A Simple Guide to Stress-Free Living

“The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.”
~Pema Chodron

Of course, we all want to be happy. We long for serenity, relaxation, and peace. But sometimes there is no way around it – stress consumes us. We all know what it’s like – whole-body tension, endless worrying, anxiety that won’t quit.

You may not be able to wave the magic wand that will make your stress disappear. But you can pay attention. You can welcome in the experience of stress and take the necessary steps to not only cope with it, but transform it. Stress can be your friend, the portal to the richness of the now.

Stress is code for fear. When we are under stress, our primitive brains take over, and the fight or flight reaction rushes through our minds and bodies. But this response was designed for animals in the wild being chased by their predators. In our modern world, the only thing that is really chasing us is our stress-filled thoughts and the accompanying feeling of overwhelm.

For some people, a small amount of stress increases productivity. But for most of us, stress detracts from our quality of life and well-being. It affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Don’t take your stress for granted. Recognize it, let it in, then consciously take the steps to restore yourself to your natural state of ease.

Remember that in any moment, you are at a crossroads: you can connect with yourself and pay attention or you can sustain suffering.

Practical Coping

Start here to address what you can control. Is there something you can let go of? Can you do less? Can you change something about the situation so it is not so stressful for you?

Physical Coping

It won’t be news to hear that stress has a physical component. When adrenaline courses through your system, you feel tense, jittery, and hyper-alert. Spinning thoughts, which are common with stress, add to the intensity of the physical sensations.  Work on the thoughts (see below), and relax around the sensations.  Then take care of yourself with the following:

  • Deep breathing. Exhale out all the air, then fill your lungs from the bottom to the top to a count of 4 our 5. Then exhale to a count of 4 or 5. Repeat 5 times. Just one breath can re-orient you out of unconsciousness and into clarity and aliveness.
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Take a walk outside, and appreciate your environment with all five senses.
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Meditate
  • Take a break
  • Do anything soothing and enjoyable. What would that be for you?
  • Laugh
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Mental Coping

Stressful thoughts are driven by fear. Simply said, they aren’t true. They distort reality and create a negative and worrisome picture of the future. They seduce us into trying to control what we cannot control, to know what we cannot know.

Recognize these thoughts, and tell yourself that they aren’t true and they don’t serve. Here are some examples:

  • Magnify the negative. Stressful thoughts focus only on the negative and trick you into expecting the worst.
  • Black and white thinking. You view yourself as either perfect or terrible. You either succeed or fail, with no gray area.
  • Jumping to conclusions. You assume you know how something will turn out when you really don’t know.
  • Catastrophizing.  Making things seem worse than they are.

Stressful thoughts need to be challenged and seen from the perspective of actual truth. You will find that they are neither true nor useful. And if they aren’t true or useful, why feed them?

Instead, tell yourself it’s OK. Say, “This too shall pass.” Recognize the fear that is driving them.  And put your energy and attention on that which is more uplifting, supportive, and life-affirming.  Check out Byron Katie’s The Work for more.

Emotional Coping

If you take one point from this post, let it be this: Be kind to yourself. Whether you are anxious, scared, or irritable, let your feelings be. Bring compassion and acceptance to them. Be aware of what you would like to hear from someone else, and soothe yourself with those same words.

If you fight with your feelings, you will only add more stress to an already stressful situation. Let go of judging and be kind. Don’t resist or recoil. Your feelings are knocking on the door, so welcome them in. You will see a paradox: what you resist persists, and welcoming your feelings de-energizes them. Get support from a friend, family member, or professional.

Life Balance

Yes, you may be stressed, but are you also grateful? Recognize what is working, what is positive. Let people who you love know it, and let theirs wash over you. Think about your strengths and resources, and bring them to bear on whatever you are dealing with. Give up the fight and let yourself flow with what is happening. Stand in the space of being the naturally resilient creature that you are.

If you are feeling stressed, don’t accept it as the status quo. Really, it’s no way to live. Control what you can, and accept the rest. Bring kindness to every aspect of your experience. Then go forth, and enjoy yourself.

What have you learned about coping with stress? I’d love to hear…

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Comments

  1. avatar says

    Great post with good, practical tips to implement.

    These kind of tools need to be taught in schools to our youth. They are life skills.

    I did not learn them until my mid-forties after stress and depression got out of hand so bad that I tried to commit suicide. The bottom line is, I did not have the skills to cope.

    Now, I do. Meditation, thought reframing, yoga, exercise, and an all around healthier lifestyle has literally changed my life drastically for the better. Yipee!

    It really is so simple, and anyone can do it all themselves, but yet it is so difficult too because, as a general rule, this information is not presented as the dominant option. It needs to be.
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    • avatar says

      It is so beautiful to hear how your life has transformed, Debbie. And I appreciate your passion for wanting to inform everyone, especially children, about the possibility of coping with simple tools.

      I love how you say that this information is not presented as the dominant option. What dominates our culture is competition, the drive for success, and wanting more, more, more. We are way out of whack. When we stop to take a look at what really supports our well-being, the usefulness of simple tools such as meditation, exercise, and a balanced lifestyle are obvious.

      Thank you for being one who helps to spread this positive message.

  2. avatar says

    Nice Post! I find that the practice of recognizing that I am stressed is the best place to start. From there I can move forward and deal with it in what ever way i choose or as is often the case chooses me.
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    • avatar says

      Hi OS,

      Great to hear from you! I completely agree – seeing the truth of what is happening is the best starting place. If we pretend we aren’t stressed or try to justify it or explain it away, it will only be fortified. But accepting things as they are leads naturally to wise and intelligent responding.

