Defeat Your Stress Selectively

Stress is a killer.

It’s a normal psychological and physiological reaction to difficulties, of course, that can be motivational and beneficial.

But too much stress, enduring for too long a time, can produce headaches, pain, fatigue, mood swings, mental fogginess, sleep problems, even a weakened immune system, and worse.

That’s why it’s important to understand what’s causing you stress, so you can fruitfully choose an appropriate way to reduce or even eliminate it.

Here are four sources of stress you should learn to recognize and directly address:

Time Pressure

One of the most common sources of stress these days is simple time pressure. We’re so often in a hurry to get to work, to get home, to complete a task, to arrive somewhere on time, and so forth, that we build up a negative emotional and physical charge that makes us less happy as well as less effective.

Time pressure can make you fumble simple tasks, skip important steps in a process, accept lower performance standards, make confused decisions, and worry about your ability to meet your obligations and responsibilities. It can also block your enjoyment of everyday, simple pleasures, and generally darken your emotional balance.

You probably can’t eliminate all time pressure from your work and your life, but you can reduce it with appropriate attitudes, techniques, and technology. (Much of the information I offer at other times in this space is directed toward helping you deal with time pressure.)

A good attitude is to prioritize your tasks, projects, and goals according to your values and desires.

A good technique is to track how you spend your time and consciously direct more of your effort and energy toward your higher priorities (and less toward everything else).

There’s lots of good technology to help you deal with time pressure, from electronic data systems and calendars that help you manage your activities to communications and playback systems that let you talk, listen, and learn while you’re walking, driving, exercising, cooking, doing chores, and so forth.

Expectant Stress

I’m not sure cave people thought much about the future, but we sure do. And those expectations can trigger the same stress reactions that we humans developed to deal with immediate dangers.

That’s why we can feel stress over upcoming interviews, presentations, requirements, meaningful moments, and outcomes. Some of us even feel stress about the future, in general.

One good way to defuse expectant stress is to anticipate a variety of scenarios, not just the one causing you the most stress. For example, you can imagine yourself doing well in that interview, or nailing that presentation, or easily fulfilling those difficult requirements, or sailing through that meaningful moment, or otherwise receiving the outcome you’re most hoping for.

It’s also helpful to place less importance – and spend less time expecting – a future event that’s causing you stress. Many philosophies counsel that the present moment is always far more important than either the past or the future. If you can buy into that idea, you can greatly reduce your level of expectant stress.

Momentary Stress

Of course, focusing on the present won’t always eliminate stress; certain present moments bring with them their own problems and dangers. For example, a police officer may pull you over while you’re driving, you could be confronted with a fire in your kitchen, or it could be time to deliver that presentation you’ve long been nervous about.

One good way to reduce much of your momentary stress is to learn specific coping skills, such as:

  • Interpersonal and conflict resolution skills,
  • Emergency coping skills for fires, injuries, illnesses, and so forth,
  • Psychological resilience and “thinking on your feet” techniques,

and more.

Another helpful coping strategy is to practice mindfulness and relaxation, which can help you avoid and/or beneficially channel the body’s natural reaction to immediate dangers and stress.

Interpersonal Stress

Sometimes the source of our stress is simply the presence of another person. Just as we sometimes resonate with some people and like to be around them, we sometimes “anti-resonate” with other people and dislike spending time with them. Even our routine, superficial encounters with certain people – a boss, an enemy, a rival, or a narcissist, for example – can be highly stressful.

In addition, specific encounters with others can be intrinsically stressful, such as a difficult conversation, a confrontation, or an embarrassing situation, even when it’s with someone we love or a close friend.

You can reduce this type of stress in the moment by focusing on your own emotions and trying to read the emotions of the other person or people involved. In the long term, you can also work on developing these “emotional intelligence” abilities so future encounters need not generate so much interpersonal stress.

In general, relaxation and mindfulness are good ways to lower your overall stress level, regardless of its source. But it’s also important to recognize you probably have a daily limit on stress. When you reach it, you can wisely seek to defer the stress-inducing situation, because none of these techniques will be nearly as helpful at the end of a long day as they will when you’re starting out fresh, happy, and hopeful.

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