Stress is usually talked about as a bad thing. We often have the experience of feeling “stressed” when we feel like we’re being faced with more than we can handle. Chances are, you can handle more than you expect, and these expectations are the real problem. While it’s true that it often feels bad to be “stressed,” you may be surprised to hear that too little stress can be bad, too. With zero stress comes zero motivation, and often poor performance. With too much stress you may feel overwhelmed and shut down. The trick is to keep your stress level in the optimal range.
Here are some simple steps you can follow to help with this:
Watch your self-talk
What do you tell yourself about situations that feel stressful? If you say things like, “I can’t handle this,” “Things should be different,” or “This isn’t fair,” you are probably making yourself feel worse. Since our expectations play such a big role in how stressed we feel, the way we talk to ourselves is a key component of how stressed we feel. Try catching your negative self-talk and replacing it with statements such as, “I can figure this out,” “I may not like it, but I’ll figure out a way to make the best of it,” or “I’ll just take this one step at a time and do my best.”
Figure out what’s in your control and what’s not
Most situations have parts that are within your control and parts that are not. One of the first steps to effectively managing your stress is to figure out which parts you can control (e.g., your study schedule, what you do or say), and which parts you cannot (e.g., how much work is assigned, what other people do or say). These parts need to be approached in different ways to keep stress in the good range. If you use the wrong type of coping, you will feel worse.
Controllable Parts: Use “problem-focused coping.” For anything, you can control, make a plan for how to control it, and follow through on that plan. For example, break your workload into small, manageable parts, and set a schedule for working on each part, then do it. While working, keep your focus on the part you’re doing now and not all the parts that lie ahead.
Uncontrollable Parts: Use “emotion-focused coping.” This means figuring out how to deal with the emotions you’re experiencing, but not trying to force the situation to change or dwelling on how much you don’t like it. This may mean talking to a friend for support, exercising, meditating, praying, relaxing, or doing something else to distract yourself. You may need to use these skills first to help yourself calm down enough to make a good problem-focused coping plan, and that’s okay, as long as you aren’t using emotion-focused coping to avoid dealing with the things you could control.
You may feel like you should be able to handle all your problems on your own, or like you need someone else to handle everything for you because you just can’t cope, but neither of these is a reasonable expectation for anybody to have for themselves or others. It’s an important skill to know when to seek help and who to go to.
Some people may be great at practical support—they may be there to give you rides, provide useful information, lend you money, help figure out your homework, or help you come up with solutions to problems. Other people may be better at emotional support—they’re good to go to when you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to listen to your problems. Still, others may be best for having fun and distracting you, but may not be helpful in other areas.
While some people may be great at providing multiple types of support, others may be helpful for just one. Not everyone in your support system is going to be good for every type of support, and that’s okay (normal, even). The trick is to know who’s good for what type of support and go to them for that. A mismatch can lead to increased feelings of stress and negative emotions.
Keep up with self-care
When we’re feeling stressed, self-care can be one of the first things to go. Self-care activities include things like getting enough sleep (7-9 hours for adults and closer to 9 for teenagers), eating right, exercising, relaxing, socializing, and having fun. You may feel like you just don’t have time to do these things with all that’s on your plate, but when we don’t take care of ourselves, our brains don’t work right—we get distracted or forgetful, have trouble focusing or thinking straight, feel fatigued, and have trouble keeping our emotions in check or staying motivated—and it can take longer to get things done. If you want to feel less stressed, taking the time to take care of yourself is not optional. You may even find yourself able to get more done when you do.
Until Next Time
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