If you want to live a stress-free life now is the time to make some changes. Read on to discover the first thing you absolutely must do to stress less.
This post is part of RethinkingTruth’s series “Five habits of the stress-free life” and its purpose is to teach you the first of these habits: “Gain control”.
Lack of control leads to stress
Stress is a misunderstood superpower. For thousands of years we humans have trusted our stress ability to get us out of dangerous situations, such as fighting with lions or enemy tribes. These days lion attacks are few and far between but we seem to stress more than ever.
One of the key reasons why we’re stressing so much is because we don’t feel in control. Perhaps your boss has just given you lots of work with tight deadlines and you’re not sure if you will be able to deliver, or perhaps you’re running late for a flight. The result is the same: stress.
When you feel out of control you’re sending a message to your brain that goes something like this: “I can’t deal with the current situation, give me extra strength!” Your brain then initiates the “stress” superpower that increase cortisol, adrenaline and glucose levels in your bloodstream. If you’re running from a lion that’s exactly what you need. However, if your body is constantly preparing for a lion attack that’s not a good thing .
How to gain control
To live a stress-free life you must avoid activating your stress superpower. One of the best ways to do just that is to increase the actual and perceived control you have over your life. Check out this example:
You need to catch an important train but you’re late. Right now you’re sitting on a bus, feeling stressed. To increase actual control over the situation let’s say there are two things you could do:
- Book your train ticket while sitting on the bus on your way to the station
- Plan what you will do once you arrive at the station to minimise the time it will take you from the bus stop to the train
You know the importance of gaining control so you do both of these actions. The probability of you catching the train has now been increased. Nice!
Unfortunately, it’s far from certain that you’ll get there on time. For this reason, you still don’t feel in control and your stress levels remains high. To reduce your stress you must gain perceived control too. There’s a few ways you could do this:
- Focus on the fact that missing this train isn’t really that important. Yes, there are some negative effects but it’s not like anyone’s going to die
- Remember that life is long and that you have plenty of time to make up for this one potential mistake later
Keeping that example in mind, let’s look at the two approaches: One for gaining actual control, and one for gaining perceived control.
Three steps to gain actual control
To gain actual control I recommend this three-step approach:
- Understand what’s causing your stress. If you feel stressed, get into the habit of understanding what’s stressing you out. For example, let’s say you’re on your way home from work and you realise you’re stressed. To understand what’s causing your stress stop whatever you’re thinking about, walk slowly, relax your body and ask yourself: Why am I feeling stressed?. Spend a few minutes thinking about this and write down the top 3 reasons for your stress.
- Ask yourself: What can I do about this? If something can be done write it down, including who needs to do what by when. Dedicate time in your calendar to work on or delegate the tasks. Spend time reflecting on this until you feel you have control over what needs to be done. You typically need from 5 to 60 minutes but that depends on the situation that’s causing your stress of course.
- Take action immediately. Carry out one task that will improve the control you have over the situation, right away.
Focus on what you can influence.
Follow this three-step method whenever you’re feeling stressed. You’ll be surprised at how effective it is.
Sometimes, however, there’s nothing you can do to gain actual control over a situation. Or, even though you have gained actual control you might feel stressed anyway. To deal with these issues you must learn how to gain perceived control.
The two-steps and one belief you need to gain perceived control
To gain perceived control you need to apply two different approaches. The first approach has two steps and it will help you deal with a situation that’s causing you stress you right now. The second approach is to install a belief that will help you deal with all potential stressful situations in the future. Combine these two approaches and they’ll become the cornerstone of your stress-free life.
Two steps to gain perceived control over a stressful situation
- Take corrective action: If you miss your train and the client meeting will have to be postponed admit your mistake, apologise and do what you can to make things right. This will greatly reduce the pain others experience from your mistake and it will make it easier for you to deal with future potentially stressful situations.
- Silence your inner voice (don’t think): If you’re late for a train and there’s nothing you can do to increase your control over that situation, thinking about it is counter-productive. To stop thinking means to silence your inner voice, the voice in your mind that asks questions, answers them and makes observations related to the situation that’s stressing you out. It’s very hard to feel stressed about something if you’re not thinking about it so if you can silence your mind your are silencing your stress too. There are many ways to practice mental silence. From my experience the best way for most people is to simply start becoming aware of what you’re thinking in situations you’re experiencing stress. Read this post if you want to learn more about how to think.
Install this belief to gain perceived control of all future situations
“What will shape my life isn’t individual choices, but the sum of my decisions over a life-time”.
Many people think that almost everything that happen in their lives is of utmost importance. That’s not only wrong but it’s a dangerous belief that typically leads to lots of stress. Why? Because if everything that happens is of utmost importance then it’s crucial that nothing ever goes wrong. How likely is that?
A more realistic and powerful belief is that few of the million individual things that happen in our lives shape how of lives turn out. Instead, it’s the sum of our decisions that matter. Here are two examples:
- Lost the train to meet your new boyfriend’s parents for the first time? No-big deal. If you and your boyfriend are meant to be together you’ll have years of time to build a good relationship with his parents. Everyone makes mistakes.
- Rejected for your dream job? Don’t worry. Continue to pursue your dream and more opportunities will turn up.
Some people find it hard to get used to this belief as they feel they are “lowering their standards”. Although I understand the feeling it doesn’t represent reality. Stressing out over something you can’t do anything about is pretty dumb whilst accepting reality as it is and making the best out of it is smart. Don’t cry over spilt milk, instead walk to the store and buy some more.
Install this powerful belief and see your stress disappear.
What’s the one thing you can do right now to gain control?
From my experience the best way to start gaining control and consequently reduce stress is to become aware of what you think in situations where you experience stress.
I therefore want you to do the following right now:
- Create a note on your phone with the header “What I think when I’m stressed”
- The next time you experience stress, go to a place where you can be alone and spend two minutes paying attention to what thoughts are going through your mind
- Write down two of your thoughts and ask yourself: How helpful are these thoughts for dealing with the situation and reducing my stress levels?
Continue doing this for a month and you’ll have acquired a key stress-reducing (and performance increasing) skill: Mental awareness.
Good luck and let me know you get on. If you want to learn more about health check out “The five habits of health”.