Did you know that sustained stress can cause forgetfulness, dizziness, and pain in your neck and shoulders? Or that high stress might cause you to be indecisive and prone to making mistakes?
I could go on, because sustained stress can cause dozens of symptoms. But while you might not be aware of each symptom, you probably intuitively understand that being stressed often can’t be good for your body or for your mind.
If you feel stressed frequently, you may long for some stress relief. And you only have to grab a magazine off the shelves in your local grocery store to find suggestions for what you can do to relieve stress. For example, you could:
- Meditate for 15 minutes a day
- Sleep more
- Start journaling about your worries and fears
- Go for a walk in the woods
- Get a dog, so you can pet him when you need a break
Almost all such suggestions work. They do relieve stress. But they also take time.
Let’s take meditating daily as an example. If you meditate for 15 minutes a day, you’ll probably lower your stress level in a matter of months. I speak from experience, but you can also look up the science, if you prefer. Meditating relieves stress.
So does sleeping, by the way. In fact, it’s very likely that your life would be better if you slept more.
But I’m writing this article for those of you who feel stressed, yet are not convinced that it’s worth spending time walking in the woods or journaling.
If that’s you—I feel you. I’ve been there. For years, I knew sleeping more would be good for me, but I still stayed up later than I should. I disregarded the advice my family and friends offered. So why should I expect to convince you to take more time for yourself, when others could not convince me?
When you find yourself stressed day after day because there are dozens of things you “have to” do, the last thing you need is me telling you to add a daily item to your to-do list.
So while, in the long term, it pays to schedule that daily walk or that daily journaling session, or to sleep an extra half hour a day, let’s talk about what you can do now to relieve some stress in ways that don’t take extra time.
1. Look at everything you want to do today, and decide which one task is least important. Then decide to leave that task for another day. One of the key contributors to stress is trying to do more than you comfortably have time to do. When you find yourself wanting to do more than you think you have time for, you probably would not complete the least important task anyway. You want to avoid reaching the end of the day and feeling guilty or “not good enough” for not doing everything you wanted to. By giving yourself permission ahead of time not to complete the least important task, you free up mental bandwidth to focus on what you’re doing right now.
2. When you find yourself planning the rest of your day, or worrying about whether you’ll get everything done, instead focus on the sensations in your feet. For example, when you’re in a meeting and the conversation turns to an agenda item that does not concern you, rather than thinking about what you’ll do right after the meeting, instead think about what word you’d use to describe how your feet feel. Are they warm or cold? Are they stiff? Sweaty? Are your shoes too tight? Maybe you can feel your feet stabilizing your body on the ground.
Why does paying attention to the sensations in your feet work? Good question. But does it work? Yes! There is even scientific research into the stress-relieving effect of focusing your attention on your bodily sensations.
(Side note: When you’re in a meeting and you can get away with zoning out, you’d probably be better off not attending that meeting to begin with. But that’s a topic for another day.)
3. Acknowledge that you feel stressed. Simply tell yourself (out loud or in your head), “I’m feeling stress right now”. Or tell the person sitting next to you, or text your mom. You don’t need to start a deep conversation about the causes of your stress, about what will happen if you continue to experience stress, or how you might get rid of your stress entirely. Just acknowledge that you feel stress. Naming your emotions will usually lower their intensity a bit, and I’ve found this to be true of acknowledging stress as well.
And here’s a tip. Pick whichever of these three techniques appeals most to you. Next time you feel stressed, try it out. See how it feels. Does it lower your stress a little? Great! Apply the technique more often.
If the technique doesn’t do anything for you, try one of the other two. Don’t try all three techniques at once. That might only stress you out more.
It’s time for a confession. I spent six months working with a psychologist to lower my stress—so far. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The difference in my level of stress in daily life between now and before I started seeing my psychologist is night and day.
Sadly, I should have started seeing a psychologist 1.5 years sooner. And back then, there were people telling me to see someone, too.
I didn’t listen.
Nevertheless, I’ll pass the advice on to you.
Think of yourself as a carpenter, and of the techniques above as tools in your toolbox. They’ll help you in some situations, but they won’t build a whole house. If you regularly employ some of the above techniques, or similar ones, and you continue to experience stress often, see a psychologist. They’ll help you relieve stress symptoms and address the causes of your stress.
Maybe you have objections to seeing a psychologist, such as:
- Seeing a psychologist is too expensive
- There’s nothing wrong with me
- I don’t need help
- I don’t have time to see a psychologist
- I can fix my own problems
- High stress is a normal part of life
- Many people around me are stressed; sustained stress is normal
- The wait list to see a psychologist is too long
- A therapist can’t help me, because they can’t take away the causes of my stress
If you identify with one of these reasons not to see a psychologist, see one anyway.
Treat a visit as an experiment. Your hypothesis is that seeing a psychologist is not worth your time. Try to disprove it. Commit yourself to making one appointment and evaluating afterwards whether you think the visit was worth your time.
Now, answer this question: how much stress do you experience, and what’s an appropriate response?
Let me know.