Stress is such a little word for all that it encompasses: the frustration of dealing with certain people, the fear of facing uncertain futures, the anxiety of managing current challenges. It’s not quite the kind of clinical anxiety that takes over your life, but it can still make you want to scream, cry, throw up, maybe just curl into a little ball….all things that may not be a choice at a particular moment because no matter how stressed out you are, the world keeps moving on and there are things you have to do.
It’s easy for someone to say “just relax, calm down and deal with it,” but we all know how often in the history of “calm down” that it’s done anything other than upset a person more. Fortunately, there are other options to help you keep going.
Start with realizing that maybe, you won’t get it all done and that’s okay. Make your goal getting some of the things done. You can try to prioritize the most important, most time-sensitive items or you can pick and choose for the easiest ones. Either way, don’t equate not being 100% successful in getting your entire to do list done to being a 100% failure. Similarly, work to understand that it can be enough to check off a box even if you don’t finish the task perfectly to the very best of your ability. Is it done? That’s enough. Anything at all you get done is significant, worthwhile, and in the middle of struggling? That’s an accomplishment.
Sometimes, choosing those easy and small tasks can give you a sense of control and productivity that makes facing down the bigger, harder ones a little less overwhelming. It’s possible that the bathroom didn’t really need to be scrubbed quite as clean as you did, but not having to do it later? That’s a win. Embrace it. And now that you’ve tackled it, maybe dealing with a different kind of dirty won’t seem so bad. Plus the time spent doing those easier, smaller, less “significant” tasks can also create a psychological distance from what’s stressing you out. Meanwhile, that thing you were worried about? It might have worked itself out while you were busy.
Another way of creating psychological distance is to straight up get away from it all. Give yourself 5, 10, 15 minutes to stop worrying. I’m not saying tell yourself not to worry, just tell yourself that you’re going to have a little break and afterward, you can go back to worrying if you like. During that time, do something you enjoy without guilt. Pattern-matching games like Tetris or match-3 games have some preliminary research showing anxiety-reducing effects, so maybe try one of those. Or pick up a craft project, musical instrument, or other hobby you haven’t had time for recently. Or do a few minutes of yoga or meditation. Or simply just be and not do. Set an alarm for your break and when you’re done, then you can go back, refreshed.
You can also use this strategy in reverse: buckle up and deal with that stressful encounter or task, and promise yourself a reward when you’re done. The Pomodoro Technique is a variation on this, where you spend 25 minutes working, and 5 minutes not, and after two hours total, you take a 15-30 minute break. It’s a time management tool, but also something you can model stress management after: take a small bite at managing the thing that’s causing you stress, then pat yourself on the back with something that doesn’t before you go back to facing the monster.
It’s simple to say “Let it gooooooooooo” (best advice ever from a Disney princess, by the way) but putting that into practice ain’t easy. Do these strategies help you, or is there something else that works in your world?