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To stress or not to stress

To stress or not to stress

A few minutes ago, I realized I was stressing over writing about stress.  Why was I doing that?  Here’s the backstory: I have a deadline for the blog that’s coming up fast, I like the topic and want to do a good job, I worked from home today precisely so that I could write the post… but ended up spending most of my day on other tasks.  Any of this sound familiar?  Let me highlight how things unfolded.

How did I know I was stressed?

I often pay attention to sensations in my body to notice my emotions  – which is one way to be mindful, or aware of the present moment.  I noticed stress in my body.  For me, that feels like muscle tension everywhere, especially in my face and jaw.  My stomach felt like a clenched fist, my breathing was shallow, my heart rate was going up. I had some automatic thoughts “Here I go again, stressing out.  I shouldn’t stress!  Why am I stressing AGAIN!?”

What did I decide to do next?

Being a therapist, I decided to jump right into regulating my stress to try to feel better.  I asked myself if I actually wanted to bring my stress down.  From my experience, I’m more successful at changing something, including my stress, if I choose to do it.  Here’s how that went:

  • I asked myself: “Is this stress productive?  Is it helping me get something done?  Or is it getting in my way?” I realized that my stress was counterproductive – being that stressed crushes my creativity like a grain of sand under a huge rock.
  • Follow-up to myself: “Is my level of stress matching the situation, in terms of what I need to accomplish here?”  Hmm…  I decided I was stressing more than was warranted.  I had more than a week to the deadline.  My stress was about a 7/10 in that moment, which was too much for what was going on.

Note to self: my stress was hurting more than helping.  I needed to bring it down.

How did I work on bringing my stress down?

First, I resisted the temptation to do something that I know from past experience doesn’t work. Although it was hard, I did not admonish myself “Just stop stressing!!”  That would have made me stress even more—by adding some self-directed anger.

Second, I did my best to let go of judging the stress (the “I shouldn’t be stressed” thought).  Pushing against stress, being judgmental of it, only makes it worse.  I thus practiced my favorite skill for being non-judgmental: I worked on understanding my stress and making sense of why it was there. Stress is neither good nor bad, it just is.  Stress is a physiological reaction that gets us ready to take life-saving actions (like running away when a mountain lion attacks us, sprinting across the playground to pick up our kids when they’re about to embark on a 10-foot plunge).  I’m pretty sure a weak stress response came with a shortened lifespan for our ancestors.

“Stress is neither good nor bad, it just is.”

Then, I reminded myself that my stress and I can be decent friends rather than enemies.   My stress can help me achieve things that are important to me.  I can even give it some respect and acknowledge its utility.  Finding some empathy for my stress actually changed how I related to it in the moment.  Simply figuring out earlier that my stress level actually did not match reality decreased my stress somewhat.

Next, I started focusing on the muscle tension in my jaw, neck, and stomach and did my best to relax those muscles.  I also started a belly breathing exercise, which means breathing deeply into your stomach so it moves in and out (sidebar: babies are great belly breathers, try to watch one breathing the next time you get a chance).

While doing this relaxation, I realized I had other tense muscles that I hadn’t initially noticed – like the muscles around my eyes and in the back of my neck and lower back, and even in my fingers (I did not see that one coming!).

I did a quick body scan coupled with relaxation.  I did a quick sweep of tension starting from the top of my head to my shoulders and back, chest, hands, fingers, abdomen, upper and lower legs, even my toes.  Whenever I encountered tension in a muscle region I tried to relax that area (again not by yelling “Relax!” to myself, but with self-compassion).

Ultimately – I  was able to see a bit of humor in the situation, and laughed a little.  Before I knew it I was actually feeling less stressed out and the tension was easing.

Useful steps for managing stress

Consider how the following summary might help you manage stressful moments when they crop up in your own life.

  1. Notice when you get stressed.  Get into the habit of noticing tension in your body.
  2. Decide if you want to work on your stress.  Ask yourself: is stress serving or blocking you?  Does your stress level match reality (or are you over-stressing)?
  3. Do your best not to judge your stress as good or bad.  Remember, stress just is.  Accepting stress in the moment can be more effective than actively trying to push it away.
  4. Notice if you’re interpretation of the situation is worsening your stress.  Do you have unrealistic expectations?  Are you catastrophizing the possibility of not getting the work done?
  5. Let go of negative interpretations and judgment.  Attempt to bring your thoughts about stress more in alignment with reality (maybe, just maybe an imperfect report is good enough for now).
  6. Try deep / belly breathing.  Make your belly button move in and out!
  7. Do a quick body scan.  Identify areas of tension and do your best to relax those muscles (Note: for some people trying to relax, this can have the unintended/paradoxical consequence of making them tense up.  If that is true for you, skip this step).
  8. Try to find a molecule of humor (even a dark one) in the situation. Laugh.

Don’t worry if you don’t feel instantly stress-free.  Remember stress management is a skill and like any other skill, it takes practice.  Respect yourself for your effort and give yourself some credit.  Your first steps in managing stress could ultimately lead to a much more enjoyable work experience and increased personal effectiveness.


If Lyra is offered by your employer and you are interested in more help managing stress, you can get started today.  Sign up now.  

And check in frequently here for more advice or follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for more insights into optimal well-being.

The  content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

By Anita Lungu, PhD
11 of January 2017 - 5 min read
Mental health tips
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