Why You’re Not Doing the Very Thing You Should—and How to Change That

Raise your hand if these scenarios sound familiar:

A) You wake up, overwhelmed before your feet hit the floor. You know that if you get outside for a walk or a run, you’ll feel calmer and more positive. But you don’t get up. You pull the covers over your head and pretend you can’t hear your children emptying the silverware drawer onto the kitchen floor.

B) You have a big presentation to give with a lot riding on it. You’re jumpy and fearful that you’ll screw up not just the presentation but your whole life, and end up picking change out of a public fountain. You know if you just went to sleep, or took ten minutes to meditate and breathe, you’d feel clearer about what’s really at stake and more confident in your abilities. But you stay hunched over your laptop as the clock ticks past one a.m., two a.m., three a.m., four.

The details might differ, but I’d wager that you have experienced something like these two scenes. When negative stress overwhelms you, it’s natural to go comatose or get crazed, even when you know doing something else would be better. What are these but our flight-or-fight instincts  gone awry?

In our recent survey, “What Does Stress Look Like to You?” more than 80% of respondents said that they wished they exercised, slept better, or meditated more to reduce stress. Yet nearly 80% also said that when stressed, they hide in bed or head for the fridge. (Find out why more than half of those surveyed say they’re stuck in a stress mode.)

Sound familiar? You know what you should be doing, and you wish you did more of it. But when the push of negative stress comes to shove, you fall back on powerful old habits.

This distance between your ideal response to stress and your actual response can be discouraging. But the situation isn’t hopeless, even if you’re short on money or time. The trick is twofold: start small and become aware of your thoughts.

Here are three ways to shift your behavior to your positive ideal.

Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed to make a change. If you were in the middle of a panic attack, do you think you could master meditation? No. The same is true for our day-to-day overwhelming stress. It’s impossible to start making a different choice when we’re in the muck.

Try out new behaviors when you feel pretty good. Add a 15-minute workout to your schedule on a day that’s relatively less packed. You may feel like you don’t need to change right now, but that’s not the point. You’re practicing when you feel strong so that your positive stress response muscles are ready for when life hits the fan. In other words, you’re building resilience.

Lower your expectations. By all means, shoot for the stars in some parts of your life. But other times, you need to accept that a small effort is enough. Are you going to become a meditation expert? No. Are you going to work out for an hour every day? No. These expectations point to a problem with perfectionism, or a core belief — we call them iceberg beliefs — that anything you imagine you could do to accomplish the task will surely fall short. So, you don’t do anything at all.

Managing expectations and taming perfectionism (or any other self-sabotaging belief) means changing your thoughts. If you think, “Taking a walk won’t make a difference,” or “I’ll never follow through on meditating,” you are stuck in a thinking trap that kills your motivation from the start. Instead, say this to yourself: “Getting to bed a half-hour early is enough for now. Walking briskly around the block at lunch is enough for now. These small steps are making me stronger for more positive change.”

Ask for help. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “…since you can’t heal your own sick mind with your own sick mind, I needed to consult somebody else’s sick mind.”

Lamott is tongue-in-cheek here, but the point is true. It can help immeasurably to have company and camaraderie, especially when you’re working on such personal and often isolating issues as stress, sleep, exercise, and thinking habits. Social connection is a foundation of resilience; study after study has found that people with strong social networks are happier and healthier for longer than people without.

Help can come in different forms: exercise buddies; meditation groups or teachers; an app or online program (ahem, we happen to know a good onethat helps you monitor habits and connects you to like-minded people. A life coach may provide helpful support, or a weekly phone call with a friend who understands what you’re trying to achieve. The point is to seek and accept the strength, experience, wisdom, and support that will help you turn your stress response wish list into reality.