Stress management is highly modular. The way I see it, the task of creating a stress management system requires an individual approach. You can’t copy someone else’s stress management system, but you also can’t rely on your own whims and wishes to “wing it” when it comes to preserving or improving your emotional health.
Today, we’re going to sit down and collectively work on a little project involving the simple challenge of creating a plan – not a schedule with strict times and deadlines, but a simple list of things to do. This plan will be responsible for managing your stress levels. But before we delve into the components and specifics to crafting this little individualized system of happiness, let’s first tackle the idea of a stress level.
We All Have Stress Limits
Stress is a universal experience, and it’s one we all need. Stress is what gives life spice, it’s what causes us to feel urgency and emotion and care about things. Life is stressful. Love is stressful. The best things in life are as rewarding as they are because of the stress surrounding them. Raising a child, for example, can be one of the most stressful long-term projects anyone could undertake. And seeing your own child do things that make you proud is such a heart-melting experience, that you forget every moment you were ever mad at them. Well, almost every moment.
But stress can become too much. We all have an individual limit for how much stress we can handle before we crack under the pressure. While stress allows us to experience passion, get excited about future challenges and feel that delicious, visceral motivation, being “stressed out” is a much less positive experience. Some handle stress better than others, but we all have our limit – and that limit defines our stress levels.
Sadly, most people have to live lives wherein their stress levels – by consequence of their line of work, their personal circumstances, familial complications or any other factor – often exceed their limits. The fewest among us are privileged enough to live a life where we never hit that breaking point. And so, most of us have to learn to handle our stress levels – reduce them, much like a pressure chamber. Instead of watching the air pressure build up to unsustainable levels while every barometer in the vicinity threatens a disaster, we have to learn to fashion and implement the right valves and systems to release the excess pressure, blow off some steam and come back down to a sustainable emotional state.
The Art of Stress Management
It’s not easy to manage your stress – which, in a way, sounds like a contradiction. Stress itself is generated when we’re facing challenges and obstacles – how could a challenge reduce our stress? The truth is, stress management isn’t solely about finding ways to unwind and relax. For some of us, the best way to release stress is by channeling it somewhere else. When life becomes to frustrating, using that frustration to achieve something else can alleviate the anger, resolve the anguish, and bring peace of mind.
In other cases, the best way to deal with a stressful situation is to take a step back and find some place to retreat. It’s not running away – it’s a matter of tactics. By taking a long hot bath or an extended walk along the park, we might find the solution to our problems through the use of an outside perspective – by taking a step back, you rid yourself of your frustrations and your tunnel vision, and approach a problem with a fresher, clearer mind.
Finally, managing your stress is about maintaining a healthy body and a healthy mind. By staying physically healthy, your brain can work better, be less foggy, and worry less about pain or comfort. By avoiding preventable diseases and practicing better eating habits, we can improve our thinking, and maintain a more balanced mood. Likewise, by avoiding faulty coping habits, we can cut out a lot of obsessive, negative and addicted thinking, and practice the type of mindfulness that allows us to focus on current issues rather than worry about the past, the future, or problems we cannot change.
I say that stress management is an art because, like art, it’s about individual expression. You have to decide what you can and can’t do for yourself. You have to be the one to sit down and ask yourself what changes you can afford to make in life for your own good and the good of those around you. You have to ask yourself what kind of sacrifices you would make to your current level of comfort for the sake of being healthier, and stronger of both mind and body. And often enough, little changes and common tips won’t help you address real, damaging problems. It’s not simple, or cut-and-dry. But, like art, it’s not rocket science either, and everyone can give it a go.
Beginning Your Stress Management
It helps to begin by identifying where most of your stress is coming from. What troubles you the most? Is it your workplace? Is it the challenges of an overbearing boss or a problematic family member? Sometimes, stress management begins with the confrontation of your biggest problem in life. If you’re absolutely miserable in your job, then you have to channel your efforts into finding a new one. You may think you’re doing others a favor by staying quiet and collecting your paycheck, but you’re doing so at the expense of your sanity, and your physical health.
If your troubles are caused by a toxic relationship, then you have to strongly consider cutting it out of your life. Be frank, and honest – not necessarily ruthless, and certainly not heartless, but definitely honest. With yourself, especially. Friends are important for our emotional health, but having someone manipulative, selfish and deeply unstable in our lives only saps away at our own will to live. Make a journal and list all the things that cause you unwanted and unneeded stress, and work to eliminate them first.
There are many obstacles and stressors we can’t just eliminate – like the responsibility of caring for a sick relative. In these cases, we have to learn to cope with the situation and focus instead on what we can do to improve our emotional state.
