Mental Overload: Use These Tips to Reduce Stress in Your Life
Mental Overload: Use These Tips to Reduce Stress in Your Life
We’ve all been there before, overwhelmed with tasks, commitments or issues and not sure where to turn. Stress has a way of waiting until the least opportune moment to attack. No matter what’s weighing you down, there are steps you can take to minimize the stress you feel and today, I’ll be discussing some resources and techniques that have helped me.
The Chemicals Behind Stress
Stress is a completely normal human reaction and it’s one that we’ve inherited from our ancient relatives. The physical effects of stress helped our distant ancestors avoid danger like predators, or other scary situations. When faced with a threat, hormones are released into our body that elevate our heart rate and increase our blood pressure to better prepare us to deal with the issue. You’ve most likely heard of this as our fight or flight response.
This response works great when you’re running from a bear, but it can take its toll if accessed too frequently. These days, our lives are much less full of running from apex predators, but it’s tough to convey that to our bodies. So the same reaction occurs in much less life-threatening situations. This can have small to serious health effects and there’s a good deal of information online about the dangers of stress.
So what can be done? If our bodies are just going to keep dumping those chemicals, aren’t we powerless to stop the stressful reactions? Not exactly. Below, I’ve listed some of the methods I’ve used to change the outcome of stress-inducing events, whatever they may be.
The Stressful Stoic
Something I’d strongly recommend is delving into the philosophy of Stoicism. I’ve written before about a journey into Stoicism, but it truly is a freeing experience. Without summarizing it too much, Stoics believe that things will happen as they may, you’re in control of your reactions and you should always remember that you could die at any time. That last part might not like sound like the most positive belief for many people, but I found it to be one of the most uplifting things I’d ever heard.
The phrase “Memento Mori” is used in Stoicism to remind followers that one day they will die and it may be a day that’s sooner than they think. While it might seem like piling onto the problem, try this little exercise the next time something incredibly stressful comes about. If you were put in that stressful situation, but also told that you would be dead by this time tomorrow, how much would you fret about that original situation you were presented with? This type of thinking can help us to frame the actual scope of problems that we face.
If you’re interested in learning more about some of the teaching of Stoicism, consider checking out Daily Stoic. One of the great things they offer is a daily email that follows a specific principle of Stoicism. I try and read their emails first thing in the morning and it was actually a recent email that led me to start writing this article. This particular email detailed how Mozart practiced a bit of Stoicism by ending each day prepared for death. About this practice, Mozart said, “I never lie down at night without reflecting that, young as I am, I may not live to see another day. Yet not one of all my acquaintances could say that in my company I am morose or disgruntled.”
Mozart understood that try as he might, he would never be able to correctly predict when he would die. He treated death as the ultimate goal of existence and considered it the key to unlocking happiness. While that’s certainly a morbid thought to some, I think what he was getting at was more simple. Why would I worry about small things when this life is short enough as it is? Considering this leads me to the next thing I’ve done to lower the severity of my reactions to stress.
Think About the Timeline
Quick, without thinking about it, say out loud the thing you were most stressed about exactly one year ago. If you’re like me, you can’t even begin to remember what that thing would’ve been. In fact, I’m betting many of us couldn’t even pinpoint a stressful moment from a month ago, let alone a year. This trick helps to reframe your mind by looking at things from a higher altitude.
We’ve talked in great detail on ITS before about David Allen’s Getting Things Done organizational system. One of my favorite parts of his book is when he talks about looking at your life from a “50,000-foot” horizon of focus. I try and not only look at my life’s tasks with this viewpoint, but my actual life as well. There are moments we’ll have as humans that will always be visible from our 50,000 ft. view. Things like weddings and the birth of children, or even deaths in a family will always be something that we remember. However, that argument you had online with a stranger or that report that’s due at the end of the week won’t be visible from that high up.
Actionable vs. Non-Actionable
Continuing down the path of the Getting Things Done mentality, I try to look at both tasks and situations as actionable or non-actionable. I’ve always had a problem-solving mentality, so I’m constantly looking for whatever the next action is for any given situation. A light bulb goes out? The next action item would be replacing the light bulb. The tricky part comes about when you go to grab a replacement light bulb and find that you’re all out. At that point, your next action simply changes to picking up light bulbs. If the area you need the lightbulb in is important, then you’ll probably be headed to the store at that very moment.
I view stressful situations the same way. Whatever the incident is, I’m looking for the next action on it that will help me resolve it quickly and get it out of the way. For an example, let’s say the roof was leaking and we couldn’t afford to replace it at this time. This would be a prime opportunity to let stress get the better of us as we worry about all the negative things that could come from a roof leak; damaged interior and exterior, belongings, or even the house itself. However, the actual next action on the leak would probably be attempting a cheaper temporary repair.
If the roof wasn’t actively leaking water at the time, we could spend a few minutes or even a few hours researching how to temporarily patch a roof and then climbing into the attic with some tape or sealant. Once the temporary patch was in place, we could then plan out the next action, which might be to get a quote for a professional repair or even saving up for a roof replacement.
Obviously, situations like that have a lot more variables at play, but I’m simply using it as an example of reacting to stress by determining a next action, rather than the all too familiar “worrying.” The biggest thing I had to change when reducing stress wasn’t so much the actionable items though, it was the non-actionable. Non-actionable stress comes about when your brain simply can’t help but overload you with negativity for things you can do absolutely nothing about. Imagine it’s the weekend and you’re waiting to hear back about a job interview. The interview went well, but you can’t help but worry about what will happen if you don’t get the job. There’s no next action for this situation because you’re waiting to hear back.
For these type of situations, consider heading up to 50,000 feet and determining if this is really a problem you’ll think about years from now. If that doesn’t work, consider knocking out other actionable items for other things in your life. It might seem like just a distraction, but it allows you to complete tasks and be productive in a time where you might be likely to just go around in circles of worry.
Fix Your Sleep
This last item isn’t a trick or a lifehack, it’s just simply getting better sleep. I’ve found the number one thing that’s reduced my overall stress level is getting good and consistent sleep. While there doesn’t seem to be a magic number of hours you need to sleep, most people agree that keeping your sleep cycle consistent is what’s most important. For me that meant hitting the bed at around the same time each night and waking up around the same time each day, weekends included. Those prone to sleeping in on the weekends may have just audibly gasped, but I think you’d be surprised at how much better you’d feel if you woke up the same time each day.
I’ve found that this balanced approach to sleep has helped me not only at work, but also at home. I can take the weekend mornings to plan projects or other tasks and then be ready to hit the hardware or grocery store as soon as they open. Another benefit I’ve gained from this consistency is not needing an alarm clock anymore. My body has really tuned into the new sleep schedule and I’ve found myself waking up within five minutes of my target time each day.
If you find that you have trouble falling asleep, consider changing up a few things you do before bed. As hard as it might be, I’ve found that limiting my electronics usage before bed has helped me fall asleep much faster. I’ve made a personal no-screens rule about an hour before I plan to fall asleep. In this time, I’ve created a nightly routine that includes journaling. (Something Stoicism emphasizes heavily.) This writing helps me to recap my day and plan my next, but it also helps my brain to wind down a bit and gives it a place to stash some of the stressful thoughts that might be lingering.
While you’ll never be able to rid yourself of stress, hopefully you can use some of these tips to help you reduce some of the more unnecessary anxiety that crops up. Our mind is a powerful tool that can yield some great results if pointed in the right direction. Do you have any additional tips or tools you use to reduce stress? Please feel free to share them below in the comments!