  3. avatar says

    Excellent advice about being aware of our thoughts. If we look behind distressing emotions, like fear, we find thoughts. I’m guilty of all four of the thinking traps that you describe. I wrote recently about transforming our feelings by changing the underlying thoughts. Thank you for once again providing practical applications for inspiring concepts.
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    • avatar says

      Well said, Galen. If we are stressed, a good place to look to understand it is our thoughts.

      Just as changing thoughts can transform feelings, becoming aware of and meeting the underlying feelings can take the energy out of thoughts. I find it useful to look in all directions to discover peace.

      I imagine we are all guilty of those thinking traps – because the nature of most thought is distorted and untrue. Thank you for your contributions that help enlighten all of us.

  4. avatarsarah says

    What a well-timed post! As I work with my stress – after realizing that I’ve been consumed by it for several days – I’ve learned to take it as an indicator that I need to slow down and reflect on something or process my experience. It’s so easy to focus on what’s next without understanding fully the impact of what was, even the good stuff. I recently graduated from grad. school and will be moving soon and I found that I wasn’t even processing finishing school. I was panicky, overwhelmed, and resisting moving forward. Through pausing I realized I need to process what just happened and reflect on what being in school has meant to me. Thanks again for this lovely reminder. :)

    • avatar says

      I love this, Sarah! Just that pause to check in and see what is happening and what needs attention makes all the difference. The signal is resistance. If we notice resistance of any kind, the best thing we can do is pause and reflect inward.

      Wishing you so much joy in whatever comes next for you.

  5. avatar says

    Hi Gail.

    We sure have to address what we can control if we are to keep a situation from breaking us down. We have to see what elements are now able to be worked on or changed and only focus on those, leaving the unchangeable ones for a future time. This is much more effective than staring at unchangeable things and feeling like our world is stuck.

    Magnifying the negative sometimes happens very fast, and we fall into a mindset that others don’t even see. Just as our dreams are created very quickly and can expand with each decision we make in them, our thoughts sometimes run loose in the negative direction unless we capture them.

    Cool stuff here.
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    • avatar says

      Hi Armen,

      That point about what we can and cannot control is so important. Focusing on what we can’t control leads to worry and ruminating. Accepting it is wisdom and leads to clarity and peace.

      Yes, those negative thoughts can be like lightening, can’t they? Our job is to be aware so we can catch ourselves as we go down that road and take a turn toward freedom.

  6. avatar says

    Gail,

    It seems that stress related illness is on the rise. We try to take on too much at times on this journey called life.

    Achieving our goals while being stressed out isn’t success to me.

    I like what you said about being kind to yourself. So true yet often forgotten.
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    • avatar says

      This is such a compassionate perspective, Justin. Stressing ourselves out is harsh, violent even, and does a number on our bodies leading to a range of illnesses, as you describe. It brings up questions: what is really important to me? How do I want to live? As you say, what is success? These are essential questions to reflect on. Then we are empowered rather than victimized by circumstances.

      Even though our culture doesn’t support peace, sanity, and relaxation, it is always a choice we can make. Space, quiet, and expansion are always here.

  7. avatar says

    Hello, Gail.

    Another great post. You wrote “In our modern world, the only thing that is really chasing us is our stress-filled thoughts and the accompanying feeling of overwhelm.”

    I think this is so true, and why taking control of one’s thoughts is so powerful and essential to our well-being.

    I have heard recently that scientists say we each have about 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day, and most of those thoughts are not ones that support us. They are negative and only contribute to our stress.

    Your examples of how quiet the mind and stop resisting are great.
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    • avatar says

      Wow, Gordon – 60,000-70,000 thoughts a day! That’s a lot of thinking, and when we look at them, very few of these are useful. We need so little when it comes to thinking.

      This is a great reminder to check in and see how our thoughts might be causing undue stress.

  8. avatar says

    Stress comes and goes and sometimes it has been a big wave that almost knocked me down. But without the stress that has accompanied my life perhaps I would not be here now…with this delicious sense that part of me is not touched by stress at all.
    Thanks for your faithful giving Gail.
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    • avatar says

      Hi Sherry, and welcome to you,

      There is already enough negative without us doing anything about it. So why magnify it, if we have a choice?

      Glad the reminder was helpful.

  9. avatarNessa says

    Thank you Gail,

    Like Gordon, I was taken by your idea that “In our modern world, the only thing that is really chasing us is our stress-filled thoughts and the accompanying feeling of overwhelm.”

    Thank you for your reminder that we can both ask for help and self soothe …

    After an “overwhelming” week of trying again to sort out our recently deceased parent’s house with my sister, your ideas help me to remember that this will pass and essentially that in this case anyway our worst fears have already happened – this will pass.

    Again you have reminded me to breathe and de energise my fears.

    thank you so much Nessa

    Yes, all this amidst the joys of Easter Egg (read sugar crazy) children – bless

    • avatar says

      Hi Nessa,

      I love that you can see the joys amidst the stress. There is such beauty in that.

      Some times are just stressful and overwhelming. And all we can do is put on foot in front of the other. May your whole self be soothed.

  10. avatar says

    Gail,

    Wonderful post, I loved all of the ideas, but particularly the way you break out the categories for coping. While all of them include spiritual suggestions, I think it deserves its own category. Here are some ways I’ve learned for spiritual coping: pray, meditate, ask the universe for help to let go of control, sit quietly and do nothing, wake up in the morning and lounge in bed while praying to let something (other than me) direct the big picture, taking a day to do whatever arises as the next appealing activity, playing scrabble or doing something that is all enjoyment and no obligation…I guess the list could go on and on! What do you think about spiritual coping?

    Linda

    • avatar says

      Hi Linda,

      Great to see you again! I think these are lovely ways of being that you describe. I’m not sure I’d even call them coping. These are ways of being present, connecting with what is true and alive in us. Surrender, silence, and enjoyment – thank you for these precious reminders.

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