Three steps to stop being stressed right now

by Seguin on 10/20/2011

For many of us stress is the mantra we repeat to ourselves and each other.

I’m so stressed.

We try to avoid getting stressed and we often feel painful guilt or self-righteousness when we do feel stressed. We make lists, multi-task, stay up too late and get up too early trying to get it all done. Then many of us anesthetize ourselves during what little downtime we do take. How much do you shop, eat, drink, watch TV and surf the Web to soothe your stress?

Here’s how to stop stress from running your life:

Step 1: Acknowledge if you’re covertly rewarding stress.

Stress feels miserable and makes us sick, yes. Many of us have truly difficult situations: care-giver burdens, parenting challenges, life-threatening medical problems, or financial disasters. I am not minimizing the reality of the difficulties we face individually or collectively.

And most of us get some ancillary reward from being stressed.

In the US we’re a task-oriented and production-centric culture. Being stressed signals to others and ourselves that we’re trying hard and working hard. Even though we may feel overwhelmed and exhausted, stress also means we’re valuable, needed and connected. Some people build whole identities around being stressed. Personal stress can become a merit badge, proof that one is necessary.

Sometimes we’re not ready to let go of the benefits of being stressed. We want an excuse to flop in front of the TV every night, to drink a whole bottle of wine, or take more pills than prescribed. Some of us feel that the obvious personal cost of our stress, poor health and exhaustion, proves our worthiness and loyalty to job or family.

Asking what benefits there might be, doesn’t mean you enjoy or like the experience of being stressed. It doesn’t mean anything in particular about who you are. For many people stress is linked to responsibility, obligation and relationships. You don’t have to change anything to ask this question or to feel less stressed.

Asking yourself what benefits there might be in your stress is a way of seeing the whole picture. Looking at your stress with real curiosity can be a doorway into honesty with yourself and possibilities that might not yet be visible.

Ask yourself, What do I get out of being stressed?

Some responses might include:

I get to eat candy.
I get to be irritable.
I get to drink as much as I want.
I get help or attention from my partner.
I get validation from my friends.
I get to buy things I don’t need or can’t really afford.

Now that you have begun to notice some of the ways that stress functions for you, do want to reduce your stress?

Maybe you don’t. To change your level of stress, you may have to stop doing some things you’re not ready to give up yet. That’s okay. Trying to do things before we’re ready to doesn’t usually work.

If you do want to stop being stressed all the time, keep reading.

Step 2: Focus on the present moment.

Make a commitment to being present in your life as much as you’re able.

You can start now, by pausing and noticing your breath. You don’t have change anything about your breathing, though sitting or lying down may help to center your attention. You can shut your eyes or keep them partly open. It’s okay if you feel stressed or unable to relax right now. This is only a chance to observe what’s actually happening.

Stay with the sensation of your breath. Follow the sensation of breathing from your nostrils to depth of your inhalation. Feel inhalation naturally become exhalation.

There’s no need to change anything in this moment, though you might notice that conditions and experience naturally change on their own when you let yourself come into presence. Let yourself have this one moment to be aware of this, now. When thoughts or judgments arise, let them be and gently come back to the sensation of breath. Sit like this for ten or twelve breaths. Doing this several times a day can change your daily life significantly.

If bringing your awareness to your breathing produces anxiety for you, which can happen for people who’ve had panic attacks or asthma, then choose to focus on a sensation that feels neutral, for example your palms or your feet.

Now that you’ve begun to look at the rewards of stress in your life and you’ve experienced this moment, here’s the final step for reducing stress in your life:

Step 3: Stop focusing on reducing stress.

Focus on what’s really most important in your life.

If you ask, most people know what is most important for them and it isn’t running themselves ragged and then collapsing into numbing behavior most days. For many, there’s a muddle of unexamined assumptions about expectations and obligations obscuring what we most want.

Come into the present awareness in the way that works for you and ask yourself,

If I could do anything, what would be most important in my life now?

Sometimes we have to ask a few times before the answers to this question are clear.

Answers to this question can sound like:

I want to have time with people I love.
I want to feel better.
I want to build something.
I want to take better care of my health so I can play with my children.
I want to spend much more time outdoors.

Sometimes the answers to this question can feel like practical impossibilities. Maybe you can’t have a different body, leave your job or change your schedule right now, but knowing what’s really important to you is actually critical to being present in your life. We can spend a lot of energy trying not know our deepest truths. We can lose a lot of our lives numbing ourselves with stress.

Whenever possible, practice just being present. Bring your attention to whatever anchor you’ve chosen–the sensation of your breath, the feeling of your feet–and let yourself be here. When that seems impossible you can simply notice that feeling.

Bringing yourself back into the present makes it harder to tune out or ignore what you innately already know. Our serenity and dignity can emerge in all circumstances when we allow ourselves to be present.

Step 1: Develop curiosity about all the ways stress functions in your life.

Step 2: Commit to being present in your life right now.

Step 3: Focus on what’s most important.

If you want to be less stressed, focus on being more present.

If you’re interested in more information or support for mindfulness practice, I have listed some resources for developing mindfulness skills here. This blog will be updated regularly with ideas and resources for living mindfulness practice.

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