It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived, or how high up the professional ladder you’ve climbed, the fact is that life is just plain hard sometimes.
Short of living in a cave or burying your head in the sand, there’s really nothing you can do to eliminate the stresses of life completely. What you can do is educate yourself about how to do more than just survive it.
We hear a lot about stress management, and most of it centers around efforts to control the amount of stress we’re under. It may sound counterintuitive, but stress itself isn’t always bad. 1,2
It’s not stress itself that takes a toll on our minds and bodies. It’s the way we REACT to stress that’s the real culprit. In her article 3 describing how our perceptions of stress affect us, Dr. Heidi Grant says that “your mindset about stress may be the most important predictor of how it affects you.”
If you’re finding yourself overwhelmed by your circumstances and frustrated because you don’t seem to be making progress in your effort to manage stress, read on. There is another way, and here are three simple steps to help you find it.
Step One: Start and End Your Day with The Practice
I talk about this in depth on this podcast, but the key to mastering stress is taking the time to tune into your body, breathe, and relax the tension you notice. I refer to this as “the Practice.” Do this first thing in the morning before you even get out of bed, and again at night as the last thing you do before you go to sleep.
Why is this important?
The path to mastering stress is really a series of simple steps designed to break the patterns leading to unchecked stress.
Tension from unchecked stress keeps your nervous system from fully resting while you sleep. So tonight, when you get into bed:
- Tune into your body and notice the muscular tension in your shoulders.
- Let your breathing be the center of your focus. With each inhale let your shoulders be heavy and relaxed, and on the exhale feel your shoulders slide down as if toward your back pockets while you release tension.
- If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath and the relaxation you feel when tension is released.
- Continue like this, shoulders heavy and relaxed on the inhale, sliding down your back on the exhale.
Tomorrow morning, before getting out of bed, do the exercise again, keeping your mind focused on any physical tension you notice. Use awareness and your breathing to start dismantling the stressful habits that can run (and ruin) your day, if you let them.
And there’s no need to stop there…
Step Two: Cultivate Ongoing Awareness of Tension.
Mastering stress means retraining yourself to be aware of your posture and breath all the time. When I say “posture,” I want you to think about your body being balanced and at ease instead of stiff and tense.
You can practice this next exercise any time you stand up.
- Before you stand up, pause, still seated, and take a breath or two.
- Then slowly come to a standing position. Pause again.
- Before you step forward, relax your posture to increase your sense of balance and physical ease.
- You’ll notice that when you breathe and make these adjustments, you become more present in your body, which will promote a relaxed body, calm emotions and a quiet mind. Use this awareness practice of posture, breath, and mind every time you stand up today.
Stress goes unchecked when we don’t focus on relaxing the body as we move (or rush) through the day. Pause and breathe into your intention to stand up for inner peace today. Know that every single time you breathe and stand consciously using this simple awareness practice, you’re breaking the cycle of unchecked stress.
Then, see if you can focus this kind of awareness on other actions throughout your day.
Step Three: Always Remember to Pause.
A friend of mine recently told me that she wishes she had more of her husband’s “Ghandi,” and less of her own “Ronda Rousey.” Whenever things go wrong in her life, her initial impulse is to fight against it. While she recognizes that this might be the way she’s been conditioned, she also knows this is a pattern she doesn’t want to keep.
“This initial impulse is like a drug,” she told me. “Everything about it feels so right in the moment. Reacting to my frustration feels so good. . . for a hot second. But when the smoke clears, I’m still left with the problem. Nothing has been solved, and most times, everything is worse because I let my emotional reaction run the show.”
So, what could she do instead?
In theory, the answer is simple. In practice, it requires commitment, determination, and hard work. But the return is well worth the effort.
Here’s the advice I gave her:
The next time your impulses pressure you to react, slow down and pause your reaction by using the simple practice of posture, breath and mind.
When you can choose to slow down and calm down before taking any action, this gives you a real chance of changing your old, damaging habit of reactivity.
I talk about this concept as the 90-second rule. If you’re dealing with similar reactive habits, here’s a simple way to practice the pause:
- Make sure you’re breathing first.
- Continue breathing as you relax your shoulders and release muscular tension.
- Continue breathing as you ground yourself in the reality of the moment, including your ability to stand steady, come what may.
This tool can be a powerful force for change in your life because often doing nothing is a much more constructive response than doing something (ANYTHING!) just to relieve the pressure you’re feeling.
We’re all familiar with the saying “Don’t just stand there—DO SOMETHING!” When you’re under pressure to do something, recognize it as a conditioned reaction to stress, and instead pause and employ the mantra:
Don’t do anything if you’re reacting; exercise your power to choose and just stand there.
Waiting out your reactivity is the best investment you can make in efficient problem solving. When you practice the pause in response to trouble, you remind yourself that even in a crisis you still have a choice to Stop and Drop into the ground of reality before you Roll into any action.
Take good care : )