Try these practices when stress starts to overwhelm you.
I’m always on the lookout for healthy ways to manage stress, because it’s something all of us deal with on a daily basis — from the demands of work to the demands of relationships. When we’re stressed out, it’s hard to think straight and make healthy decisions.
We might get entangled in our negative thoughts and painful emotions. We might deny, dismiss or try to escape our stress. We might not see a way out.
In their excellent book In This Moment: Five Steps to Transcending Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience psychologists Kirk D. Strosahl, Ph.D, and Patricia J. Robinson, Ph.D, share a powerful, empowering and science-based approach for successfully coping with stress. Each step also helps us grow and enhances all areas of our lives.
Here’s a snippet of their five steps, along with a practice for each one.
According to the authors, “stress tends to impair attention, making it narrowly focused, unstable, and biased toward negative information while ignoring positive information.” This makes you feel trapped. This makes it hard to see solutions to your problems.
That’s why it’s important to intentionally observe our experience. Doing so activates a higher-order kind of attention called top-down attention. Strosahl and Robinson liken it to observing a roller coaster. You put yourself in a place to see all parts of the roller coaster. This includes everything from how the platform and rails are designed to the emotional reactions on the people’s faces.
Your intention is to take in the entire experience. “This perspective allows you to see what’s coming long before the riders, including how the ride will eventually end.”
Exercise to try: Our thinking often creates more stress than the actual external stressor. Practice watching your thoughts. Treat them like they’re words written in a book. When a thought arises, imagine putting it on a blank page in your book. Another option is to say your thoughts aloud or to actually write them down.
This involves describing your experience as objectively as possible without making evaluations or judgments. When you’re stressed, you’re flooded with emotions, physical sensations and memories, which can get very overwhelming. And this hampers our ability to clearly describe what’s happening.
Strosahl and Robinson suggest thinking of yourself as being on the witness stand. You report on what you saw without sharing personal reactions. This is key because “objective descriptions produce dramatically different results at the brain circuitry level than evaluations do.” The authors stress the importance of developing your ability to distinguish between these two types of thinking.
Exercise to try: Separate a blank sheet of paper into three columns: “Stressful situation,” “Witness perspective,” and “Evaluations gone wild.” In the first column, note the stressor briefly. The authors give the example of “a loud noise.” In the second column, describe the situation using objective language, such as “The noise was loud. When I first heard it, I covered my ears.” In the last column, be as judgmental as possible — even outlandish. For instance, “The noise was horrible. It was painful and piercing and I thought it would puncture my eardrums.”
Detachment includes accepting what you’re experiencing. It includes stepping back and creating “some space between yourself and your thoughts, emotions, memories, and physical sensations.” It means zooming out and seeing your current stressor in the big picture of your life.
For instance, according to the authors, you avoid viewing not getting a promotion as the end of the world. Instead, you see it as opening different doors and five years from now, possibly becoming a positive turning point.
Exercise to try: To practice detachment, it’s important to see yourself as separate from your mind, “a creation of the brain that speaks to you.” You’re the listener, and your mind is the speaker.
The authors share this example: Instead of saying, “I’m angry about not getting a raise at work,” you say, “I’m having the thought that I’m angry about not getting a raise.” Or you say, “I’m aware of the emotion of anger about not getting a raise.”
Other variations you can use include: “I’m aware of [thought, feeling, memory, sensation]…” or “What just showed up is the [thought, feeling, memory, sensation] called …”
In this fourth step, you focus on being self-compassionate. I especially like the authors’ description of self-compassion: “showing concern for your own well-being, being sensitive to your own distress, tolerating that distress without self-criticism or judgment, seeking to understand the causes of your distress, and doing all of this with a sense of warmth and gentleness.”
They also note that self-compassion includes detaching from self-defeating personal narratives. “A personal narrative is a self-story that explains who you are and how you got to be that way,” they write.
Exercise to try: Think of your personal narrative as a novel. “Take some time to reflect on your life, keeping in mind that this is your novel and you can love every chapter of it, even those that are painful and perplexing,” the authors write.
Then consider these questions: What’s the title of your life novel? What are the chapter titles so far? What’s the title of the chapter you’re living? What are the major life themes or section headings? What’s the protagonist learning about themselves? What’s your least favorite chapter? How can you feel more love for the person you were in that chapter? What are the chapter titles you’ll write in the remainder of your novel?
According to Strosahl and Robinson, this is simply “being aware of what you’re doing when you’re doing it.” This means slowing down and focusing on the present moment. It means living deliberating, according to your beliefs and values (instead of in reaction to the stress you’re experiencing).
Exercise to try: Stress can make us shortsighted. We become so focused on living day-to-day, trying to stay on top of everything, that we lose sight of our true priorities. This only triggers more stress, because, as the authors note, “it’s stressful to feel like your life is constricted and lacks space for play, self-exploration, and growth.”
In this exercise, review the following areas, and write down any important life goals:
- Job, school or professional pursuits
- Intimate relationships
- Family relationships
- Relaxation and leisure
- Spiritual development
- Contribution to social good
- Personal development
- Health and well-being
Return to this exercise regularly to see if your goals have changed. At the start of each day, pause and visualize times you can focus on and engage in the behaviors that reflect those priorities.
We can train our brains to embrace stress, instead of avoiding it or trying to escape it, according to the authors. They believe that we don’t just have the power to cope with the stressors in our lives. We also have the ability to grow and develop amid them.