Let’s face it: we’re all stressed.
In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll found that eight out of 10 Americans are afflicted by stress. The top three stressors for Americans today are the uncertainty of the nation’s future, money and work, according to the American Psychology Association, with workplace stress accounting for nearly $200 billion in healthcare costs, as reported by Forbes.
“Stress is a direct result of negative emotions that are out of control,” says stress consultant and life coach Elaine Sanders. “It doesn’t matter what triggers those emotions—whether it be pressure from a superior, a difficult colleague or time pressure.” Sanders lists factors like a low level of resilience and a lack of emotional regulation as possible contributors to stress.
“Stress is a physical, mental, or emotional response to change,” says Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of Mindful Living and The Stress Institute.
But there’s a difference between acute stress and chronic stress. Hall says that while dealing with some acute stress is normal—think being called to the principal’s office or getting into a fender bender—chronic stress, which is a day after day, week after week, month after month phenomenon—is not something we as humans are equipped to handle.
Focus on intention
When you direct your emotions toward positive feelings instead of focusing on the negative, it can change your attitude, according to Sanders.
“Start your day with intention—start every new task with intention, start every interaction with intention,” says Sanders. “Don’t let a negative emotion run off with you blindly.”
Honing in on your intention—whether it be for a meeting, or any task you are setting out to accomplish—requires some discipline and imagination. Sanders suggests envisioning how you would go about accomplishing the task at hand and focusing on a specific positive emotion you would want to feel in that scenario. When you pick that emotion, practice feeling it repeatedly so that you can carry that mindset whenever stress starts to arise. “Your day will go so much smoother and you will naturally be less stressed,” she says.
Set realistic expectations
We live in the era of the upgrade—we’re constantly looking for something bigger and better in every aspect of our lives—and that automatically sets us up for failure, according to Hall.
“People think that they’ll be less stressed if they get a better job or better romantic partner,” she says. “I tell clients to stop [thinking that].” Rather, she suggests finding gratitude for the things that we already have in our lives and fulfill us. Focusing on what you do now, Sanders says, can help mitigate the stress about what is next.
Find a confidante
Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to bring to our attention that we’re not handling stress well. That’s why experts suggest that having someone to confide in can be a key component to reducing your stress.
Hall suggests finding someone at work or in your life to lean on. “They’ll be the one to know when you’ve gone AWOL, when you’re about to flip a switch, or when your productivity has gone down,” she says.
Write it down
Putting pen to paper can be a therapeutic mode of expression. “Write somewhere—whether it be in a journal or on your computer—the persons, places and tasks that have been triggers of stress,” Hall says.
She suggests journaling regularly for at least a month and then reading it back to analyze your level of happiness. “Once you’ve identified those triggers, go talk to your manager or supervisor about these things,” she says.
Practice S.E.L.F. care
Hall created an acronym to help keep her clients on track when life gets overwhelming. “S.E.L.F. care” stands for serenity, exercise, love and food—all necessities to ease the common stressors in our lives, according to Hall.
Meditation can reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, according to a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Hall suggests taking five minutes a day to find something that will bring you serenity—whether it’s listening to music or finding quiet time to take deep breaths. This, she says, will reboot your mind and body.
Studies continue to show that exercise is also a major stress-reliever. Hall says adding some physical activity to your life—whether as intense as a spin class, or as simple as a 10-minute walk—can make a world of difference on your mental and emotional state.
Hall says love is also a key component to our overall well-being. “What we know is isolation kills and community heals,” she says. This can include surrounding yourself with caring friends and family, or having a loving pet. She also recommends decorating your workspace with plants and colors to elevate your mood and make you feel less alone.
Finally, food can have a notable effect on our state of mind. According to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, happiness increases when people consume healthy food. “It is medicine and changes your mood,” Hall says. She suggests incorporating antioxidant-rich foods like berries into your diet to keep you feeling healthy and energized.
Change your mindset
According to both Hall and Sanders, the biggest misconception about stress is that we have to beat it; when we make stress the enemy, we actually create more stress for ourselves, they note.
“While stress arises from unregulated negative emotions, intentionally activating positive heart emotions such as care, appreciation, compassion and ease, decreases your stress by creating physiological harmony,” says Sanders. “Positive thinking isn’t enough here; it must be positive feelings from the heart to affect your body and brain.”
What it all comes down to is learning to react positively—from a mental and emotional standpoint—to negative stressors in our lives.