Begin your stress management first by reducing your sources of stress. After that, it’s time to think about what you can do for yourself.
It’s Not Selfish
Some people avoid doing things for themselves because they think it goes against that cardinal principle of being selfless, and humble. And in a way, they’re right. It’s better to do things for others. But it’s also foolish to do nothing for yourself. You have to see yourself as an incredibly complicated tool – no offense. In a way, you can live life with the philosophy of being a dependable, capable person, helping those in need and working for the sake of your family and loved ones. But if you abuse yourself, you’ll break down. And broken tools can’t do anything.
You need to keep yourself healthy and fit if you want to continue to help others and be a useful member of both your family and society in general. If you take pride in being selfless, then try to change that around a little and instead take pride in being capable, useful, and essential to others. Being reliable is exceptionally admirable. But you will do no one any favors if you work yourself into a state of uselessness.
Being mindful of your limits and setting standards to yourself to preserve your sanity isn’t somehow toxic, or prone to dangerous developments. Just because you’re starting to take some time off to work on yourself doesn’t mean you’re going down the path of an absent parent or neglecting spouse. You have to find the balance.
Assemble Your Plan
The best way to begin a stress management plan is to do some basic time management. Start off by making an accurate schedule of your day. Ask yourself these questions:
- How do you usually spend your day?
- How long do you sleep?
- How long do you work?
- How much time do you spend in the shower, in the bathroom, in a commute?
- How much time do you have left?
Work to eliminate little wastes of time. Cut out watching TV or checking social media while eating. Challenge yourself to focus on the food, and finishing that food. Dedicate a specific time slot for your social media updates per day – something like 30 minutes before bed time. Do the same for your emails and correspondence – check your email once, at the beginning of the day, and then again sometime before you call it a night.
Disable chatting when working, and make it clear that unless it’s an emergency, you aren’t to be disturbed.
At the end of all that, see how much time you have left. Then consider your options for improving your physical health – and thereby your mood. If you have the time, see if there’s a club or a gym of some kind nearby where you can drop off after work for something physical and a quick shower. Or do your workouts at home – keep them short, so you don’t end up dreading them.
Try and take two or three hours out of your weekend to cook. Just cook a lot of food and portion it throughout the week. This way you avoid takeout, get to stay a little healthier, and it’s just a lot easier than going through the guilt and stress of ordering food.
You can make boring chores and uninteresting tasks much more fun by multitasking – listen to new music or get yourself some audiobooks to focus on while you’re performing more mundane but necessary tasks.
Finally, build your schedule. Figure out what you can do on the weekends. Dedicate a little time every week to something new, like a new activity or a simple challenge, like writing a poem.
Stress management is about cutting out maladaptive behavior – things that reduce stress but end up making you feel guilty or unhealthy, like binge drinking, smoking, junk food, procrastinating – and replacing it with simple, effective adaptive behavior. You’ll feel better about yourself, you’ll feel physically and mentally more fit, you’ll think clearly and you’ll feel much more ready and confident about approaching challenges in life. And best of all, you’ll know you’re doing well – that you’ve got your life sorted, and you’ve got great things going for you.
Stress Management and Self Care
Finally, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of parallels to the topic of stress management and self-care. In fact, it’s not wrong to say that stress management is part of self-care. This echoes the importance of finding your own way to manage stress and fine-tuning your system so that it best applies to you. You don’t have to go running at 6 in the morning if you despise it, even though everyone says that a runners high is x amount of times better than a cup of coffee. Heck, you don’t have to go running at all. Find something else that scratches that itch, but still, makes you happy, and provides you with both a challenge and an outlet for your stress and frustrations.
Likewise, you don’t have to go for long walks if you prefer biking. You don’t have to eat a lot of fruit if you prefer fresh greens. You don’t have to read if you’re a fan of audiobooks or educational documentaries. Find your own version for everything, and decide for yourself what works and what doesn’t.
But I highly recommend this: try it before you knock it. There are so many things to do in life, and it’s an absolute shame to refuse them before you’ve ever tried them. A lot of people are intimidated by weight lifting, but maybe your ideal form of stress management is the deadlift. A lot of people might feel too self-conscious on a stage and avoid the dance club, but maybe taking a salsa class with ten other inexperienced beginners is the perfect way to learn new things about yourself, your body and other people.
Try it all. Surprise yourself. Take a chance. Weigh your options realistically – do you really want to stay at home and spend another hour in front of the TV, or take the chance that in that same hour you might find that perfect new obsession in a little studio in downtown.