This is the second in a series of posts in honor of Stress Awareness Month (April). Last week we talked about 12 Signs You Have Too Much Stress & What You Can Do About It. If that left you feeling worried about all the sources of stress in your life...fear not! This week's post will help you relieve stress and restore balance to your life.
Now, I can’t take away or control all the stressful events in your life, but I can help you stop adding insult to injury. The reality of life is that there will always be some stressful situations, that’s unavoidable. But if we learn how to work with our reactions to these events then our stress level won’t get out of control and we can avoid being overwhelmed and burning out.
How to Manage Your Stress
It’s all about balance
In my workshops I often describe the model of an emotional sink as an analogy for managing stress. The basic concept is that we all have a certain capacity for holding stress (our sink) and there are things that add water to our sink (stressors) and things that drain water from our sink (de-stressors).
If the ratio of water being added to the sink is more than the water being drained out of the sink, then at some point the sink will overflow. This is our emergency release valve, when we feel overwhelmed and turn to unhelpful, reactive coping mechanisms. Sometimes these are relatively harmless, like taking a day to binge-watch our favorite series on Netflix and eating an entire chocolate bar in one sitting (my personal favorite), and sometimes they can be more harmful, like drinking excessively, doing harmful drugs, binge eating, etc.
Stem the tide of incoming water
One way to avoid overflow/burnout is to balance the ratio of incoming and outgoing water. Identify the different stressors adding water to your sink and see if there is wiggle room with any of them. Do you have to volunteer to bake cookies for your child’s class event tomorrow, or could you just go buy some at the store? Could you delegate part of that project at work to someone else? Could you split up household chores in another way to make them more manageable? You may look at your incoming water and think, “I can’t change any of this!” Sometimes we have little control over external stressors. But I invite you to check out the section below re: darts and see if you might be adding more water to your sink than you realize.
Stop throwing darts at yourself!
There is a concept I learned about in my graduate counseling program called: First Dart, Second Dart. The basic premise is that some amount of painful/stressful events in our lives are inevitable, for example stubbing your toe, no matter how careful you are it’s bound to happen every now and then. That’s the first dart. It hurts, and there’s nothing you can do about it except wait until it’s over. However, the second or third (or in my case 99th) darts are the painful stories we tell ourselves about the stressful event that happened. “Oh my gosh, I’m such a clumsy idiot! Now my toe is broken! And I won’t be able to work anymore. And then I’ll lose my job, fall into poverty and become an old bag lady who will live on the streets and die alone to be eaten by wild dogs!”
That may be a bit of an extreme example, but the point is that I’ve just added a gallon of water to my sink when all that needed to be added was a single cup. Do you do this too sometimes? Next time you catch yourself throwing extra darts, stop! Put the darts down and walk away. If you find that difficult, like my page on Facebook and stay tuned for next week's post where I will discuss strategies for calming your mind when it feels like it's going a million miles an hour.
Take time to drain your sink
Oftentimes people will look at their sink diagram and think, “Wow, I barely do anything to drain water from my sink!” This is not unusual for people in high-stress jobs or for parents, who often put their children above all else, especially themselves. Every person has different preferences for ways to drain water from their sink, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Get enough sleep
Exercise (bonus points for getting outdoors, this will boost the stress-relieving effects)
Take a hot bath or shower
Go for a walk outside
Swing in a hammock
Draw, paint, or make your favorite kind of art
Drink a cup of soothing herbal tea
Spend time connecting with loved ones
Listen to your favorite music
Practice any of the mindfulness exercises in last week's post (and stay tuned for more next week)
Do some yoga, tai chi, or other movement-based mindfulness practice
Spend some time thinking of what you’re grateful for (I call this looking for bright spots)
Try to find 3 things that went well today
Ask what made them happen, and what role did you have in making them a reality?
If you’re not in the mood for gratitude, start with 3 things that didn’t suck and go from there. (I find this will often snowball into genuine gratitude).
And so, so many more!
What's your favorite way to drain your sink? Leave a comment below.
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Help with managing stress and living a more balanced life
If you found the tips above useful, check out the full guide for a more comprehensive list of strategies to help you relieve stress and regain balance and happiness in your life.