Stress finds its way into everyone’s life. When it does, how do you manage? My humble answer: Not too well. Despite writing about mindfulness, having attended a 10-day silent retreat, and possessing an off-and-on relationship with meditation, I continue to be at the whim of external circumstances.
Right now, I’m going through a season of this kind of stress.
It’s nothing too unique: work, money, the future. And sure, I’ve pulled out my journal a few times, sat down for a couple meditation exercises, and done some breathing exercises.
But there’s this persistent voice in my head saying, “Just work a little harder until the stress goes away.”
The natural reaction to stress is to push harder until the external circumstances imposing stress are resolved.
The only problem? This idea is a fallacy.
New stressful situations will take their place.
The STOP technique for stress reduction
Reducing stress can be an overwhelming topic, so let’s start with a simple technique for stress reduction: the STOP method.
Developed by mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, the STOP method is about relieving stress by centering yourself in the present moment.
Here’s how it works:
- Stop whatever it is that you’re doing right now
- Take a deep breath. If you’re particularly stressed, you can linger on this step in order to recalibrate your nervous system.
- Observe yourself. How does your body feel? Check in with different areas of your body and notice which are tense. How does your mind feel? Notice what thoughts are looping through your brain.
- Proceed. You can get back to what you were doing with a new awareness of what’s going on within you, and hopefully, with a more balanced nervous system.
The STOP technique and similar methods are powerful because they allow you to dissolve stress, rather than trying to control its source.
Which is good, because stressful circumstances are an inevitable part of life.
Stressful external circumstances will always be there
When it comes to stress, there isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Sure, some situations are more stressful than others. Raising young kids while working a full-time job is objectively more stressful than retiring to Florida and playing tennis.
But give it enough time, and your concerns will always shrink to fit your circumstances.
Just ask anyone who’s worked hard until retirement, only to find that their worries about sales calls have been replaced by worries about health, family, or loneliness.
Stress is like a spotlight.
When our minds are habituated to stress and worry, the spotlight just moves somewhere else.
But why the heck is this?
Stress is an automatic reaction controlled by your amygdala and nervous system
You probably remember the “fight or flight” response from biology class. It describes body’s attempt to respond to perceived danger and help you survive.
The challenge in the modern world is that we’re not often under mortal threat.
But our bodies fire stress signals all the time anyway.
Why? It’s an overreaction.
But the body doesn’t know that.
Here’s what’s happening:
According to Harvard Health, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the “command center” of the brain—the hypothalamus. The command center then communicates with your body through your nervous system. Your adrenal glands pump adrenaline into your bloodstream, and your pulse rate and blood pressure increase.
The craziest thing? All of this happens without your input.
And it can continue as long as you perceive a situation to be threatening.
Perception is the key word here.
Your perception can create conditions of chronic low-level stress, increasing cortisol levels throughout the body.
Physical tools to fight stress
If you’re not exercising, that’s the first place to start. Exercise can deepen your breathing and relieve muscle tension.
Relaxation is next. This can be anything from yoga to deep breathing to visualizations.
Finally, make sure to stay social. Studies show that staying around family and friends during times of stress has positive benefits.
It seems like obvious advice: exercise, relax, and be around people.
But I often find when I’m in a state of stress, the things I neglect first are the exact things that could help relieve my stress.
Instead of exercising, I sit in front of a computer.
Instead of being around people, I isolate.
Instead of relaxing, I work.
Mental tools to fight stress
Stress occurs when you perceive a situation to be threatening.
So the question is this:
How do you reduce your perception that a situation is threatening?
This is easier said than done. But since we don’t have absolute control over our external circumstances, controlling our reactions is the only long-term path away from stress.
Start by taking a moment to recognize that all those stressful circumstances swirling around you are going to keep swirling away. If you resolve them, they’ll be replaced by new ones.
These are the “waves of change,” as Buddhists commonly say. They’re inevitable. You can’t stop them. But you can learn to “surf” them.
Once you’ve accepted that you can’t control your external circumstances, it’s time to learn how to surf.
There isn’t just one way to do this.
See what philosophies and approaches resonate with you.
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and promote a sense of calm and balance.
Mindfulness activities like gratitude and mindful eating help you focus with appreciation on the here-and-now, rather than getting stuck focusing on things you can’t control.
Philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism can be helpful to explore. They have a knack for putting life into context.
Experiment and find what works for you.
Don’t try to fix your circumstances—shrink your concerns
It’s natural to respond to stress by trying to remove the source of stress, which is almost always an external circumstance.
One of the hard things about being human is that we need to learn—often again and again—that we can only control ourselves.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work to reduce external sources of stress. But doing so comes with the risk of sacrificing your happiness today to resolve sources of stress that will inevitably be replaced by new sources of stress.
It’s an endless cycle.
You can break free from the stress cycle by:
- Focusing on exercise, relaxation, and being with loved ones.
- Centering yourself with a practice that increases your sense of calm, like meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude.
If it all sounds overwhelming, that’s okay.
Start with a small promise to yourself:
Let go of the idea that fixing today’s stressful external circumstances can permanently solve your stress.
Recognize that the solution is in your hands.
My mindfulness practice kicked off in 2016 with a ten-day silent retreat. Since then, I’ve read dozens of books about mindfulness and completed hundreds of hours of meditation. Thinking about what makes humans happy, calm, and peaceful is endlessly fascinating to me.