5 crappy ways to deal with stress

A guest blog by Mike Reeves-McMillan, who blogs at Living Skillfully.

Stress is up with the world economy still crawling out of the mud and the pace of change picking up every year. What isn’t up is the level of awareness of how to handle stress.

Dealing with stress is one of the many useful things they don’t teach you in school. Here are five ways people try to manage stress because they kind of work in the short term:

1. Distract Yourself. In tough times, the entertainment industry is one of the few that does well – because it helps people forget their own real problems for a while. But it doesn’t do a thing to solve those problems. (Even for the entertainment stars.)

2. Use Substances. I’m not just talking about crack and meth here – anything that changes your mental state when your mental state is an unpleasant one can seem like a good way to reduce stress. Tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, sugar – they all change the way your brain responds. That can feel like a temporary relief. But again, it doesn’t deal with the source of the stress, and most of these substances have side effects that make the situation worse over time. (Plus they cost money.)

3. Pitch a Fit. Stress winds us up and makes us more reactive. So we react. It seems the natural thing to do to relieve the pressure. But most of the time, reacting just intensifies the original problem. If your boss is pressuring you about your attitude, yelling at her might feel good in the moment, but…

4. Ignore it and Hope it Goes Away. Sometimes this actually works, when the stress is something external that comes and goes by itself. More often, though, what’s causing the stress is going to be around in some form or another for a while – and your stress response is certainly going to be around as long as you don’t address it.

5. Give Up. Some people just fold and huddle miserably. There’s a small amount of wisdom in this. The more you resist, the more energy you’re pouring into the situation and the more stressed and worn-out you get. It’s like you’re beating your head on a brick wall. But the smart thing to do is stop beating on the wall and go around it, or over it – not to collapse at the foot of the wall.

So that’s what not to do. I’ve hinted at a better alternative, but here it is straight: To cope with stress well, you need to develop your skills at managing your response to stress.

I’ve written a whole free course on this called Simple Stress Management Techniques, but here’s my number one tip. All it takes is three simple steps.

1. Connect with the feelings in your body created by anger, fear or sadness. Feel your way into them. Are they warm or cool, vibrating or still, at one point or spread out? If they had a shape and a texture and a color and a sound, what would those be?

2. Name the emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, panic, whatever. This sets up a link from your rational, verbal mind to the irrational, feeling part of the brain and starts to draw off the activation there.

3. Release the feelings, when you’re ready (you might need to go back and forth between feeling and naming for a little while first). You’re letting your body and your nervous system return to what should be its normal state.

It’s surprisingly quick. It addresses the actual problem (your wired-up state), costs nothing, and makes a genuine difference within a couple of minutes. Best of all, you don’t have to be able to change the external situation for it to work.

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