I used to think stress was something outside of my control.
I would say things like, “I’m stressed out because of work,” or “It’s really stressful to have to deal with that person.”
But the truth is, you are (almost) completely in control of managing your stress.
Some amount of what we call stress is unavoidable. When you or a loved one gets sick or injured, you’re going to feel stressed. Bad things happen to good people, and there’s nothing we can do about that.
But the question is, when life throws a tough situation at you, what should you do about it?
After reading dozens of books and studying stress for years, I want to share a simple process you can follow to deal with your stress effectively.
But first, you have to understand exactly what stress is (and what it’s not).
What Causes Stress?
Stress is caused when your body releases stress hormones or neurotransmitters like cortisol to alert you and your body to a potential threat.
Like all organisms and living creatures, humans evolved to survive. The body’s stress response was a key factor that enabled our ancestors to each survive and reproduce successfully for millions of generations. In fact, this process worked so well that every single one of your ancestors for millions of generations survived long enough to have children (otherwise you wouldn’t exist!).
In other words, you would never have been born without stress!
So stress is a normal and natural biological process designed to help you survive, identify problems and threats, and solve them so you can stay safe and move on with your life.
But this biological process can definitely get out of hand if you don’t understand how your body works and what to do about it.
So if you’re ready to actually reduce stress in your life, pay close attention.
How Stress Affects the Body
“Stress is the inability to adapt to changes in the environment.” —Dr. John Demartini
As Demartini accurately pointed out, we feel stress when we are unable to adapt appropriately to the environment. This stress can be caused by all kinds of issues or stimuli including physiological, social, psychological, or emotional situations.
For example, if it’s 120 degrees outside, you’re likely to feel some physiological stress as your body tries to regulate its core temperature to cope with the change in environment. Without this stress response, you would die when exposed to hot temperatures because you would simply overheat instead of getting “stress out” enough to lower your body temperature.
If someone yells at you inappropriately, you’re likely to feel some emotional and physiological stress as your body reacts to the threat. Identifying dangerous people and threatening situations helps you survive.
Stress forces your body to respond to the environment by fleeing, fighting, or freezing because those were the most successful behavioral responses to stress for our ancestors.
For us modern folks living with so much advanced technology, these old responses often fail to solve the root causes of what’s actually causing stress.
Stress can be broken down into two categories—chronic or acute.
Acute stress is the type of stress that comes from a one-time situation, like someone almost driving their car into you while you’re crossing the street.
Chronic stress is ongoing stress that comes from ongoing or day-to-day situations, like stress from your work environment, your relationships, or a chronic disease. When you’re facing chronic stress, you must take a different approach to solve the problem, because chronic stress is the type of stress that causes the most damage and is the hardest to solve.
Your old, innate, evolved responses to chronic stress won’t work for you in most situations today, so you need to come up with new strategies for dealing with stress.
How to Deal with Stress Today
The good news is these old strategies of fleeing, freezing, and fighting will work exceptionally well for you if you learn how to modify them to fit your modern lifestyle.
First, get out of the stressful situation!
Get somewhere safe if you feel threatened, whether that threat is physical or just an uncomfortable feeling in your body because of the environment you’re in.
Once you’re somewhere safe, your body will be able to calm down naturally, and you’ll be better able to think through a solution that will help you avoid that stress in the future.
If you’ve been dealing with high levels of stress for weeks, months, or years, chances are it’s because you have chosen to remain in a stressful situation instead of fleeing.
In other words, you’ve either been ignoring the problem or you’ve been trying to deal with your stress in a way that goes against your biological programming. It’s time for a new strategy if you want to get rid of your stress and move on with your life.
Realize that you don’t have to flee permanently from a stressful situation. In fact, you probably shouldn’t permanently flee from most situations because that will simply hold you back in life.
However, you MUST temporarily flee if you want to think clearly and solve the actual problem so that you’re not plagued with this stressful situation for the rest of your life.
You cannot think clearly or solve problems effectively when your body is constantly flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones, so you must find a way to temporarily get away from the stressful situation in order to let your body calm down.
That way you’ll be able to calmly and intelligently come up with a plan to solve the problem once and for all.
Next, take some time to pause, slow down, and reflect.
Ask yourself these questions to help identify the root cause of your stress:
- What’s bothering me?
- What’s the problem?
- What would the ideal outcome be for me?
- What’s your goal or dream scenario?
- How would you like things to be in a perfect world?
Note: You may need to spend a few minutes, a few days, or even a few weeks in this stage depending on how big the problem is. If you’re facing a very stressful issue in your marriage, you’re going to want to spend a lot more time in freezing and reflecting than you would when dealing with a stressful situation with someone whom you’ll probably never see again after it’s resolved.
Once you’ve thought through the problems and your goals and intentions, it’s time to start working on a plan so you can solve the problem and achieve your goals.
Yes, it’s true: stress is often caused by a problem left unsolved, or by having a goal or dream without any hope of success.
That’s why you need a plan to solve the problem and achieve your goals.
You’ve taken some time out to calm down and think clearly, you’ve analyzed the problem, and you know what you want.
Now it’s time to make a plan to get what you want before you go back to that stressful situation.
If you try to come up with a brilliant plan while being attacked by a lion, chances are you’re going to lose.
Likewise, if you try to make a plan in the heat of an argument or stressful situation, you’re not going to get what you want.
So think through the problem and what you want to achieve. Start to brainstorm some ideas for getting what you want.
Here are some questions to help:
- What could I do to make the situation better?
- What needs to happen for me to be happy here?
- What needs to stop happening for me to be happy?
- What does this other person or party want in this situation?
- How can I make this a win-win situation for everyone?
- How far am I willing to go to solve this problem?
- What should I ask for?
- What will I do if I don’t get what I want in this situation?
- What are my backup plans or options here?
After answering these questions, you should have at least one ideal solution: the perfect solution that would give you exactly what you want.
However, you won’t always get your perfect solution in life, so you also need to have at least one or several backup plans ready in case your perfect solution won’t work in this situation.
If you don’t have a backup plan in place, you’ll go into that stressful situation feeling like it’s a fight for life or death, and there’s a good chance that extra dose of acute stress will cause you to mess things up. The calmer you’re able to remain in a stressful or tough situation, the better you’ll be able to handle the situation and resolve it once and for all.
If you have a backup plan, you can then negotiate from a place of power, and your chances of getting your ideal solution will be much higher.
Now that you have your plan, it’s time to go fight.
Realize though that “fighting” today almost never means throwing punches or fighting for your life. It often just means asking for what you want, negotiating, listening to other people, and working collaboratively to solve the problem.
If you want to fight effectively in the modern world, you have to master these skills. And mastery only comes from practice.
So it’s time to get out there, solve your problems, and get rid of that stressful situation once and for all!
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