Whether we choose to acknowledge it or attempt to shrug it off, stress follows us everywhere. Stress can affect our actions and how we're feeling and cause harm to our health — even if we try to let the anxiety subside. YourTango expert Cynthia Ackrill informs us of the hidden stressors that are wearing us down and shows us how to conquer them.
Every single day is filled with to-do lists on steroids, heightened emotions, and stress opportunities everywhere you look. You feel everything is piling up one on top of the other and you just can't catch a break?
Figuring out how to deal with stress may seem almost impossible. But what if you were able to let go of a few of your stresses more easily? In fact, what if I told you three of your stresses were totally unnecessary and didn't serve your life in any way.
Here are three types of stress you can — and should — cut out of your life altogether:
1. Anticipatory stress
This also means borrowing stress from the future. No doubt, many of the overwhelming demands on your precious time and energy seem or are beyond your control. But anticipation can exponentially magnify their stress-inducing potential. Anticipatory stress occurs when you create, consciously or subconsciously, a story about the future — a tale that cues up emotions, mindsets, and expectations that color your actual experience of the future, as well as your present.
Take it from Winston Churchill when he said, "When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened."
2. False urgency or dread
The fast track to "Ugh!", dread can zap you faster and harder than running a 10K uphill barefoot in the snow. It's really quite impressive how much energy you can spend playing out a scenario in advance — usually, way more than required to cope with the actual event. Just thinking negative anticipatory thoughts can wreak havoc on your blood pressure, brain waves, and heart rate!
You may have more than enough data to lay significant odds on your story. Sure, your cousin will inevitably spoil yet another family gathering with her mean-spirited barbs and narcissistic attention hogging. And you are right to prepare yourself for a scenario with traction. But you don't need to give her your energy or your emotional and physical health for three weeks before you go! Develop your self-preservation strategy now and then quit replaying the dread. Of course, there are benefits to predicting trouble. You can prepare. You can spare yourself the disappointment. And you can feel victoriously "right" when trouble occurs. ("I told you so" does have an element of reward and a feeling of control!) But if you leap from curious examination and proactive strategizing for possible obstacles to an emotional state that limits your thinking and affects your well-being, you spend your resilience reserves too quickly.
Dread triggers a high-energy-demand stress reaction, creating a state of readiness with a narrowed perspective, compromised emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility, and a primed and revved physiology. It's borrowing future fear.
3. Positive anticipation
On the flip side, embellishing your story with inflated, unrealistic expectations can also add to your stress. You may make decisions on a story rather than data — essentially, "betting on the outcome." When you are too busy creating your scenario, you may miss the information, learning, and gifts of reality unfolding outside your illusion of control. And you can become too attached to the outcome as the goal, missing the proven advantage of focusing on progress. That said, I do so love the uplifting power of travel on my calendar — that's good anticipation. Daydreaming about time on the beach can get me through seasonal affective drear and looming deadlines.
But, if I create a story about exactly what needs to happen for my vacation to be a success, I've ventured into control landmines. And if I start fretting about the work that has piled up or the hassles of transportation two days before I return, I've just wasted the renewing power of time away.
What's at play here is more than optimism versus pessimism. Those describe attitudes or mindsets, not excursions into mental fiction writing.
There are great advantages to choosing to focus your attention on the positive, especially making habits of genuine positive emotions — like smiling and recreating that vacation happy mode. Learned optimism — envisioning a goal or achievement — gives you purpose and motivates you. But creating a complete story in your head, anticipating an outcome at the expense of being present, or becoming so fixated on the outcome that the journey holds no joy are fast paths to stress.
Negative or positive, in both cases story writing puts you in a position of judging and forming attachments to outcomes before the event even occurs. It's a natural tendency — your mind is wired to constantly scan and label "good" versus "bad" in order to keep you safe. You are also programmed to learn and predict through models and story. This is all well and good when you do this mindfully. But when you don't examine your thinking process with fresh eyes, your brain fills in old story patterns. It can be a bit lazy and repeating thought habits saves energy. These mindless or automatic excursions often have a common theme based on well-worn thought patterns. Not sure what yours is? Just ask your inner critic! It usually just waiting with an old story involving some version of "not enough".
You are not enough. You don't have enough (time, money, energy, patience, skills, resources, a perfect family). This theme has been feeding human stress for millennia. Its pals are fear, shame, perfectionism, numbing, and that famous river, denial. Your triggered fear does serve a purpose. It ramps you up to deal with a challenge — perfect for the occasional, discrete threat, but not so useful when your stories ring the danger alarm incessantly. So just stop it!
Here's how to overcome these three types of unnecessary stress in your life:
It's near impossible to decide to just stop thinking worrisome or intrusive thoughts. It's better to recognize them for what they are — rambling constructs of your mind. So what can you do when you feel the tension start to build, or your focus or fuse start to shorten?
Just a couple of slow deep breaths can reset your brain and body to a healthier, more powerful state. Notice, without judgment. Just notice the mind and body: Where are your thoughts going? What's your emotional state? And your physical state? They are all wired together, so your best clues may present in any way, from tight shoulders to spinning mind.
Then ask yourself these four questions:
- What is the real data?
- What story am I adding?
- What do I really need?
- Who do I want to be?
When you pause your automatic thinking long enough for just a few breaths and questions, you ramp up your frontal lobe's power to put things in perspective and choose thoughts and responses with wisdom and data, instead of history, fear, and emotions. You also give your body a chance to reset to healthier patterns.
This is a more mindful way to cut off anticipatory stress and reduce stressors overall and this takes practice! You may need reminders so write the questions. Sometimes, I think I need a tattoo on the end of my nose, but a sticky note, symbol, or mantra can do wonders. It also requires basic self-care.
Being present, aware, and proactive uses huge frontal lobe power, and the frontal lobe is the first to go offline when your brain is hungry, tired, thirsty, or feeling disconnected.
The good news is that with practice, you have the power to build new neural networks to support a habit that will serve you with better health, focus, resilience, and energy for life!
So play around with this. And I mean play, as in no judgment! Reducing stressors is no easy feat so be gentle with yourself. This is a process of experimentation to build your self-awareness and resilience muscles over time.
Your future will bring you plenty of opportunities to test your coping confidence — why borrow more? And what will you do with all that energy you save?
Cynthia Ackrill leads stress and leadership workshops in many settings, from coaching and leadership programs to women's conferences. Want to learn more strategies to tackle your stress and put more YOU in your future? Contact her or visit her courses and resources on her website.
Check out more insightful stories from YourTango:
- The Scary Truth About What Happens to Your Body When You're Stressed
- 5 Toxic Ways Stress Affects Your Love Life (and How to Stop It From Ruining Your Relationship)
- 8 Things All Couples Can Do to Fix Their "Broken" Relationships