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4 Habits that Heighten Stress and What to Do about Them

why-do-some-people-want-to-be-alone-on-christmasStress is “feeling completely overwhelmed by most of what’s going on in your life and not knowing what to do first,” according to therapist Nicole Liloia, LCSW. “You feel stuck in your decisions and you spend your time feeling tired and worried.”

Sometimes, we can’t help the stress that surrounds us. This might include a busy season at work (if you’re an accountant right now, I’m so sorry). It might include a permanent loss or health issues you can’t help.

Other times, we may unwittingly engage in habits that heighten our stress. The good news is that you can do something about these habits.

The key is to pay attention to your days and pinpoint the patterns that aren’t working (and notice what is).

Below, Liloia shared four common culprits that siphon our energy and trigger overwhelm, along with tips to reduce or stop these habits.

1. Saying yes to everything.

You want to work hard, have a social life and be a supportive friend and family member, said Liloia, also a coach and writer who supports women in centering themselves and slowing down so that they can transform their relationship to stress for life.

So you say yes to everything. This inevitably leads you to overextend yourself. And that leaves you with little time to recharge and reenergize, she said.

When you’re trying to decide if you’re going to do something, Liloia suggested considering how you’ll feel afterward. “Will you feel drained, annoyed or unhappy? If the answer is yes, then you want to really consider saying no at this time.”

If you’re doing things that drain you because you’re afraid of disappointing others, consider working on your people-pleasing ways. Saying no is hard, and it takes practice.

According to Liloia, you can make saying no easier by “offering an alternative solution, rescheduling for a time that will work better for you, or just being honest about why you need to say no right now.”

2. Creating an unrealistic to-do list.

“We put a lot of emphasis on productivity and think that the more we do, the less stressed we’ll be,” Liloia said. But we’re usually unrealistic about how long tasks take.

And we rarely recognize how much we’ve actually accomplished. Instead, “we continue to focus on everything that’s left, which makes us feel more overwhelmed.”

It can be helpful to write down everything you need to do. However, pick two or three items that have to get done today, and work on those, she said. “If you do more than that, it’s a bonus.”

3. Not living right now.

How many times do you find yourself wrapped up in what happened yesterday, last week or 5 years ago? How many times do you find yourself focusing on tomorrow, next week or next year?

Ruminating about the past and trying to forecast the future only “drains our energy and causes us not to trust our ability to make decisions,” Liloia said. It also wastes our time because we’re not focusing on the here and now, she added.

To help you refocus on the present, Liloia suggested setting alarms on your phone. Each time the alarm rings, take a deep breath and notice where you are and what’s happening around you, she said.

4. Worrying what others think.

“You might be worried about what others are thinking about the quality of your work, about your personality, or even about what you choose to wear,” Liloia said.

But trying to predict what someone else is thinking or feeling is absolutely exhausting, she said. And, naturally, it gets us nowhere; we have no clue what’s happening in someone else’s head or heart.

When you find yourself trying to read someone else’s mind, acknowledge what you’re doing. And remind yourself that you can only know what someone is thinking or feeling when they express it directly. Then “bring yourself back to your own thoughts instead,” Liloia said.

Changing unhelpful habits also can become stressful. In other words, ironically, in reducing your stress, you might unwittingly find yourself adding to it. So start small, as Liloia suggested.

Focus on changing one habit, one area in your life. Avoid putting more pressure on yourself. You’re already doing the best you can.

4 Habits that Heighten Stress and What to Do about Them

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 4 Habits that Heighten Stress and What to Do about Them. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 Apr 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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