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“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain
According to the American Psychological Association, 42% of Americans reported lying awake at night due to stress while an additional 33% reported eating too much and/or eating unhealthy foods for the same reason. Stress is now considered to be one of the worst degenerative issues of all time, and it’s easy to see why after combining statistics like these with other issues such as depression, lack of willpower, and an overall greater risk of chronic disease. Stress is silently killing all of us, and that’s an ironically stressful statement.
The human reaction to stress is actually a three-stage physiological response. It begins with a secretion of your fight-or-flight hormones, elevating your heart rate and blood pressure. This is followed by adaptation to the stress and then eventually exhaustion. While we may not have to enter full-on survival mode every day, our body doesn’t do a great job distinguishing between a lion attack and our boss dumping extra work on our desk.
The good news is your individual response to stress can largely be controlled by your mind and your perception of situations. Just like our ancestors adapted to fighting off predators, we can adapt to added workloads, rejection, public speaking, or other stressful situations.
In this article, you will find five thought-provoking questions intended to change your perception of stress at any given time. I’ve implemented these questions with great success in my own life as well as the lives of my clients. By no means is this a cure-all for all of your stress, but it could be another tool in your proverbial stress-fighting utility belt. Similar to weight gain, stress accumulates over a period of months, even years, and you shouldn’t expect to eliminate it immediately. It’s going to be a process of training your mind to perceive stress differently, and these questions will aid in that process.
1. Will This Matter in Five Years?
Asking if something will matter in five years forces you to look at things from a grand-scheme point of view. The insurmountable problem causing you stress seems a lot smaller when standing next to your long-term goals, relationships, or even your physical and spiritual health. I’ve yet to find a stressful situation that could negatively affect these most valuable aspects of life.
A great example would be losing your job, undoubtedly a high-stress scenario. Will it matter in five years? It’s possible – but probably not as much as you think. It depends on how you perceive your situation. If your focus is solely on how losing your job affects your current plans of early retirement or the hit to your children’s college fund, it matters a lot. On the other hand, if your focus is on the health and well-being of your family, the gifts and abilities of your children, or the fact you’d be bored out of your mind in retirement anyway, it matters a lot less.
Chances are you’ll find another job in a reasonable amount of time, and the setbacks to your long-term plans will be minimal — you may even find a better opportunity than before. What happens in between losing and finding a job is entirely up to you. Like the legendary coach John Wooden said, “Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.”
2. What’s My Plan for Tomorrow?
Waking up with a clear vision for the day automatically reduces the overwhelm of not knowing where to start. Putting together a to-do list before bed allows you to wake up the following morning focused and goal-oriented instead of reactive and scatterbrained.
I write my plan by hand, and I always feel a sense of relief as my thoughts are seemingly transferred from my mind to the paper. This not only allows me to wake up focused, but it also creates a better environment for restful sleep.
It also pays to ask yourself, “What’s my plan for this problem?” Too often we spend too much time worrying about what could happen instead of what we can do to minimize any damage. Creating a list of a few simple actions you can take to change your situation for the better will relieve stress immediately.
3. Is This Stress Any Different Than Past Stress?
The next time you have a serious worry that works itself out, write it down. Capture exactly how you felt leading up to its resolution and how your stress and concern did nothing to affect the outcome. I think you would be surprised how often your current stress is no different than stress you’ve conquered in the past.
Think about how powerful a personal memoir of all your conquered stress would be in the future. It could serve as a constant reminder of how strong you are, and that’s never a bad thing.
4. Am I Being Too Selfless?
Between our friends, co-workers, and family, we all have someone (or many someones) demanding too much of our attention. And for most of us, it’s easy to get stuck in caregiver mode and neglect our own needs.
If you are feeling stress due to a lack of personal time, use this question as a time audit. Family included, could you take time away from someone to devote to yourself? The answer may be an easy one like avoiding the toxic co-worker or saying no to the college friend who regularly invites you for drinks.
Or the answer could be a bit more difficult if you’ve been devoting too much time to a significant other or your children. It may seem inappropriate to take time away from loved ones, but would you agree that if anyone deserves more than half of your attention, it’s your loved ones? Address the stress so that when family comes, you can be present and not just a presence.
5. What’s My Worst-Case Scenario?
I don’t think I’m completely irrational or alone in this — I have a fear of being broke. Despite coming from a fairly well-off family and never experiencing true poverty, I fear it. So naturally when stress creeps in, particularly work-related stress, it’s where my mind goes. I catch myself wondering what would become of me and my life if I lost my job or failed in business. It’s always the negative repercussions of a given scenario that haunt my thoughts, never the possibilities.
That’s where this question comes into play. Once you have established your worst-case scenario for a stressful situation (losing your job, going broke, etc.), you can work through the problem and overcome your fear. Take going broke, for example. If you ever lost all sources of income for whatever reason, you still have options. You could sell unnecessary items, dip into savings, cut expenses, get a roommate or couch surf, borrow money, wait tables or deliver pizzas, live off the grid, or even declare bankruptcy. Once you have established the worst that could happen from your stress and thought through your solution, it’s never as scary as it seems.
The Takeaways on How to Lower Your Stress Level
- Don’t blow stressful situations out of proportion. There’s a lot more to life than your problems.
- Know tomorrow’s plan before you go to sleep tonight.
- Are you stressing about a situation similar to one you have conquered in the past? It worked out before, why wouldn’t it now?
- Nobody knows your needs like you do. Take care of yourself first, and everyone else will benefit in return.
- Chances are your worst-case scenario will never happen. But if it does, it helps to have already worked through it in your mind.