“Goodness knows there’s enough things to worry about without worrying about worrying about things”
Rarely, is stress a good thing.
When I say “stress”, it doesn’t conjure warm, fond memories of that time you lost your wallet, were running late, had lost your phone and had just stepped on the wrong train.
Yes, there is “good” stress and “bad” stress, the fitness industry has been flogging that dead horse since the concepts were first coined. On a day to day basis, no one cares about that.
We care that negative thoughts populate our headspace and smother out ability to just be care-free and happy. We care that we experience unpleasant, visceral, gut wrenching discomfort from thoughts and events that are, for the most part, unimportant and transient.
So, if we can manage this unpleasantness, that would be an achievement right? A big improvement in well-being and quality of life.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to buy Rosehip extract and drink blended seaweed. Instead, we’ve collated our 3 favourite practical ways to deal with the everyday stresses that we all deal with (or fail to for that matter).
Access the blue sky
For over a year now, I’ve been sitting in the corner of a room each morning, listening to a man I’ve never met telling me to focus on my breathing.
The Headspace iPhone app has been instrumental in my first consistent attempt at meditation and I’ve noticed a real shift in not only my baseline stress levels but also my ability to cope with stress as it enters my life.
After-all, stress is not due to a situation or circumstance, it’s due entirely to your response to reality. It’s crucial therefore when addressing stress that you work inside out, work on your mind first, then the hacks and tricks to deal with the situations themselves.
Both meditation and headspace have received a good amount of media attention in recent months. For those who aren’t familiar with headspace, the app’s interface holds your hand through a course in mindfulness meditation, from bare basics in a 10 min breathing exercise through to 25 minute visualisations and exercises to integrate into daily tasks.
Yusef has spoken about meditation before and it’s something we advocate as part of the protocol. However, usually, meditation recommendations are met with scorn and scepticism. After all, the perception in modern culture is that meditation is typically an activity reserved for hippies and monks. Regardless, there is plenty of research pointing to meditation assisting in stress reduction (1,2)
I was sceptical once too, very sceptical in fact. I failed to recognise the process whereby focussing on your breath for 10 minutes per day could generate such a return on time investment. A month or so after starting, I began to see some subtle, albeit profound shifts in my thinking.
Firstly, I noticed that my engagement in what I was doing at any given moment was enhanced, I’d find myself getting deeply involved with work and only noticing 3 hours later when I stopped to look at the clock, this enforced my belief that you almost never stress about the situation you’re in, learning to become deeply engaged in the present can really help alleviate worries about tomorrow. Because I’d been focussing on my work and not worrying about the associated deadline, the associated stress had not even crossed my mind.
Secondly, I noticed a disengagement between my emotions and reactions. Previously, when I worried about something, the feeling would absorb me without notice, after consistent meditation is was almost like I was presented with the option: “Do you want to worry about this?” and the ability to just push the thoughts to one side with rational self-talk. This was similar with other feelings such as anger and frustration.
A key theme in the headspace tuition is the idea of blue sky. The premise of this is the analogy of the mind to a cloud filled sky. Most people live life in and below the clouds (negative thoughts or feelings) and believe that the stress they experience is symptomatic of their environment and hence a permanent state of being unless their environment changes. Within the logic of the analogy, travel high enough above the clouds and there is always a vast expanse of blue sky, no matter how bad the stormy weather that persists below, the blue sky is a constant.
If you consider a stressful situation that you’ve recently had, or even just stress that you’re currently experiencing, rarely does it result from the present moment. Obviously, if you’re being chased by a Rhino, that’s stressful, very stressful. But, as most of us live a safe, warm existence, sheltered by our laptop screens and coffee machines we tend to worry about the abstract. We worry about the past and how an event was unpleasant, we worry about how the future may unfold and how we may be unable to deal with an event that MIGHT happen tomorrow or next week.
These thoughts are your cloudy sky, the thunder storms that cloud the clarity. The blue sky is the here and the now, the smells around you, the sensation of your fingers tapping the keys, the task you’re engaged in right now, being totally present in the space and time around you. Being “mindful” is the easiest, and most impactful, way of diffusing stress.
Being mindful is a skill and one that most people have had very little formal practice in. Meditation is to mindfulness as the driving range is to golf, practicing a skill in a controllable environment so that you can use those skills in real life.
You don’t have to sign up permanently to the Headspace app to learn this skill, eventually it will ask for a monthly retainer and I don’t feel it’s a necessity, at least not to begin with. There is however, a free 10 day course offered with the app, 10 days of 10 minutes. Within this, you’ll learn everything you need to practice on your own going forward:
1) Appreciate that stresses and worrying thoughts usually relate to the past and future – thoughts alone won’t change the reality, they only cloud the present. What’s more, stress is entirely an internal response to a scenario and you can change that response.
