What can you do to reduce your stress levels, and keep them low? Almost everyone knows what stress feels like. The figures behind those feelings are alarming.
The American Institute of Stress reports that 33% of people say they feel extreme stress. 73% have stress that impacts their mental health. 77% suffer stress that impacts their physical health.
For huge numbers of people worldwide, stress is so severe that it leads to a vast range of illnesses, from high blood pressure to coronary heart disease. Stress is a factor cited in enormous numbers of suicides. There is no doubt that stress kills.
Protecting our well-being against the damaging effects of stress can, at least, make the difference between happiness and misery, and at most, make the difference between life and death.
Although many people connect stress mostly with work, many other circumstances can result in stress. Most of us will have experienced stress in education, family, hobby, social, and work environments.
Here are 21 tips that are known to help people reduce and/or prevent stress.
Choose activities you enjoy
Research tells us, that the more a person has chosen their activity, and continues to make that choice, the less stress they experience in association with that activity, all things being equal.
What does that suggest? If we choose activities that we enjoy we are likely to experience less stress. If we remind ourselves of our choice, we are also less likely to experience stress or as much stress.
Avoid toxic environments
People who are subjected to toxic cultures, and toxic environments, are much more likely to experience stress and mental health problems. If you can, avoid, address, or get out of a toxic environment; your physical and mental health are massively dependent on it.
Identify what can and cannot be controlled
People who try to control the uncontrollable cause themselves massive stress. None of us can control getting old and eventually dying. What we can better control is how to live healthily and happily for as long as possible.
People with the lowest levels of stress typically do not seek to control that beyond their reach. Making a conscious decision of what is and is not controllable, and acting on that decision, helps to reduce stress.
Take as much control of your activities as is reasonable
Trying to take too much control of anything can cause as much stress as having too little control. When taking control causes more stress than it prevents, doing so becomes counter-productive, and self-sabotaging.
It is wise to take as much control of your activities as is necessary to minimise or reduce stress.
Let go or accept what you can’t control
Most of what goes on in the universe, we cannot control. No sane person in recorded history has stressed out about what goes on in our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda. In that example, it is easy to see the futility of being stressed about something over which we have no control.
We can let that go with ease. When events are closer to home, it is harder to acknowledge that we have no control. When we see unpleasant behaviour going on, close by, we are often filled with a sense of outrage, or feel threatened by the proximity of such wrongdoing.
Throughout history, no one has figured out how to prevent politicians from putting their snouts in the trough, or how to hold them to account for deliberately lying to themselves and their own people. We cannot control the mendacity of others, and it seems, collectively we have shrugged our shoulders and accepted that politics is deceitful.
Sometimes, to reduce our stress we have to let go or accept things that we cannot control, even though we wish to stop them.
Choose who you engage with
People naturally choose those they wish to spend time with. We tend to seek out and mix with those who reinforce our worldview or make us feel vindicated and validated. In short, to minimise our stress we choose to spend time with people who make us feel good.
Avoid toxic people/minimise your contact with them
If you have lived on planet earth for any period you have experienced toxic people of several types: narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, egomaniacs, and those who can only feel good about themselves if they dominate or control others.
Vast evidence exists that such people damage the mental health of many, many people in the course of their toxic lives.
If you can, get people like that out of your life. If you can’t remove them from your life, then choose to minimise your contact with them. If they have authority over you, and it is difficult to get out, ask yourself this question, what is the long-term effect on you, of staying within their sphere of toxicity?
Create or be part of a mutual support group
People who experience the lowest levels of stress, or cope best with stress, tend to have strong support groups. To reduce or prevent stress, it would be wise to identify and join a mutual support group, or, if none are available, create one.
Identify, work with, and harness your natural rhythms
Some people cause themselves vast amounts of stress by fighting and working against their natural rhythms. For instance, going out late the night before having a huge amount of challenging work to do early the next morning. Or, taking sugar in quantities that trigger sugar highs and lows, which cause stress. Or, using caffeine, which causes caffeine highs and lows, among a multitude of other stress-inducing symptoms.
To minimise and prevent stress it is wise to identify our natural rhythms, work with them, and avoid anything that creates extremes in our states or upsets our natural rhythms.
Identify what motivates and demotivates you
People who are most self-aware, most self-insightful, are in a better position to manage themselves, and their stress levels. When we know what motivates us, and what effect that motivator has on our performance and stress levels, we are in a better position to reduce or prevent stress. People who are true to their motivations experience less stress.
