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As amazing as life is, it also delivers its fair share of stressors. For example, many people get anxious when they try to manage money, have a child or change jobs. Now, we’re all grappling with Covid-19 as well. The pandemic layered on its own set of issues, such as trying to work with kids distracting you at home or figuring out new remote infrastructure.
Even though it’s normal for things to be imperfect, it’s not your imagination if you think people are struggling a little more than usual. In 2021, 84 percent of U.S. adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress. The American Psychological Association also found that 79 percent of surveyed workers said they’d experienced work-related stress in the month prior to the survey. And, that three out of five reported negative symptoms, such as a lack of interest and physical fatigue. Many independent professionals and organizations are available to help you combat the stress you might face. But it’s still important that you personally know how to keep your stress level under control so you get enjoyment out of what you do and stay healthy while you do it.
1. Identify the real root of your problem
If you’re going to pull your stressor out like a weed and kill it, you often have to dig a little deeper than the surface level. Let’s say you’re going through some training or classes. You’ve got three weeks to take care of all your assignments. You procrastinate until you’ve only got two days left, then you suddenly say to yourself, oh, my goodness, this deadline is impossible!
Is the deadline really the issue? No. The real issue is that you tried to cram three weeks of work into two days.
If you find your blood pressure is rising and can’t really pinpoint why, try my two week list challenge: For the next 14 days, carry a little notebook or sticky pad with you, or just have an app on your smartphone handy. Whenever you feel stress rising, pause. Put a label on the stressor and be aware of when it usually happens. Then ask yourself, what exactly about this triggers me?
I used this strategy when my kids were fighting. On the surface, they didn’t really do much during their arguments worth stressing over. But when I took the time to analyze deeper, I realized it stressed me out because I want them to get along as adults. Their fighting made me worry they wouldn’t be best buddies later in life. When I did my exercise, I realized they weren’t fighting at all. They were just being normal teenagers, and I had nothing to worry about.
So stand back. Ask yourself what the heart of the problem is so you know what actually needs attention and change. It’s not enough to simply say that family or work is causing you stress. The stress is likely coming from somewhere deeper. Like not being able to see your family as much. Or the fact that work is a little more difficult than usual because you’re working from home. Acknowledge the roots truthfully to avoid making excuses or ignoring your reality.
2. Find your outlets
Outlets are activities or strategies that lower your stress level around your root problems. These are different for everyone. What helps you feel free might cause someone else to stress.
My wife and I are a perfect case for this. She gets stressed out when our daughter calls in the middle of the night from Scotland, but the calls don’t bother me one bit. In fact, talking to my daughter is one of my outlets for relieving stress, no matter what time it is. Being in a negative environment, however, bothers me a lot. For some people, those environments aren’t an issue at all. They’re able to tap into their emotional intelligence really well and even enjoy managing crises. So just do some reflection. Don’t compare yourself or sweat it if others use different activities.
You might find that you have to adapt some of your best outlets over time. Sometimes that’s just because you’ve learned or have come to need different things. But it can be due to external things you can’t control as well. Some people enjoy CrossFit and working out but haven’t been able to go to the gym regularly because of Covid-19. But they can walk around their neighborhood to get moving. In the same way, if you like to read but are pressed for time, maybe you could try listening to an audiobook as you do easy jobs around the house.
If you have to swap out outlets entirely, that’s also okay. You just have to build your own list of activities that are relaxing for you and do them in ways that are practical for the moment.
3. Pull in and talk to your cavalry
Your cavalry is anybody and everybody who can help you use or commit to your outlets. They can often help you notice and be honest about your tendencies and needs. Realistically, though, they’re not going to be able to see through you all the time.
So give them a heads-up when you can. If I know I’ve got an awful week lined up and there’s nothing I can really do to change my schedule, I go to my family and say, just so you know, this is going to be a really tough week for me, and my stress is probably going to be higher than normal. If my wife hears that, she’ll point out that I probably won’t eat right because of the stress. Her honesty and knowing she’ll hold me accountable motivates me to pack healthier lunches or plan not to snack, and being able to lean on her helps.
This isn’t giving yourself room to make excuses if you become too overwhelmed and lose it. It’s being proactive, recognizing how everyone interconnects and raising awareness so they’re better equipped to respond empathetically for you. When you’re able to pinpoint what exactly causes you stress and what helps you relieve that stress, it becomes much easier to do this and prepare ahead of time.
Self-awareness and good support helps keep your stress contained
Stress is part of life. You’re always going to encounter it to some degree. But self-awareness makes a difference. Going through your day will likely be eminently less stressful if you really take the time to reflect. To understand what the sources of your stress are and don’t hide the trash that typically sits underneath the surface. Doing this also makes it possible to arrange mechanisms in advance. So when you encounter something stressful, you know you’ll make it through. Also, the people around you that you love and trust can support your stress management processes if you let them. Be honest with yourself and others, and use the basic framework above to find your own customized, effective stress management strategy.