2) Understand that the blue sky is always there for you to access, you just need to learn to be present in the moment as often as possible
3) Download the headspace app and use the 10 day free course as a tuition guide
4) Set a reminder on your phone to meditate first thing in the morning, use your morning coffee/shower as a trigger. First thing on waking is the best time to practice, it sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Close open loops:
Moving towards the external influences, a primary driver of stress in our lives is incoming information and the pressure that is placed on us to manage that.
Everyone has commitments and responsibilities, tasks we’re meant to complete. This can create stress in two ways. First, we have the feeling of overwhelm that arises from the concern that we’re not on top of our to-do list, that we don’t have the time to get everything done. This is the conscious aspect.
Second, there is the background hum that all the commitments you’ve made to yourself, but don’t formally recognise, create. Let’s say you’ve promised yourself for some time that you’d clear through your bedroom wardrobe and have yet to get round to it, or you walk past a fused light bulb and tell yourself you must fix it soon – both are “open loops” – tasks that you’ve acknowledged but not appropriately processed.
An “open loop” is anything that has entered your space, whether physical or psychological that you’ve not captured for appropriate processing. For those familiar with these concepts, David Allen’s “Getting things done” popularised this idea.
A key realisation is that you can only ever select the most appropriate task to work on at any one time and to operate effectively, work on it with complete focus. For this, you need to appropriately deal with all the inputs you have in your life so that you can be comfortable that, from a complete listing of all your commitments, you’re working on the best one for right here, right now. A commitment could be anything from a text message to a broken microwave, both require your attention either now or in the future. So, we need a simple system to deal with our “stuff”.
If you have the time, I’d recommend reading the getting things done book, it explores these ideas in great detail. If not, here’s our suggestion:
Maintain your inputs
You need a notebook (I use Apple Reminders) or equivalent to start noting down absolutely anything that enters your head:
“ I really must….”
Note it down
“Hey Jonny, when you get a chance could you….”
Note it down
“My car really needs cleaning…”
b) Text messages, emails, voicemails etc. These are all inputs that have pre-selected locations, they’re inputs too.
c) Physical item. Letters, documents, business cards – have a place to put them and make this place for nothing else.
Block time to process
Lists without actions are no better than scraps of paper. Ideally, for 30 minutes each morning, scan down your lists and check what’s there. I like to use 3 rules, again, David Allen’s influence is pretty obvious here:
Above all, decide what it is, why it’s a commitment and what I’m trying to accomplish by doing it, this should guide your thought process in what is needed to move this task along to completion.
if something will take less than two minutes to do and you have the facilities to do it, do it immediately!! Often checking off a few quick wins first thing in the morning is enough to create a feeling of productivity and success.
Schedule: is there a deadline?
If it has to be done today, I stick up to 5 items on a paper to do list. Everything else goes in a calendar appointment so i’m reminded on the day. Either way, it doesn’t stay on the list.
Important but not time sensitive:
I put this on my master to-do list, separate from where I capture everything. If I get through my paper to-do list, I look here for what to do next.
Is someone else better suited to do this? Maybe not applicable outside of a work context but don’t be afraid so shift items off your plate and onto others where possible.
If something is only there to assuage your interests (learn a new language) and not something that is a pressing task, either bin it or have a separate place to store fun things that can be done at your leisure.
Something to consider is having a few lists if you regularly have items that are location specific. For example, if you’re at work, you can’t empty the bins or pick up your shopping, I like to book these into my calendar as appointments, if I know when I’ll be at home/at the shops. Apple reminders also has a GPS location reminder feature!
Block time to do
Each day, you should have your 5 most important tasks on a list, nothing else. Block out the time before lunch to get these done and make it a challenge.
If 5 is too many, try 3 or even 1.
By lunch, you should have knocked off all your 2 minute tasks and at least 1 large item. Consider using the pomodoro technique here to manage your attention.
Remember that there is always more to do than you can do right now, all that is for you to decide is how to effectively spend each moment.
Stress is often the result of things we’re not doing, to manage this, it’s important to capture all your commitments so you know what you’re not doing and that they way you’re spending your time is the best way to do so.
Capture all your inputs, review daily and process the items appropriately
Block time in your day to work on quick wins first thing and then an important task before lunch.
Obviously, our distilled process here is missing some steps that Allen provides quite a lot of focus on in the book. If task organisation and productivity interest you, here’s a link to the audiobook
An element of stress can simply be how we perceive the world, some people, myself included, will naturally magnify the negative and focus on why a situation is bad, rather than an equal and opposite positive.