Equally, it is wise to know what saps our levels of motivation. When we are blind to our de-motivators, we are more likely to experience stress upon engaging in the de-motivating activity; we have to fight our natural instincts when doing something that de-motivates us. Learning what motivates and demotivates us, equips us to better manage our stress levels.
Set inspiring goals
People who have set themselves inspiring goals experience much less stress for a multitude of reasons. They want to achieve those goals. They are motivated. They have a sense of personal control.
Whatever obstacles or barriers they encounter, are seen as necessary challenges to address on the way to their desired achievement. Any stress is seen as self-chosen and is seen thus more positively – maybe even as part of a welcome learning curve.
Setting inspiring goals can equip us to positively view stress, which, had it been experienced where another had set the goal, would have been perceived as harmful and negative.
Choose a big why
Sitting behind the goal of anyone who deals well with stress, is usually a big why. When people have one or more compelling reasons to work towards a goal, they seem to deal with stress much better than those who have no big why; no reason for being. We can harness that technique by listing the reasons, the whys, that we want to achieve whatever goals we set ourselves.
Focus on your big why
When people are focused on their goals, and the reasons for achieving them, they seem better able to cope with stress. Legions are the accounts of entrepreneurs who spent years sleeping in their office or couch surfing as they focus on making their business dreams come true.
The phrase “eyes on the prize” seems apt here; when people are focused on something bigger than themselves, the events that would stress people devoid of a purpose seem not to bother the future high achiever.
Reinforce your big why
Stressors, for those with a big why, may work in a positive way. People who experience stressors and hardship to achieve their goals, seem to take those adversities as vindication of their dedication, which further boosts their motivation.
It could be that the more “stress management masters” reinforce their ‘why,’ the reasons behind their goals, the more they are able to endure any ‘how.’
Choose how you carry out your activities/identify methods you do and don’t enjoy
When people have control over how they carry out their activities they experience less stress. To harness this tip, it would be wise to identify the methods that you enjoy and those that you don’t. Then, where possible carry out your activities after choosing the methods that you enjoy using and avoid those that stress you out.
Be honest about your stresses and concerns
When people do not voice their concerns and/or their stress levels, internalising them, makes it worse. Avoid becoming silently complicit in your own stress. When stress creeps in, speak out, first to yourself, and then, if necessary, to others.
Choose how you perceive stress/challenges
How people perceive events or circumstances shapes their experience of those circumstances. A person who has the shelter of a house, running water, effective sewage, enough food, and secure disposable income for life, in most parts of the world, would be considered rich beyond all hope and would experience fewer stress-related illnesses.
An unemployed person living on a sink estate, in exactly the same circumstances in the West, would perceive themselves to be hard-done-by, and experience more stress-related illnesses.
How we perceive our circumstances shapes and changes our stress resilience.
Learn how others deal with stress/find role models
When I was much younger, I met a wise old lady. She seemed carefree and relaxed. I asked her why she was so “chilled”? She said that it had not always been that way.
But after many years of stress and anxiety about aspects of life that she could not control, she realised that “stressing out about things” only made her feel worse, and often made the situation worse, too. She simply chose to stop making herself feel worse.
Whom do you know who copes well with life’s ups and downs and yet stays relaxed, calm and happy? Ask them, what they are doing. Taking advice from people who have the skills you want to master, is wise.
Identify your own triggers and antecedents for stress
If you want to reduce and prevent stress, you might want to start by keeping a log or diary of when you have felt stressed and what preceded that stress. After some time, observing yourself, you will be able to see what triggers your stress, and what factors need to be in place (antecedents) for those triggers to cause you discomfort.
You can then choose how to avoid or remove your stress antecedents, how to respond differently to the triggers, or both.
Choose how you define stress
How we define almost anything determines our experience of it. If you define stress as “a chosen internal response to externally or internally unwelcome pressures,” you are much more likely to deal with it well.
Why? You are acknowledging that it is an internal response, and, by implication, you can control or at least influence your internal responses.
We can’t control the world, but we can at least influence how we choose to respond to it. Define stress in a way that empowers rather than disempowers you.
Turn into a habit the techniques to reduce or prevent stress
Some people can cope with stressors that would destroy the majority of others. How? As with any extraordinary capability, it comes from huge amounts of practice.
If you want to cope better with stress, getting practice at coping with stress is essential. You won’t have to go looking for them; life will hand you opportunities to practice your stress management skills.
Of the 21 tips above, which will you start with? Which will you refine to create your own repertoire of stress mastery techniques? Which will you turn into the habits that will keep you mentally healthier for longer?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.