Knowing how to cope with stress healthfully may not come naturally, especially if your tendency is to beat yourself up. That only worsens your emotional tension and compromises coping. We also may perpetuate or even produce our own stress by thinking in absolutes or creating calamities out of any situation.
And we might experience stress when we fear that we don’t have the right resources to accomplish a task, said Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC, a professional counselor who specializes in the treatment of stress, depression and anxiety. These resources may include money, knowledge and energy, he said.
The good news is that we can learn how to minimize and navigate stress by adopting specific skills. Below, Savage shared three effective skills.
“Often, we begin to see stressful feelings as part of who we are, or our identity,” said Savage, founder of Denver Depression Specialists. Mindfulness is a helpful skill to learn because it lets you observe these “uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical sensations without judgment.”Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
You can practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime. According to Savage, “the easiest and most common focal point is using the breath, because it’s something that is always with us.”
For instance, he suggested taking five or 10 minutes every day to pause and focus on your breath. Focus on “the sensation of breath coming in through the nostrils and out through the mouth, feeling [your] chest expand and contract, observing the temperature, depth and texture.”
When your mind naturally wanders, simply say to yourself, “wandering,” and bring your attention back to your breath, he said.
- Cognitive work.You may be stressed out because you’re anticipating the negative consequences of failing a task, Savage said. For instance, he said, you might think, “If I don’t get this done, I’ll lose my job — and then I’ll have nothing!”
This is known as “catastrophizing.” In other words, “we create a catastrophe out of the situation,” Savage said. Instead of rushing to disastrous thinking, he suggested considering a middle ground.
For example, it “may be difficult to find a job, but thinking that there is an employer who is looking for you as you look for them soothes stress much more quickly than imagining permanent defeat.”
What also heightens stress is thinking in absolutes and all-or-nothing thinking (also part of catastrophizing), he said. This is why it helps to pay attention to your thoughts and question them, a skill that stems from cognitive-behavioral therapy.
For instance, you know you’re engaging in all-or-nothing thinking when you’re saying words like “always, never, anything, nothing or impossible,” Savage said.
After you identify these unhelpful thoughts, get curious about them, and explore alternatives. For instance, if you find yourself thinking, “I never do anything right!” ask yourself: “Is it possible that there are times when I do some things right?”
- Self-compassion.Many of us berate ourselves when we’re having a hard time. Why can’t I just push through the pain? I always make such stupid mistakes! I’m such a failure. This only exacerbates our stress. In fact, judgmental, self-condemning thoughts generate stress, Savage said.
He believes that “the biggest thing to remember about coping with stress in a healthy way is to be gentle on yourself.”
Kristin Neff, Ph.D, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, suggests treating yourself like you’d treat a loved one going through the same thing.
She also suggests memorizing a set of compassionate statements. She uses these phrases: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment? May I give myself the compassion I need?”
Listening to self-compassionate meditations also helps. Neff’s website includes these meditations.
(You can learn more about Neff’s work on self-compassion in this article.)
Savage’s favorite resource on coping with stress is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living. He also suggested Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, which “helps readers go through a 4-question process to take a different view at distressing thoughts, and is especially helpful for combating all-or-nothing thinking.”