People always tell me I'm calm and laid back, but the reality is that I stress too. I wouldn't be human if I didn't! But I've learnt techniques on how to deal with stress that I want to share with you.
This past year was unpredictable. Who'd have predicted that a virus would impact the whole world the way Covid-19 has? I've been working from home since March 2020, as has my wife. During that time, our eldest son started school for the first time, we contracted the virus ourselves, and we're now having to home-school as well as do our regular jobs each day. Needless to say that we've found it tough at times as with drastic change comes stress.
People always tell me I'm calm and laid back, but the reality is that I stress too. I wouldn't be human if I didn't! But I've learnt techniques on how to deal with stress that I want to share with you. Before I do that though, let's consider what stress is.
Stress Is The Fear Of Not Knowing
Stress is that feeling you get when you’re unsure of the outcome of something. The uncertainty of not knowing that outcome is what causes you to feel worried, which in turn causes you to overthink about all the possible outcomes.
As human beings, we tend to focus on all the negative outcomes rather than the positive ones which causes you anxiety and stress. We make this worse by stressing about things that aren’t even in our control. But why stress about things that we can’t control given there’s little we can do to change the outcome?
What Happens To Your Body When You Stress?
Stress is one of those things that we’ve become accustomed to as part of being an adult. The thing is, stress is like a snowball, and if you let it continue without dealing with it, it rolls up and builds over time. This leads to bigger issues, affecting you both mentally and physically.
Your body releases hormones when you begin to stress. In your brain, the hypothalamus tells your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are the same hormones that trigger your 'fight or flight' response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles get ready for dealing with the threat.
This reaction to stress isn't always bad. While we're no longer running away from lions like our ancestors once did, initial bursts of stress are needed for activities such as working out. The problems occur when our body fails to return to normal if the stressor doesn't go away. And if the stress hormones remain elevated for longer than necessary, it can put your health at serious risk.
Chronic stress can many issues including the following:
But it doesn’t end there. These things can affect your mood and behaviour too. For example:
- Irritability might cause you to burst out at others
- Anxiety might cause you to over or under eat
- Depression might see you turn to drugs such as alcohol in the belief that it will help you ‘wind down’
What’s The Solution?
You can see how a build up of stress can cause serious issues for you. Thankfully there are ways you can manage your stress. There are three techniques that I practice that help me deal with things that worry or stress me out:
- Change your perspective on stress
- Identify your stress triggers
- Approach your stress head on by working through your fears
Let’s dive into each of these:
Changing Your Perspective (Take Control)
We tend to stress about every little detail of our lives, be it work deadlines going wrong, a planned trip not working out, even the weather! But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we have little control over what can happen in life.You have to ask yourself - Why? Why stress about things that you can’t control? Is you worrying about it going to change the outcome? Probably not.
But worrying does have its uses. Worrying is the brain's way of trying to control the uncontrollable. It allows us to play out numerous scenarios as a means of preparing for the worst case scenario. But for many of us, overthinking leads to further stress, because we can't be prepared for all possible outcomes.
Discerning between what you can control and what you can't control is important. The sooner you let go of the uncontrollable, the more time you can spend focusing on fixing what you can control. It takes practice to shift your perspective to thinking this way. depending on what type of person you are.
Stephen Covey in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ states that there are two types of people - Reactive and Proactive:
"Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them.” - Stephen Covey
Reactive people are those that you hear say ‘it’s just my luck’ or 'I guess it’s my destiny’. They live their lives as if it were pre-scripted and controlled by external factors. They let these external factors impact their emotions and decisions because they believe they have little control over them.
Proactive people are aware of what they can and can’t control, and will only concern themselves with things that they are able to influence.
Here’s the thing - whether you’re a reactive or proactive person is a choice. But it takes practice to shift from being a reactive person to a proactive way of thinking. We can’t always directly alter how someone else behaves or talks to us. We have no control over the weather. But we can choose our thought processes and how we respond in different situations.
Epictetus, a well known stoic philosopher once said:
“It is not things that worry us, but our judgements about things.” - Epictetus
A key principle of the ancient Stoics was the belief that we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the way we judge an event is entirely within our control. Instead of focusing on what external things you can’t control, focus on the internal things that are within your control, such as your thoughts and actions.
Identifying Your Stress Triggers
The purpose of this exercise is to reflect on experiences to identify what triggers you to feel stressed in the first place. You can then put a plan in place to ensure that you prevent the same triggers from occurring in the future.
Follow these simple steps:
- Start by looking back at experiences you recall where you've felt worried or stressed about something. What was it that made you feel anxious or stressed about that experience? Make a list of all the things you think triggered this feeling.
- Now go through that list, and circle anything you think was in your control?
- Of the things you've circled, what actions could you put in place now to avoid future instances of the same experience?
- Go do those actions.
It's a simple but effective exercise that leaves you with tangible actions to take to reduce your worries. This exercise works even if you haven’t got a previous experience to compare with - just think of what might trigger you to feel anxious about a certain situation, and put a plan in place of actions you can take to stop those triggers from occurring.
The Fear Setting template is something I picked up from Tim Ferris after watching his Ted Talk on it. To sum up Tim’s experience, at a point in his past he was making $70k per month with his business. But the stress of it all got too much for him so he considered taking a one month break from it all by visiting a friend in London.
But he held off for a long time out of fear his absence would cause the business to fail. Leaning on his stoic learning, Tim created a fear-setting template - a simple yet powerful exercise that forces one to look at their decisions more objectively.
It’s helpful if you have a desire to make a big life decision but don’t know where to start or you’re putting it off out of the fear of the unknown. It’s also a useful exercise when you know what you’re going to be doing, but something about it is stressing you out, such as starting a new job.
So, how do you do it? Make a statement of what it is you want to do, for example - let’s say I was thinking of quitting my existing job to make YouTube a full time job.
Tim sets out the following steps:
Define:- List the worst things that could happen. What doubts, fears, and what ifs come to mind?
- I’d lose the income from my existing job for an unpredictable period of time before I can turn YouTube into a viable business
- We’d not be able to afford some of today’s luxuries, like an annual holiday abroad
- I’d be working longer hours doing my own recording and editing
- I could run out of ideas and fail
Prevent:- List how you can stop the above bad things from happening.
- I could see if I could go part-time instead so that I’m still earning something
- I could analyse current spending and see if cuts could be made elsewhere
- I could outsource the editing to focus on recording
- I could dedicate a set amount of time each week for brain storming new ideas
Repair:- If the worst happens, list how to repair each bad thing. What are the outcomes or benefits, both temporary and permanent, of more probable scenarios?
- If I quit my job, we’d have to figure out how to live on half the income, but at least I’d be doing what I’m passionate about
- If we couldn’t go on a luxury holiday, we could do more activity based holidays in the UK instead
- If I failed at YouTube, I could always find a job in my field again
Benefits:- List all possible benefits from taking action.
- I’d be my own boss and work my own hours
- I’d be doing something I’m passionate about and enjoy
- I wouldn’t have to commute and would have more time to spend with the family
Costs:- List the costs of inaction over 6 Months, 1 Year, and 3 years. When doing this, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the action you decide to take fall in line with your goals?
- What is it costing you financially, emotionally, and physically, to postpone action?
- Is what you’re putting off out of fear going to become a regret in the next 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, or even longer term?
- If your gut instinct says yes, then you know what you have to do and how to do it.
After following these steps, you’ll have looked at the thing you fear from doing objectively, and you will have proactive actions you can take to prevent your biggest fears or worries from happening.
And there you have it, those are three techniques that I use to control my worries and stress. Give them a try and let me know if you think any of these would work for you in the comments below.