5 Tips to Better Respond to Stress (and Feel Less Upset)

You can’t stop stress from happening — but you CAN help how you respond to it. (Photo: Getty Images/Loubie Lou)

You know you’re stressed, and you know you should do something about it. But no matter who you are — a full-time worker, a full-time parent, or even a star athlete — there’s this sinking idea that stress is insurmountable. 

Here’s the truth: You don’t beat stress like an opponent in a videogame, nor do you “win” over stress or crush it into a million pieces. Instead, you learn how to change your response to it, so you can control how upset you get at any given stressful moment.

Here are five strategies to free yourself from stress responses that paralyze you — so that you have more energy to thrive, not just survive.

Strategy #1: Listen first, fix second.

You’re probably not as good at listening as you think. That’s because you, like so many of us, interrupt in an effort to “fix” the situation. But sometimes all that person needs is for you to listen. And if you listen rather than rush to fix, you shift out of your own distraction and worry and into kindness and presence. Through listening, you’ll even improve the quality of your relationships, which will in turn provide you with much-needed support when you’re stressed or down.

(Read more on how giving undivided attention lowers your stress.)

Strategy #2: Stop expecting everyone to read your mind.

At meQuilibrium, we define the thought patterns that get you stuck as “thinking traps,” and mind reading is one of them. It presumes a few things: One, that if someone really respected you, they would know what you’re thinking, and second, that it’s everyone else’s job to anticipate your needs and wants. This creates stress — not to mention tension in relationships. Speak up! Communicate precisely what you need and why before you get upset or annoyed. You can cut those emotional responses off at the pass, and change the nature of your day.

(Watch a video on the mind reading thinking trap.)

Strategy #3: Shift your perspective (literally).

This tip is a physical one, but it has an emotional component. It comes from the 20/20/20 rule from The Atlantic magazine: Look away from your screen every 20 minutes at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Shifting your gaze (plus standing up for a few minutes every hour) can help break a stressful mindset, and give you a physical, and emotional, shift in perspective.

But I’d add the following step: Look into someone else’s eyes. Look into the face of someone you work with, and talk for a bit. Just that brief moment of camaraderie can carry you through a day and build your resilience against future stress.

Strategy #4: Call in your imagination to lessen the sting of your worries.

This visualization technique popularized by motivational speaker Tony Robbins can break the grip of stressful thoughts and habits. It’s a simple, powerful tool, as you use the power of your imagination to shift how you perceive the world. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Bring a negative thought or habit into awareness, then picture it getting smaller and smaller, as if on the screen of a smartphone.

  2. Scramble the details. For example, if you’re thinking of how a co-worker stepped all over you during a meeting, imagine the person in one of those Chiquita Banana fruit hats.

  3. Do this several times with the memory, scrambling different details with each remembrance, until you notice that it carries less sting.

Related: The Surprising Science of Self-Affirmations

Strategy #5: Transform helplessness to hopefulness.

Do you find yourself thinking, “I’m helpless. Nothing can change my stress”? Perhaps you believe, deep down, that you don’t deserve pleasure or happiness. When you catch yourself in this thought, stop and acknowledge the purpose of assuming the worst. What does holding onto this assumption do for you? Do you need it any more? 

And most importantly, recognize: There is hope. You don’t have to have all the answers to be able to take care of yourself and be open to the possibility of change.

(Read more on changing beliefs that keep you stuck in a stress cycle.) 

This story is part of “Cooler, Calmer, and Happier,” an ongoing series with meQuilibrium. Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results, and the co-author of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier with Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., and Adam Perlman M.D.

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