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The stress management toolkit

Maybe you haven’t heard, but things have changed a bit since the start of 2020. Most of us spent that year thinking we would be out of the pandemic in a matter of months, but 2021 has proved to be almost as challenging. Perhaps more so, considering we can’t decide just how far in--or out--we are in this pandemic. We are told we’re going back to the office, but then we don’t. Kids are sent to school only to get sent home. There is a new world crisis almost every day. And that’s on top of the stress of everyday life. So, it’s been a bit overwhelming.

For a lot of us, we think that things will get better once life slows down. But life doesn’t often slow down. And when it does, it might not be for the reasons we had hoped; unfortunately, most things that make time stand still aren’t the best things in life. So we have to learn to manage stress better, which means we need tools. The good news is that there are tools to get your stress--and your stressors--under control. Here are 5 things that can dramatically help:

  1. If something needs to be changed, change it. So often we try to adapt to a bad situation when it’s a situation we can change. We stay in a toxic relationship. We are in a dead-end job. We don’t go back to school. We don’t prioritize our health. Trying to feel better about a legitimately bad situation is exhausting. Change is hard, but in the long run, it produces greater happiness. And if you are afraid the change will take too long, here's the thing: the time will pass, anyway. May as well be in a better spot once it does.
  2. Take care of the basics. One thing I talk to my patients about is using the acronym H.A.L.T. Never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. If you have any of those, slow down. Two or more, stop (hence why it spells HALT). These are conditions that draw a ton of bandwidth from us, particularly being tired or hungry. So check in with yourself often. Eat, nap, call a friend, deep breathing. Address those first, and see what’s leftover. It might not make your problems go away, but it will at least allow you to see them in their proper perspective.
  3. You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time. Remember when you were a kid and you were going to be a rockstar, and an astronaut, and President? You thought you could do it all. As an adult, you realize that isn’t how life works. But we end up expecting that of ourselves in our adult roles. We expect that we can be the most devoted parent, hardest working colleague, best spouse, a most wonderful friend, and achieve fitness and personal meaning in our lives, all at the same time. We can’t! If you give in one area, you have to take from another. And that’s ok! It just means we need to allow our priorities to adjust and be flexible. It’s about finding balance.
  4. When demands increase, expectations need to adjust. Life is funny. Sometimes you hit a groove, and you are really crushing it. On top of your game. But then it changes. Could be something big, like an illness or accident. Could just be a million things that go wrong at once. And then you feel like you’re barely making it. But instead of adjusting your expectations, you hold yourself to the same standard as when life was going smoothly. This essentially creates a situation where you aren’t doing as well as you were, and then you layer on guilt/shame/anger toward yourself for that--which doesn’t help at all. It’s like lifting weights at the gym--if you keep adding more weight, you can’t do as many repetitions. So when life gets crazy or hard, it’s ok to lower the bar a bit. It’s only temporary.
  5. Don’t make perfect the enemy of good...and don’t make good the enemy of better. So often we don’t try new things or create change because we have this ideal in our head of how it is supposed to look or supposed to go. And because we don’t think we can meet that, we just don’t try at all. Or we spend crazy amounts of time trying to achieve the impossible perfect. Here is the thing: Just because something isn’t perfect does not mean it isn’t good! This is especially true for you high-achieving folks--your good is likely more than good enough. You’ll also be less stressed if you allow the good to be flexible, and base it on the time and bandwidth you have available. That being said, sometimes you just need to aim for better. There are some things I will never be particularly good at, but I can certainly be better. This is true for almost everything in life. Walking 10 min a day is better than sitting still all day. Brushing your teeth once a day is better than not at all.

You’ll notice that most of these focus on creating change and shifting our mindsets, and that’s really where the magic is. Change what you need to. Take care of yourself. And give yourself space to shift the bar, re-prioritize when you need to, and aim for improvement. If you can’t get your mindset shifted, consider trying a course of therapy. Because life is way too short to be stressed out all the time.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.