People find stress in many different environments, how is it that some people cope well with the stresses and strains of the demands placed on them and some others don’t? Usually, after some enquiry, it comes down to an individual’s ability to place a scenario in its appropriate context. In other words, yes, the situation is stressful but there is also a positive side of x and a context of y. They naturally seek the positives and contextualise the negatives.
Luckily, this is a skill and it can be learned and trained. Of course, you’re essentially trying to re-frame your perspective which can be challenging to say the least, but with time and consistent effort, you can make marked changed in how you both think and react.
There have even been some studies performed on the effects of gratitude on your mental state of being (3).
Some experiments to try:
5 minute journal
This is an Iphone app I currently use to help me practice gratitude and re-frame my thinking. The name is descriptive enough, for 5 minutes in the morning and evening you go through some thought exercises on positive thinking. The AM session is typically naming 3 things you’re grateful for, 3 things that would make today a success and 1 affirmation “I am able to handle stress effectively”, for example.
The PM session then takes a retrospective approach, what went well today, what could have gone better are typical questions.
While this may seem somewhat abstract, the tasks slowly start to change how you think. So while you may be overwhelmed with stress from work, you’re forced to consider that actually, you’re grateful for supportive friends, your favourite song etc.
Match negative thoughts with a positive
This is a very basic thought exercise. I tend to use the journaling app “Day One” for this.
It’s simple, note down in bullet format all of the stress-full/negative things that currently have your attention:
I feel like I have too much to do at work
I’m concerned about giving the presentation on Friday
I’m concerned my girlfriend/boyfriend and I are arguing too much, I’m concerned the relationship isn’t working
Some fairly negative thoughts I’m sure you’ll agree, and everyone will have their own selection. For the sake of this exercise, limit your daily list to no more than 3 things. Focus on 3 per day and rotate.
Now the challenge is to find the countering positive with each scenario:
I feel like I have too much to do at work
This will be a great opportunity for me to work on my productivity. I’ll make a list of everything I need to do, timetable it over the week and discuss things with my boss on Wednesday if I still feel overwhelmed. If I get it all done it’ll be quite the achievement!
I’m concerned about giving the presentation on Friday
Everyone feels stressed about public speaking, it’s perfectly natural! All I can do is my best and it’s a great opportunity to work on a weakness!
I’m concerned my girlfriend/boyfriend and I are arguing too much, Im concerned the relationship isn’t working
Happy couples argue all the time! Spending lots of time with one person is bound to result in some disagreements occasionally! I’ll sit and discuss it with him/her and as long as we both agree to work on any issues, we’ll get through it no problem!
This type of advice is the sort of thing you’d likely give a friend or family member when they asked for advice. We’re all capable of generating these positive slants, it’s just that when thoughts remain in our head, the positives rarely reach the forefront of our consciousness. Writing them down daily gives you a chance to deal objectively with your worries
3) No complaints experiment
There are two types of situations that lead to stress and unhappiness, those you can’t change and those you can. When you can’t change something, complaining about it will only enhance your negative feelings about it.
Complaining is simply the result of wishing something was different, when it physically can’t be, it is simply a waste of mental energy. If it can be changed then the energy can be more effectively used in devising a plan to improve the situation.
An effective experiment can be to go for 30 days without complaining. Tell friends, family and co-workers of your experiment and promise to give them £1 every time you complain about something. Simply engaging in the act of becoming aware of how often you complain can be a great way in engendering a more positive outlook and a happier life.
It goes without saying that feeling stressed is something we’d all rather didn’t happen. When taken to its extreme, mental stress can be disabling and lead to a very unhappy existence.
By attacking stress with a three pronged approach:
Develop an ability to be present in the moment, realise that worries tend to result from past or future events and rarely from what is happening right now
Learn to empty your mind of tasks and commitments and manage them in an effective system, this will greatly reduce the burden you feel from what you need to get done.
Scan your environment for positives rather than defaulting to the negatives. Practice gratitude, define your worries and try no complaints for 30 days
We can take back a semblance of control, acknowledging that stress has actually nothing to do with our environment and everything to do with us, our thoughts and our learned coping mechanisms, all of which can be changed.
You can never control what situations you will find yourself in but you can control your ability to engage with situations with an open, neutral mind, adjusting your responses as required and always thinking positively, framing everything in context.
I hope you get some benefit or at least one take home point from the above. I’ve certainly experienced great success in managing stress using the above techniques.
In the interest of building a catch-all resource for those who have effective tips to share, if you have any tips and suggestions for stress management, please share in the comments below!