By Jotham Busfield, MSW, LICSW
The American Psychological Association has run a nationwide survey since 2007 to identify the impact of stress across the country. The results are concerning, with 36% of participants saying their stress has increased over the past year and 42% saying it has increased over the past five years. American culture, with continuously mounting pressure on individual achievement, needs stress relief more than ever.
American philosopher and psychologist William James is quoted as saying “the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” Is that all it takes? Simply choosing to think differently? Well, yes…and no. Challenging thoughts for real world accuracy in order to think-diff is certainly an important part of combating stress, anxiety, and even depression, but it is not quite that simple. Before this approach can be mastered, there are some other steps to take first, here are five initial strategies for starting the process of stress reduction.
Check to See if the Door is Unlocked
The solution to reducing stress may not be as daunting as you think.
In the 1999 movie Blue Streak, comedian Martin Lawrence’s character named Miles Logan has the following exchange with one of his partners in crime during a bank robbery:
Miles Logan: All right check this out: This is a Brigga 3300, toughest safe in the world. What’s the first thing you do?
Eddie: Drill the lock.
Miles Logan: No! You got to check to see if it’s open.
Miles Logan: [excited] It’s open!
Eddie: [surprised] Really?
Miles Logan: Nah I’m messin’ wit- I’m messing with you! They would never do that! Now Eddie, you know they would never do that!
Now, watching the video clip is much more funny than reading the transcript, I am in no way advocating for committing any crimes, and I am definitely dating myself with that movie reference, but there is an important point to be taken from this exchange. Prior to undertaking a multi-faceted approach to stress reduction, you have to consider the possibility that a feasible solution may be right in front of you, the equivalent of checking to make sure the toughest safe in the world is unlocked prior to using other more difficult measures to break into it. The most common example of this is sleep. Spoiler alert, if you are the parent of a young child or have a sleep disorder of some kind, it is not as simple as just getting more sleep. But for most people, lifestyle changes and a rearranging of priorities can allow for a healthy amount of sleep on a nightly basis, ideally 8-9 hours for adults over 25 and 9-10 hours for persons under 25 years old. The physical and mental health consequences of under-sleeping or sleep deprivation cannot be understated, so this may be your unlocked safe, twist the handle and open the door!
Perform an Initial Check of Current Coping Strategies
At this point, it is important to not necessarily spring into stress stopping action. Instead, take a metaphorical step back and honestly acknowledge your current methods for coping with stress by writing them down. How many of your current coping strategies are healthy and which ones are unhealthy and possibly adding to overall stress levels? Accurate examples of the latter include being over-caffeinated, routine alcohol consumption to “unwind,” drug use outside of a doctor’s prescription, driving vehicles at high rates of speed, nail biting, self-criticism, verbal aggression towards others, physical aggression such a punching walls, or avoiding social connection altogether. If one or a combination of these unhealthy coping strategies are in your current repertoire, resist the urge to change this overnight or criticize yourself. Try to respectfully acknowledge that there is room for improvement and that thus far, these strategies have not solved the long term stress problem. Talk to yourself with the same respect and forgiveness you would talk to a best friend or loved one.
Identify Your Support System
In order to handle stress effectively, resist trying to take on the world yourself, although many fall victim to this common pitfall. Setting up a support system is important for two reasons:
- You have other people you trust who can be a healthy distraction or the target of a much-needed venting session.
- You can make your goals public to this network, whether those goals are stress reduction related or otherwise. Making goals known to those you trust makes you instantly more likely to accomplish these goals.
Aside from venting and making goals known, a social network can be the direct source of positive social interaction, which is vital for stress relief and generally achieving positive health outcomes. As a 2015 research study from Brigham Young University points out, isolation and/or loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day or being an alcoholic. Aside from friends and family, community interactions can also be helpful. Hair stylists and barbers are often great listeners, conversationalists, and general sources of support, as a future article (teaser alert!) for our blog will explore!
Common Myth: “I don’t want to burden my friends and family with my problems.” This is an example of a common (and often inaccurate) automatic thought people have about going to family and friends for stress relief. A good way to test this myth is by asking yourself, “If my friends or family came to me to vent or relieve stress, would I feel burdened?” The answer is often the opposite, as most people feel humbled, privileged, and important when a friend or loved one comes to them for support, which is quite the opposite of feeling burdened.
Break Stress Down into Sources, or “Assess the Stress”
Often stress is cumulative, built up over time, and comes from several sources. In order to effectively reduce the stress, you have to accurately assess where the stress is coming from and eventually create a hierarchy of sources (see next section). A simple exercise is to write out 10 sources of stress in your life currently just to get it out of your head and onto paper (or screen). In a follow-up article for our blog, we will be discussing a more in-depth method for stress assessment, including a free digital copy of the “Assess the Stress” tool that we created at Think-diff Institute, so check back soon!
Prioritize the Sources of Stress into a Hierarchy
This hierarchy of 10 stress sources can serve as a stress “to-do list” of sorts, a guide for targeting stress for reduction. After writing out the top 10 sources of stress in your life currently, order them from most impactful (#1) to least impactful (#10). The top source of stress will be targeted first, but that doesn’t mean sources lower on the list are ignored just because they aren’t as severe, as stress sources often work in tandem and there may be that “unlocked safe” solution Martin Lawrence referenced, remember?
In the follow-up article coming soon, we will explore how different sources of stress often require different targeted strategies, along with a free tool to help accurately “Assess the Stress.” In the meantime, we are looking for feedback about how others effectively cope with stress, so share your preferred methods with us! You can comment on the blog or Facebook post, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Think-diff Blog articles to check out:
7 Reasons Why Your High School Student Should Work With A Coach:
5 Tips for Helping Your Student Prepare for College:
17 Hurdles on the Track to Success: