The world is becoming an increasingly challenging place in which to live, making stress management techniques more vital than ever for the sake of all our mental health. We have crazy politics, a pandemic and a media that seems hell-bent on tapping into our fear centres like never before. It’s a profoundly troublesome time – a bit like the 1930s.
Challenging periods like these, however, are nothing new. They’ve occurred throughout human history and will continue to happen in the future. It’s the nature of civilization.
The question for the individual is; what to do in these circumstances? It’s easy to get caught up in the madness and feel all the panic yourself. But we know from research that being stressed all the time isn’t good for you. Sometimes, it can lead to chronic health conditions.
Life coach and guru Tony Robbins likes to make a distinction between the things that you can control in your life, and the things that you can’t.
He says that you can’t control everything that goes on in the outside world. Ultimately, the universe is going to rumble on how it wants, regardless of whether you intervene or not.
Interestingly, though, Robbins says that you have complete control over what goes on inside your head. Stress, he says, might feel like something that’s being “done to you,” but that’s not the reality. How you feel is largely a choice that you can make.
Understanding this vital distinction between your mind and the rest of the world is the foundation of practically all stress management. It’s about comprehending that your perspectives are very much at the root of uncomfortable feelings. And it implies that you can actively change how you think about something to reduce your anxiety.
It seems like hocus-pocus, but there’s a lot of research and psychology backing it up. Many people are able to happily go through their lives, despite some of the horrors of our society. And that helps improve their ability to deal with the pressures that come their way.
So what can the average person do to improve their stress management in a world like ours? How can we get back to basics and connect with our humanity?
Reframe your negative situations
It can be challenging to deal with negative situations sometimes. As humans, we have a tendency to focus on the bad aspects of a particular challenge, instead of the good that could come out of it.
Let’s say that something truly awful happens and you find out your partner has been lying and cheating on you.
On the face of it, it can seem like a disaster. They’ve rejected you and they’ve indulged their passions with another person.
A lot of people see this as a sign of their worthlessness. They feel like they failed somehow.
But there’s another way of viewing the situation. It’s an opportunity to find a new and exciting lover and reshape your life. It opens up a whole new path for you.
The same goes for situations at work. Let’s say that a colleague has looked at your work and told you that it’s terrible. You could talk yourself into believing that you’re stupid and ignorant. Or you could just use their feedback to learn and improve, increasing your value long-term.
Reframing negative situations puts a damper on stress because it allows you to see the opportunities through the darkness. It takes your attention away from your own worth and focuses your mind on what you can actually do to improve your life instead.
Learn the skill of relaxation
Relaxation doesn’t happen automatically. You can’t just flop in front of the TV and expect your angst to melt away. Instead, relaxation is a skill that you need to pursue actively.
The easiest place to start is with the body.
Lie on your bed in a dimly lit room and focus on deactivating your muscles one by one. Start at the bottom of the body at the feet, and then slowly work your way up to your head. Do this as slowly as you can.
Spend five to ten minutes consciously relaxing and going through the motions. And at the end of it, your mind should also feel more relaxed. Ideally, you want to get to the point where you reflect on how you felt before and wonder why things seemed so stressful to you.
There are all kinds of other ways to relax the body. Some people try deep breathing, meditation and yoga. For some, it’s a massage or a long soak in a hot bath.
Just try not to turn to bad habits to help destress as many of these are detrimental to your overall health. If you find smoking relaxes you, then at least find vape deals as a starting point to stop smoking and try to find a natural relief instead that you can convert to.
Whatever it is, it needs to be physiological. Pleasant sensations help to deactivate pain centres in the mind, producing a profound sense of wellness.
Focus on your strengths
At school and college (and even in the workplace), people continually tell us that we need to improve our weaknesses. But a lot of research suggests that this approach to life is quite futile, and ultimately, it makes it difficult for you to enjoy yourself.
When you think about it, it makes sense of any human population to have diverse skills naturally. You need some people who are good at communicating and others who can use their hands.
People can generate value for others via all sorts of means. Not everyone has to be a ‘well-rounded individual’.
Does Elton John need to be good at calculus to produce great music? Probably not.
Does your doctor need to be able to weld a car back together? Unlikely.
If you’re stressed because you can’t do something, don’t sweat it. Follow your strengths and train to amplify them. Go with what feels natural.
Forgive yourself and others more often
Researchers are increasingly talking about the importance of adopting what they call ‘a forgiving style’ for stress relief.
The idea is pretty simple.
If somebody says something you don’t agree with, don’t rage at them or call them stupid. Just accept that they are less informed than you.
Or if somebody cuts you off in traffic, avoid getting angry. Let it go instead. You don’t have to hold onto it.
Mental health professionals believe that when you apply a forgiving style, you virtually break the link between stress and mental illness. Instead, you feel the stress directly, process it, and then eliminate it. You don’t have to bring it forward for the rest of your day. It’s a simple stress management technique that can really help you reframe your stress and be a lot calmer as you go about your day.
Have a sense of ongoing gratitude
In the past, people called gratitude “counting your blessings”. And it was something that people did regularly to remind themselves that their lives weren’t as bad as they sometimes seemed.
Today, we are wealthier than ever before. However, we seem to be losing the skill of gratitude – and it’s hurting our health.
It turns out that just thinking about the good things in your life is enough to reverse a lot of depression and anxiety that you might feel.
Fundamentally, gratitude is accounting. You’re taking stock of what you have, not what you desire. And that reminds you of how far you’ve come. You’re avoiding negative thoughts about what other people have and, instead, just enjoying the bounty in your life – whatever form that might take.
Think about activities you enjoy
Researchers are also discovering that the activities that you do have the biggest impact on your quality of life.
It seems like a statement of the obvious, but for a long time, many believed that affirmations were the key to feeling better about yourself. It turns out, though, that that’s not true.
Instead, if you want to improve your sense of self-worth, experts now recommend that you think about doing an activity that you enjoy. It could be taking a walk in the woods or working on your classic car. The actual task itself doesn’t matter, so long as it creates positive energy.
Once you have an activity in mind, try identifying the character trait that gives you the strength or ability to do it.
So, for instance, if you’re a team leader at work and you love your job, you might boost your worth by identifying the traits that make you successful in that role; for instance, your kindness or generosity.
Or if you like taking walks in the woods for fitness, you might praise your perseverance and resilience.
Whatever it is, make sure that you link the activity to something about you personally.
If you’re struggling to think about it clearly, try writing it down in your journal.
Write down your values
Events can often seem very stressful and out of control if you don’t have a framework of values in which to place them. Ideally, you want to be able to contextualise what’s going on in your life relative to your highest standards.
Let’s say that somebody criticised you at work. Does that matter compared to your values?
If your core values are to always do your job perfectly, then yes, it does matter.
But if you think staying healthy or being virtuous is more important, then it doesn’t matter fundamentally.
It’s just a sign that you need to update your skills or course-correct slightly.