Don’t stress. Do your very best. Appreciate each step. Forget the rest.
Stress is one of the primary causes of major health problems in our lives: it can cause heart disease, anxiety, sleep deprivation, auto-immune disorders, weight problems, unhappiness, and even deep depression.
But we’re busy – we all have places to be, things to do and people to see. So how do we alleviate stress and still get our work done right (without neglecting our loved ones and ourselves)?
When life gets crazy busy, you might not have time for week-long meditation and yoga retreats, weekend vacations, or even weekly life coaching sessions. So what can be done?
I’m going to be brief about this, because time is of the essence. There are nine simple things you can do. A few mindset shifts and a couple actions that take only a couple minutes. These can’t solve the most severe stress related problems, but they can help most of us in a major way, every day.
1. Be in the moment, completely, with just one task.
Instead of being in a stressful task-switching state of mind, take your next task, let everything else go, and just be in the moment with this one task.
Let yourself be immersed in this task by letting go of the feeling that you need to quickly rush through it – that you need to move on to the next task waiting for you. There will always be a next task, because that’s the nature of TO-DO lists – they’re never-ending. So let those later tasks come later. Just be 100% in this one task, like it’s your entire world.
Bottom line: Slow down. Breathe. Review your commitments and goals. Put first things first. Do one task at a time. Start now. Take a 5-minute break in an hour. Repeat. (And always remember, results are more important than the time it takes to achieve them.)
2. Let go of controlling what can’t be controlled.
Fear is causing you to be stressed, not external factors like your job obligations or family issues. Those external factors are just a part of life, but they become stressful when you fear failure, fear people won’t like you, fear you’re not good enough, fear abandonment, and so forth.
Your fears are based on some fantasy in your head about how things are supposed to be (and you fear that your life may not live up to that fantasy): you have an image in your head that you’re going to be perfect, have people like you, be comfortable all the time, and succeed on all fronts. These fantasies are a way to feel in control of a world that you don’t actually control, but they’re hurting you by causing fear and stress. Instead, let go of control. Be OK with chaos and uncertainty, and trust that things will work out. You’ll fear less and feel less stress. (Read The Untethered Soul.)
3. Accept people just the way they are and smile.
We get upset with others because they don’t meet our fantasy of how they ‘should’ act. Instead, try accepting them for who they are, and recognize that, like you, they’re imperfect and seeking happiness and struggling with finding it. They’re doing their best. Accept them just the way they are. In most cases it’s impossible to change them anyway, and it’s rude to try. So save yourself from needless stress.
Instead of trying to change others, give them your support today and lead by example.
4. Take a brief walk outside.
When things are getting really stressful, take 5-10 minutes to take a walk and clear your mind. A short walk does wonders. It gives you something new to look at and it gets your body moving.
Through a decade of life coaching we’ve found that people who have recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or job loss, always see an immediate mood boost after a short outdoor walk. It’s literally the most effective way to instantly reduce the stressful pressure of a worried mind.
Right about now, you should consider taking a break from work and go for a short, peaceful walk (in a park or green space if there’s one nearby). Again, this is not unproductive lollygagging, it’s likely to have a restorative effect on your mind and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery. (Read The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook.)
5. Perform short mindfulness practices.
You don’t have to meditate for 30 minutes to get the benefits of mindfulness…
- You can do a quick body scan (focus on your body and notice how each part of it feels right now) in 30 seconds.
- You can pay attention to your breath for 60 seconds (listen to it and feel it).
- You can watch your thoughts about concerns, fears, judgments, doubts, and ideals for a minute (recognize that these thoughts are simply thoughts; you don’t need to believe them or react to them).
- You can walk mindfully, paying attention to your feet, your body, your breath and your surroundings, as you walk.
You can do each of these short mindfulness practices in little bits whenever you need them throughout your day.
6. Purge untrue thoughts.
You must learn a new way to think before you can master a new way to be. Behind every stressful feeling is an untrue thought. Before the thought you weren’t suffering, but after the thought you began to suffer. When you recognize that the thought isn’t true, once again there is no suffering. When you change your thoughts, you change your life. So next time you catch a thought stressing you out, ask yourself these four questions:
- Is it true? – This question can change your life. Be still and ask yourself if the thought you’re dealing with is true.
