply be present and notice what’s happening right now, giving you the space to choose the best way to respond.
Identify what’s going on
1. What are your sources of stress?
Strange as it may seem, we are often not aware of what causes us stress. So take time to check in with yourself, without judgment. How are you feeling? Pay attention to your body—are your muscles tense or relaxed? Is your breathing deep or shallow? Are you holding your hands open or curled in fists? You may be surprised to find when you are experiencing stress or simply reminded that you find certain situations difficult. Just let yourself acknowledge the feeling.
2. What can you do about your stressors?
Once you know your sources of stress, you can see if you can do anything to reduce or reframe them. For example:
- Can you avoid the stressor? For example, could you leave for work early in the morning in order to take a less busy route and avoid traffic?
- Can you work to resolve conflicts with others by practicing forgiveness, compassion, or setting aside time to talk through issues?
- Can you prepare in advance for stressful situations, such as meetings or trips to the grocery store, so you feel more confident going in?
- Can you practice self-compassion by setting realistic goals and letting go of perfectionism or other unrealistic expectations you might have for yourself and/or others?
- Can you deliberately choose to view change (or anything else that is causing you stress) as a positive challenge, rather than a threat?
If you can't eliminate or reduce a stressor, simply being aware of it can help you recognize when you need to take corrective action.
3. How do you experience stress?
Knowing how you experience stress will help you recognize when you are at risk. When you feel stressed:
- How do you react?
- Do you become irritable?
- Do you develop tense shoulders or get a headache?
- Do you get stuck in negative thoughts?
Answering these questions could lead to greater awareness and understanding of how stress affects you.
4. How do you cope with stress?
Do you have healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation, or getting support from family and friends? Or do you overeat, watch too much TV, drink, or smoke to reduce stress? Pay attention: do your coping mechanisms really alleviate the stress, or do they simply offer a quick escape or chance to “numb out”? A temporary distraction may make you feel better right now, but long-term avoidance tends to create more stress, and it robs you of the chance to learn and grow from your experience.
Adjust your attitude
We often respond to stressful events in ways that are not particularly helpful. Sometimes our attitudes become negative, defeatist, or worrisome, which can make it difficult to mindfully deal with stress.
If this sounds familiar to you, know that simply adjusting your attitude can reduce stress. Research suggests that if you approach a situation as a challenge, rather than a threat, you don’t trigger the stress responses that can damage health. And as a bonus, you are likely to think more clearly and have better motor control! Try the following tips:
- When you are aware of stress, see if you can view the situation as a challenge that you have the resources to meet.
- Conversely, accept that there are events you cannot control. Don't worry about what you can't change.
- Be assertive instead of passive or aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, combative, or passive.
- Divide large tasks into smaller components to make jobs less overwhelming.
- Schedule your time wisely and honestly, always allowing time for interruptions and unplanned change.
- Learn about therapeutic approaches for dealing with distressing thoughts or feelings. One approach that you can research online or talk to a therapist about is called cognitive-behavioral therapy.