How to live a stress-free life?
From 24-hour news feeds to filters, families and full-time jobs, it’s a question that many are seeking to answer.
By and large, we are encouraged (especially via Pinterest) to "think positive", "be grateful", eat bowlfuls of quinoa and assume the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk, while simultaneously maintaining your career and mortgage repayments, of course. And while yes, we might all benefit from a more positive outlook on life and a healthy sense of perspective, what we really need is less of the inspirational quotes and vague sentiments and more of the practical stuff.
Why? Because if you have a pulse, you are guaranteed to feel stress from time to time. Even if you did manage to escape to some Tibetan foothills, there’s no getting away from this evolutionary biological function. Instead of trying to live a stress-free life – which you’ll find is only counterproductive – we must accept it as a part of life and figure out a way to work with it.
Give up on the elusive idea of a stress-free life and, instead, consider these small, simple and tangible changes, all of which will make the pressures of modern life a little more manageable.
1) The 40-minute escape
Take something that might be a contributing factor to your stress – such as your daily commute – and reframe it as a positive activity. Instead of scrolling through your phone from the bus stop to your desk, listen to a podcast series. This will eliminate the stress aspect of your commute and turn it into something you're glad to have. If a commute isn't part of your day, schedule in a 40-minute "escape" somewhere else. The aim here is to spend 40 minutes doing something that is in no way part of your essential to-do list but something that's just for you. Podcasts that take you out of your own world are a popular escape because unlike with video, audio entertainment encourages you to create your own mental imagery. Choose something that is character-driven – where you can empathise with characters, says a study published in The Annals of the New York Academy of Science.
Why? Because with this, your brain is said to produce more of the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Oxytocin is not only known as the “love hormone”, but as one that can induce anti-stress effects such as a reduction in cortisol (the slower-releasing stress hormone) and blood pressure.
2) The worry period
This relates to the “positive thinking” mentality and the idea that trying not to feel stress will just make you feel more stressed. Forcing yourself to squash down your worries and replace them with positive thoughts isn’t always the best idea. Scheduling in a “worry period” is a cognitive behavioural therapy tool that can be a lot more helpful than it sounds. By allocating yourself a period of time to worry, it allows you to express and explore your concerns, but because it’s controlled, it doesn’t veer into catastrophic, snowballing territory.
When you make a habit of it, you might find that you are less likely to stress about things outside of your worry time because it’s here that it happens. It’s best not to schedule your worry period right before bed. By doing this, and allowing yourself to get all of your worries out of your system, you eventually stop worries from popping up at inopportune times and the stress is a lot more contained. What’s more, because you are proactively addressing your worries, you are in a better position to figure out how to deal with them.
Then, when you go to bed, there are no worries you haven’t already considered for the day; having already parked them, you are free to relax.
3) The social media diet
It’s no surprise that social media is one of the biggest contributing factors when it comes to modern day stress. Aside from the anxiety associated with the physical act of picking up our phones every few minutes and checking on our notifications, social media enables us to engage in an unhealthy amount of social comparison. And because of the curated nature of social media, the information we are using to measure ourselves against others is more skewed than ever.
Be mindful that while it might feel motivating at first – eg. following “fitspo” accounts – social comparison is almost never a good idea and largely stress-inducing. Without even being aware, you wind up comparing your “behind the scenes” with someone else’s highlights reel. Be choosy with your social media, who and what you follow. Avoid it before bed – not just because it will affect your sleep but when you are tired you will fall into a social comparison trap more easily. I keep all social media out of reach while I’m working and allow myself to indulge for a short period of time after a task is complete. Social media is the modern-day sugar – enjoy it in moderation.
And when it comes to the act of social comparison – which we're all guilty of – try swapping it for "temporal comparison", a lesser known but far more encouraging tool for self-evaluation put forward by Leon Festinger where we compare ourselves today with how we were in the past. By doing this, it shifts our thinking from one-upmanship (stress-inducing) to positive self-improvement.
4) The stress checker
We tend to lump all stress together – but sometimes, with workplace pressures, for example, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You need to recognise when you are experiencing the good kind and the bad kind. The good kind is that which psychologists would refer to as optimal anxiety – this is when a certain amount of pressure or stress enhances our performance and serve us well – and the bad kind of stress where performance goes downhill and our life is negatively affected.
Are you under pressure because of a looming deadline for a project that you are passionate about?
Do you still want to be here, despite the current stress?
Or are you under pressure because you’re in a demanding role that you do not want to be in?
Is it work that’s causing you to feel stress or stress in your personal life that are affecting your performance in work?
It helps to monitor your stress with a weekly diary.
When did you feel it more?
What was the trigger?
Was it positive or negative stress?
Even with optimal anxiety, you need to check in with yourself – too much of it for too long can turn into the nastier kind. Optimal anxiety should be short-lived (eg surrounding a deadline) before you resume an anxiety-neutral state of being.
Understanding the nature of our stresses and following them to their source makes them far easier to deal with.
- Caroline Foran is author of Owning It: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety (Hachette) and The Confidence Kit