I grew up thinking stress was a normal part of life. In fact, my family practically celebrated being stressed because it was a sign you were working hard. Working hard was the gold standard in our achievement-oriented household. If you weren’t stressed, you probably weren’t living up to your potential, right?
Equating stress with self-worth seems to be a pervasive narrative in our culture, as evidenced by stress levels reaching record-high numbers in 2017, according to the American Psychological Association. While some stress can be motivating — when working towards a deadline, for example — chronic stress can have serious implications for your mind, body, and spirit. Research shows that too much stress can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, suppress the immune system, and lead to PTSD.
Below are five tips and journal prompts to help you manage your stress and break free from the societal norm that your stress is a trophy.
1. Identify Your Stressors
Talkspace therapists Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, and Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, recommend identifying what’s at the root of your stress as a first step in stress management. Catchings has observed that stressors tend to differ by location. She explains, “for example, in Texas, I see more people stressed out about relationships, including infidelity, marriage issues, and divorce, as well as alcohol and substance abuse,” said Catchings. “In the DC metro area, the stressors come from work, performance, and climbing the professional ladder as well as not being able to find a partner and online dating.”
O’Neill emphasized that people tend to get stressed about things that are outside of their control like work, climate change, politics, etc. She finds it helpful for individuals to define what stress uniquely means to them because, in her words, “there are different types of stress that people experience and not all stress is experienced by individuals in the same way.”
Journal Prompt: What are the thoughts and feelings that accompany stress in your life?
2. Don’t Buy Into “Hustle Porn”
In discussing our society’s obsession with overworking, O’Neill referenced Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s perspective on “hustle porn” — the idea that putting in excessively long hours and working harder than everyone else is the only way to get ahead. As Ohanian argues, as does much of the research around work stress and burnout, pushing yourself to operate at 110%, 24/7 is counterproductive. “In reality, finding space for self-care, taking breaks, and setting work limits is the key to maintaining productivity and avoiding burnout long term,” said O’Neill.
Journal Prompt: What were you taught about what it takes to “get ahead”?
3. Practice Mindfulness
It is well researched that mindfulness meditation can help decrease stress. Both O’Neill and Catchings advocate for the role of mindfulness and meditation practice to help deal with everyday stressors, as well as to safeguard against the buildup of chronic stress. “One of the biggest risks to developing stress is being unaware of the cumulative effects of those daily stressors,” O’Neill shared.
Journal Prompt: How often do you give yourself time to take three deep breaths?
4. Give Yourself Time to Recalibrate
I used to thrive off of being stressed. It was like I purposefully booked myself up with social obligations, client meetings, and personal hobbies so I could fit in with everyone else who was busy and stressed all of the time. It took awhile to get to a place where I felt comfortable saying “no” even when everyone around me was saying “yes.”
“It is known that stress can cause a state similar to a natural high,” explained Catchings. “If we become used to higher degrees of stress, it is sometimes necessary to continue feeling that way, or looking for more stress, because the brain will look for or create chemicals that make us feel good. That starts the addiction process that makes it so difficult for us to stop.” In other words, if it feels scary to dial back on your activities or put in fewer hours at work, your nervous system may just be adjusting to the slower speed and set of priorities. Give it time to recalibrate.
Journal Prompt: If you could say “no” to one thing today, what would it be?
5. Define Your Version of Success
In a society that values productivity and efficiency above all else, it can be hard to slow down without feeling like you are falling behind. Instead of berating yourself for taking a break, spend some time getting clear on what success means to you. Consider the following:
- Does it mean waking up feeling energized?
- Does it mean spending time with your family?
- Does it mean having nourishing relationships in your life?
Once you have defined your version of success, you will have a better sense of how to reorganize your life to be able to prioritize what matters most to you.
Journal Prompt: What does success mean to you?
In our outcomes-focused world, stress has become a badge of honor. We push ourselves to our limits thinking that if we do more, produce more, and achieve more, we will somehow be better off. The thing is, there is no finish line. So instead of spending so much time and energy chasing after a moving target, why not figure out what makes you happy? Make that your goal instead.