Since I transitioned from undergrad, I feel as though I've been drinking from a fire hose! New job, new city, new friends, new home, new responsibilities, new challenges. No matter how exhilarating this period can be, it's inevitable that STRESS can creep in at certain times. I realize that life stressors will never back off, take a vacation and say, "Okay, I'll give you a pass this once." In fact, I welcome the challenge of learning how to manage it. However, it tends to take its toll in waves--some weeks are easier than others. Any advice?
Stressing to de-stress, 22, Washington DC
Dear Stressing to De-Stress,
Stress is something that plagues most of us in some way or another. Learning how to manage stress is hot topic especially during your twenties when there can be quite a lot of transitions and unknowns. To me, stress is not something to "manage" since managing stress implies that it is still going to be there. Wouldn't you rather eliminate stress by learning how to respond to it in more life-enhancing ways?
For years I tried to learn how to "manage" stress. I read books, went to yoga classes, scheduled in down time, spent time in nature and so on but I found that there was a huge roadblock to having any of these things be effective stress management techniques: my mind. Even in the midst of a great hike overlooking a beautiful view my thoughts would wander to my to-do or worry list. Or I'd be so busy that I'd find myself rushing to make it to a yoga class and be even more mentally stressed out by the time I got there! Instead of trying to manage stress by doing other things, I have found the key is to learn how to RESPOND to stress by making my mind (the true beholder of all stress) my ally rather than my nemesis.
Most stress comes in two forms: anxiety and overwhelm. Anxiety is when we are stressed about things that have not happened yet, things we are anticipating. Anxiety is basically future based worrisome thinking. Overwhelm occurs when there is so much on our plate and our thoughts become burdened with constant to-dos and a sense that we will never catch up.
When you are experiencing stress you are either anxious or in overwhelm and there are effective ways to respond to each. Let's tackle anxiety first. I guarantee you that if you are feeling anxious your mind is in the future. It is impossible to feel anxiety when you are in the present moment; thus, bringing your full attention and awareness to the here and now is the quick-fix to anxiety. You can do this by paying attention to your breathing, your body, or any other physical experience you are feeling, seeing, tasting, or hearing.
Staying in the present moment is challenging for all of us, especially when there is a specific thing that you are worried about so I want to also offer you a mental technique that combats anxiety. Imagine whatever the future event is that you are concerned about in your mind but visualize it going exactly the way you want it to go. Really bring it to life in your mind; see it, feel it, sense it, and watch it happen in a way that exceeds your best case scenario. Spend about a minute positively and powerfully visualizing the event or circumstance you are stressed about and then project yourself in your mind 15 minutes past the successful completion of the event so that you are now looking back on it. And now notice what happened to the feeling of anxiety? It will be gone!
Now onto dealing with overwhelm. We experience this feeling when we have too much vagueness in our mind and we are not focused on specific and immediate action steps. Overwhelm happens when we become so burdened by EVERYTHING that we have a hard time focusing on ANY ONE THING. The key to responding to overwhelm is a process called chunking down which is breaking down your "everything" into small, manageable parts. Write down each of the to-do items or things you have hanging over your head and then begin a process of chucking them down vertically from big-picture intangibles to specific tangibles. Let's use the example of getting all your holiday gifting complete by chucking down from most vague and far off in future to the most specific and immediate action step you can take:
• Being complete with holiday shopping
• Wrapping gifts
• Going to specific store on a specific day (repeat until complete)
• Scheduling in time to shop
• Making a list of stores I need to go to
• Online shopping for gifts I can get online
• Brainstorm gift ideas for each person
• Making a list of who I have to buy for*
Now we are at a specific, manageable step: *making a list. As soon as you arrive at this chunked down step, move into action. Overwhelm begins to disappear as soon as we move out of reaction to our seemingly overwhelming to-do list and into being proactive! Our mind is a lot calmer when we give it something tangible and do-able to focus on.
Another thing to consider when stress comes in is to take a mental vacation by recalling a time when you did feel totally at peace and relaxed. Instead of the stress taking hold of you, take hold of it. Reassure yourself that you are capable of letting go of stress even when a lot is going on. Life will continually throw us curve balls and most of us are in the habit of creating never-tending to-do lists so rather making stress your enemy, accept it and learn how to respond to it. Instead of always needing a vacation, use your mind to become a master of sending stress away on vacation!
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