- Can I be absolutely, 100% certain that it’s true? – This is another opportunity to open your mind and to go deeper into the unknown, to find the answers that live beneath what you think you know.
- How do I feel when I think this thought? – With this question, you begin to notice internal cause and effect. You can see that when you believe the thought, there is a disturbance that can range from mild discomfort to outright panic and fear. What do you feel? How do you treat the situation (or person) you’re thinking about, how do you treat yourself, when you believe that thought? Be specific.
- Who would I be, and what would I do differently, if I were not thinking this thought? – Imagine yourself in your situation (or in the presence of that person), without believing the thought. How would your life be different if you didn’t have the ability to even think this stressful thought? How would you feel? Which do you prefer – life with or without the thought? Which feels more peaceful?
(Angel and I discuss this process in detail in the “Letting Go of Painful Emotions” lesson of Getting Back to Happy.)
7. Consciously squash the needless comparisons.
Sometimes the reason we struggle with stress and insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes circumstances with everyone else’s public highlight reel. Give it up. Don’t compare your Chapter 1 to someone else’s Chapter 15. Follow your own path, write your own life story, and never give up on yourself.
Next time you catch yourself comparing your life situation to someone else’s, refer to these two formulas:
- Happiness formula = Do YOUR very best and feel good about it.
- Unhappiness formula = Compare yourself to everyone else.
8. Track what’s going well and give thanks.
Overlooking everything that’s wonderful is a tragedy. Do your best and surrender the rest. When you stay stuck in worried thoughts of the life you think you should have, you end up missing the beauty of what you do have. You will have a hard time ever being happy if you aren’t thankful for the good things in your life right now.
Here’s a super simple, five-minute, daily gratitude exercise that has worked wonders for thousands of our coaching clients over the past decade:
Every evening before you go to bed, write down three things that went well during the day and their causes. Simply provide a short, causal explanation for each good thing.
That’s it. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on expensive electronics, big homes, fancy cars and lavish vacations hoping for a boost of happiness. This is a free alternative, and it works.
In a study of this gratitude exercise’s effectiveness by Martin Seligman, participants were asked to follow those exact instructions for just one week. After one week the participants were measurably 2% happier than before, but in follow-up tests their happiness kept on increasing, from 5% at one month, to 9% at six months. Even more interestingly, the participants were only required to keep this gratitude journal for one week, but the majority of them continued journaling on their own because they enjoyed it.
I tried it for myself many years ago – I set a goal of doing it for just one week, and I’m still doing it today. So I can assure you, it’s addictively effective. (Angel and I discuss this in detail in the “Happiness” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
9. Use your body.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, your body is the greatest instrument you own. So when all else fails, and your stress levels are mounting, use your body to sooth your mind.
The mind reflects your body by responding to its levels of tension, rate of breath, speed of movement and mental focus. Likewise your body mirrors your thoughts, feelings, mood, and responds to your state of mind, the questions you ask and the words you speak. So if the mind and body are intrinsically connected – meaning that one has a direct affect on the other – it becomes clear that if we directly and consciously take control of one, it will influence and transform the other.
By mindfully adjusting how you use your body you can directly influence your state of mind, and dramatically transform your attitude. Just imagine you’re sitting there in a bad mood, shoulders hanging forward, shallow breathing and frowning. Go ahead and do this right now to experience how it influences your state of mind. And then do the opposite: stand up straight and put a big smile on your face. Take some deep, strong breaths and stretch your arms into the air.
Notice how you feel better?
Bottom line: Take the vehicle your creator has given you and use it! Your body is the best tool for changing your attitude and relieving stress in an instant.
If you have extra time after doing those nine things, I have a few other recommendations that will help:
- Eliminate unnecessary tasks on your TO-DO list.
- Reduce your commitments by saying “no” when you know you should.
- Start a regular 10-minute meditation practice.
- Find additional mindfulness practices to try.
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat healthier.
- Spend quality time with loved ones, daily.
- Get more sleep.
And remember that most people cope with stress in unhealthy ways – drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating sweets, arguing with people, mindlessly watching TV, procrastinating, and so forth. Ironically these activities often cause more stress. So don’t do this to yourself. Instead, use the ideas I’ve provided to cope without these unhealthy crutches.
How do you cope with stress? What helps you alleviate stress when life gets crazy busy? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Photo by: Kerry M (Stocksy)