When’s the last time you thought about stress?
If you’re like most people, you likely had an easy time answering this question. Whether you’re stressed, heard someone else talking about how stressed they are, or saw yet another study about how bad stress is for you, stress is a subject we tend to talk, think, and hear about a lot.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this attention can make us stressed…about stress. And worrying about how worried you are can be dangerous: Research published in the European Heart Journal suggests that people who think about how stress negatively affects them have an increased risk of heart disease—regardless of how much stress they actually experience.
We can’t eliminate every situation or event in our life that makes us anxious. So, what can we do? “The key is to manage our response to stress,” says meQuilibrium Co-founder and Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. This approach allows us to face our stress—and live our life—with more resilience, even when there’s a lot going on. Here are four strategies for escaping the “stressed about stress” cycle:
1. Stop Your Stress Triggers
The occasional stressful event happens to everyone. But when we keep getting stressed by the same things all the time, it’s a clue that those situations are our stress triggers. Examples of common stress triggers include being late, meeting deadlines, interacting with extended family, or even spending time alone. Over time, these triggers become a drag on our emotional wellbeing, even when life feels relatively calm.
“At the root of every emotion is a thought,” says Shatté. “The key is to pinpoint that thought before it spirals into a full-fledged emotional response.” So, the next time you face one of your top stress triggers, tune in to what you’re thinking. Then, challenge your inner voice: What evidence is there to prove that the thought is true?
2. Prepare an Antidote
When we focus on what we’re looking forward to, we boost feelings of happiness and positivity, which makes it easier to manage stress. For example, when I know I’m heading into a crazy work week, I make sure to offset the stress with something that brings me joy: I purposefully clear my evening calendar to watch movies with my family. This way, I can focus on the reward at the end of each busy day, rather than all the things I have to get done.
For a bigger impact, try adding events you’re excited about to your calendar. When you start to feel stressed, take a minute to look at how full your calendar is with positive events to come, and savor the feelings of gratitude that result. If your calendar feels empty, think about what positive things you’d like to schedule. It can be something small, or you can research events in your area to see what sparks your interest.
3. Give Your Brain a Break
We have two kinds of attention: The first, “directed attention,” we use for tasks requiring focus, like driving or doing our taxes. Even seemingly relaxing activities like watching television or reading require directed attention, which tends to be tiring. The best way to relax our brain is to give it a rest by shifting to the second type, “involuntary attention,” which happens when something captures our attention without any effort.
Give your brain a break by engaging in activities that stimulate your involuntary attention, such as spending time outside, meditating, or looking at art. Nature is an especially powerful source of involuntary attention, with one study showing that, even in winter, a quick walk through a natural environment boosted focus, improved attention span, and lowered stress.
4. Keep it Real
Finally, when I find myself stressing about being stressed—because, let’s face it, it’s impossible to totally stop—I give myself a reality check: Will this feeling last until tomorrow? Next week? Next year? Then, I write down what’s troubling me. This practice has two major benefits: Journaling has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety, and reading my old entries shows me that, in most cases, I don’t even remember the issue at hand. I remind myself of this every time I feel my stress levels start to rise: In almost all cases, the source of your worry isn’t going to stay with you—so your stress won’t, either.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist and wellbeing expert. For over 15 years, she has been helping consumers live healthier, more fulfilling lives, writing for outlets such as The Boston Globe, Time, and Women’s Health. Kara has also collaborated on several books on women’s health and resilience. Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin