‘If they can’t hang you for it, don’t worry about it’ one of my first managers would say in his tempered Irish accent, and always with a rakish lopsided grin. In my early twenties when I was based in Singapore, Don talked me off the figurative ledge a number of times.
The principal source of stress back then? Mistakes. And I made tons of them. Professionally and personally. But instead of chalking them up to learning experiences and moving on, I’d often spend days, weeks, even months obsessing over decisions I’d made.
With time (and age), the reasons behind my stress grew more substantial. Real stress – the kind that messes with your sleep, causes anxiety and depression, and leaves you with physical ailments – is no joke. I won’t belabor the point here by citing scientific studies. I’d just like to acknowledge that for some stress is a lifelong battle and I’m truly sympathetic to that.
I gradually learned to let go and stopped stressing over things I couldn’t control. I also figured out how to process more quickly. Here’s how I preserved my own sanity along with techniques that have helped clients manage stress during career transitions.
Evaluate the issue, create a plan & take action
I started assessing each problem and its relative importance. Would it matter a day from now? A week? A year? I also learned to distinguish between problems I had no control over and those I could try to solve. For the latter, taking ownership and creating a plan (even a half-baked one) felt very empowering. Acknowledging that I had a choice, and doing something about it, made the issue in question much more manageable and less stressful.
Remind yourself that it’s just a phase
When I think about stressful situations I’ve encountered in my life (two back-to-back deaths in the family, recovering from surgery, international moves, falling out with a parent who I revere, and being screwed over my someone I trusted), there isn’t a single one that wasn’t resolved or that didn’t become easier to manage with time.
If you’re working your way through any kind of transition right now, please take some comfort from the fact that this is just a phase. It will eventually pass.
Gain some perspective
Along with wrinkles, deteriorating eyesight and bigger problems, age brought experience and perspective. My work with with Hospice by the Bay a few years back was, and continues to be, a solid reality check. Being in service to others who are struggling or less fortunate, absolutely lends perspective.
Besides volunteerism, here are some other perspective-changing activities to try:
- Do something nice (and unexpected) for someone else
- Change your daily environment, routine or habits
- Read an inspiring biography
- Watch an uplifting movie
- Sponsor a child in need
‘If you can help other people, it puts your problems into perspective. You can always find someone worse off than you.’ John Bean
Turn it on its head with gratitude
Remember the age-old adage ‘count your blessings?’ Well there’s something in that. Gratitude is a powerful transformer. Shifting focus to the positive by expressing gratitude is a very effective way to turn things around.
A 2017 Berkeley gratitude study generated positive results in well-functioning students as well as those seeking mental health counseling. During the study, subjects were instructed to write a weekly letter of gratitude for three weeks. The results? Students reported an improved mental state and/or increased happiness. Apparently gratitude helps dilute toxic emotions and has a lasting effect on the brain. But to be truly effective, it needs to be practiced regularly.
At one point I was generating a gratitude list on daily basis before bed. I slept well and felt really good about my life. Come to think of it, I really need to reinstate that practice.
Ask ‘why do I care about this so much’?
Tracing the issue to its source is a great way to understand triggers and acknowledge specific feelings. Personally, I used to be way too concerned with what other people thought of me and that’s no way to live. So I started asking myself why I cared so much about a specific issue. If the answer was along the lines of ‘I’m worried what people will think’ or ‘I’m going to look stupid’ I knew it was time to shut it down and move on.
‘Not caring what other people think will be the best choice you’ll ever make.’ Unknown
Exercise or find a healthy distraction
During my twenties, visits to the driving range provided a great way for me to immerse in something new. They pulled me out of my head and forced me to focus on something completely so there was no room for worry. These days I practice yoga and hike. The mental time-outs really help and the exercise certainly doesn’t hurt.
It’s not breaking news that exercise has been scientifically proven to relieve stress. What’s interesting however, is that the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) cited that as little as five minutes of aerobic exercise (on a regular basis) can be beneficial.
Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and increase self-esteem. About five minutes of exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. AADA, 2017
Also worth mentioning (but hardy surprising) is that doctors generally agree the use of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, food and other drugs as primary stress coping tools, is ill advised.
Meditate and be present
While I’m not the poster child for meditation I do practice semi-regularly. It really helps bring my thoughts to the present and stops me from functioning on autopilot. It also stops me from obsessing about the past or worrying about things I can’t control.
In addition to its effects being broad and far-reaching, meditation is highly accessible and approachable these days. If you don’t already meditate, I strongly recommend finding an app that appeals and starting a free trial. The Mindfulness App, Headspace and Calm are top-rated in the iStore.
‘You should sit still in meditation for twenty minutes everyday unless you’re too busy. In this case you should sit for an hour.’ Old zen saying
Try a visualization or grounding technique to center yourself
Yes they sound totally kooky but visualization and grounding exercises help me a lot and I tend to stick with several favorites.
To remove negativity, I exhale the issue in question (that happens to look like nasty toxic gas) into a huge ballon, tie the end, and let it float up into space. Tip: Enact this one in your head to avoid looking like a street mime!
To shield myself against a difficult situation or unpleasant environment, I create a protective bubble around myself. To achieve this I imagine light shooting out through my crown (top of the head) and creating a protective forcefield around me. Yes, I really do this and yes, it really helps!
For grounding, I cover my crown with one hand and place the other on my belly. I close my eyes and sit with my feet connected to the ground for 60 seconds or longer. As I do this I focus on my breath (inhaling and exhaling fully and audibly). This instantly changes my state.
Find your voice and advocate for yourself
Advocating for oneself is a learned skill. Because of insecurities and lack of self-confidence, for me, the road to self-advocacy was a long one. I started by imagining I was advocating for someone else because I found it easier to do something for a family member or a friend than for myself. Next, I pushed back on smaller and less significant issues before tackling those that were more important. To prepare for interactions, I rehearsed and played out each conversation.
Daily affirmations increased my confidence as did visualizing where/how I wanted to be. This is where the famed expression ‘fake it ’till you make it’ worked wonders. I also learned to establish and enforce boundaries. Lastly, I came to appreciate that compromises can generate positive results as well.
While tons of books exist on this topic, Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection is a sweet and compelling read.
Have you ever noticed how issues seem that much worse in the company of certain people? I learned to identify and avoid toxic and draining people and situations. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this significantly reduced the amount of stress in my life.
If you know someone who leaves you feeling drained and the relationship doesn’t feel like a two-way street then perhaps it’s time to change direction and find new friends. For a helpful book check out Emotional Vampires by Albert J. Bernstein.
And if all else fails then try to catch some Z’s
Everything is better after even just a little sleep. Do what you can to get some rest and recharge your batteries.
‘The best eraser in the world is a good night’s sleep.’ Orlando Aloysius Battista.