During tough times, it’s easy to get lost in spirals of stress and anxiety—endlessly worrying about the future, obsessively ruminating on the past, procrastinating on the goals that matter most.
Unfortunately, many of the habits we fall into during times of stress only make our stress worse in the long-run:
- Worry leads to panic and chronic anxiety.
- Rumination leads to self-doubt and depression.
- Procrastination leads to shame and low self-esteem.
And guess what happens to stress when you multiply it by anxiety, depression, and shame? That’s right: it gets worse—a lot worse.
But here’s the silver lining:
While bad habits intensify stress, good habits shield you from it.
Which means if you want to deal with stress in a healthy way, you need to build better habits. You need habits that buffer you from stress before it takes hold, keeping your mind calm and your focus sharp.
What follows are 4 habits that will help you keep your head when it feels like the world is going to pieces around you.
1. Manage your stressors, not your stress
Because I’m a psychologist, people are especially shocked when they hear me say that stress management is usually a waste of time.
Of course, I phrase it that way for maximal surprise value, but I really do believe it. But before we dive into why, we need to get clear about a critical distinction:
Stress is your reaction to a stressor. And a stressor is anything that causes a stress reaction.
See the difference? Stressors are the cause and stress is the result.
You would never treat a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid because the bleeding is not the real problem. It’s just a symptom of the underlying issue—organ damage from a bullet in your chest.
If you take a Band-Aid approach to treating a gunshot wound, you’re going to run into two big problems:
- It won’t actually work. It might temporarily stop some bleeding, but there’s still a bullet in your chest and the bleeding will likely continue internally.
- It distracts you from the real problem. The real solution to a gunshot wound is surgery. You need to get in there, remove the bullet, and repair any damage it did internally. Now, that’s a much more complicated, painful, and time-consuming solution to your problem. But at least you’re addressing the right problem.
Managing your stress is like treating a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid: You’re managing the symptom but avoiding the cause.
Here’s a specific example:
Let’s say you’re chronically stressed most days after work. You get home, walk through the door, and are committed to spending quality time with your family and relaxing. But you just can’t seem to let go of work—your mind obsessively alternating between worry about that deadline coming up and how much of an idiot your manager is being.
So you decide to get serious about stress management: you schedule a weekly massage; you download a mindfulness app on your phone; and you start reading a couple self-help books about how to cultivate a more positive attitude at work.
Now, I’ve got nothing against massages, mindfulness, or self-help books, per se. But it’s insane to think that these things are going to fix your chronic stress. And the reason…
Your problem isn’t stress. Your problem is stressors.
You’re in a job you hate, with people you don’t respect, doing work that doesn’t matter. Of course you’re stressed!
Stress management techniques like 5 minutes a day of mindfulness or a weekly massage are appealing because they’re relatively easy and low risk. But often they’re just a distraction—a way to procrastinate on addressing the real issues in your life that are causing stress in the first place.
If you really want to feel less stressed in your life, stop getting distracted by your stress and learn to look carefully for the stressors in your life. Then work like hell to eliminate them. Or at least set better boundaries on them.
Nobody likes surgery. But it’s better than living in denial with a box of Band-Aids.
2. Do work that matters
Human beings have a well-documented negativity bias. Which means, all other things being equal, our minds tend to go toward the negative.
For example: you’re laying in bed at night, exhausted but not sleepy. It’s dark, you’ve got nothing external to focus on, so where does your mind go?
- Worries about a big project or deadline coming up in the future.
- Ruminating and stewing on past mistakes or regrets.
- Imagining the worst-case scenario for how little sleep you’ll get tonight and how bad you’ll feel tomorrow as a result.
But why is this? Why does our brain gravitate toward the negative?
Well, a big part of the reason is that it was likely evolutionarily adaptive. For your ancestors, being borderline paranoid about dangerous animals invading your cave at night probably led to taking more and better precautions, living longer, and having a better chance of passing on your genes.
In any case, for most of us, it’s the evolutionary heritage we’re stuck with.
But there’s good news… Even if your mind’s default is to go negative, it’s possible to “outcompete” this tendency with the right subject of focus.
It’s a lot easier to keep your focus off of unhelpful negative thinking when you have something in your life you’re incredibly passionate about to focus on instead.
Suppose you’re home alone for the weekend—you’re family’s out of town and all your friends are busy. If you don’t have anything interesting or meaningful in your life to work on, it’s going to be relatively easy for your mind to start worrying about the future or getting lost in regrets about the past.
On the other hand, if you’ve got an interesting hobby or side-project you’re dying to get to work on, being alone for the weekend is actually a good thing! And your mind will have an abundance of motivating, interesting things to focus on. Which means less stress and anxiety and more excitement and curiosity.
The best way to avoid losing your mind in worry and negativity is to have something meaningful and enjoyable to focus it on instead.
3. Spend more time with people you actually enjoy
It’s a sad fact of life that so many people are trained from a young age to spend time with people they don’t really like.
Whether it’s having to spend Christmas Eve ay weird Uncle Harry’s house every year or hanging out with the popular kids in high school even though they’re jerks, many of us learn that there are people we should spend time with regardless of how we actually feel when we’re around them.
Now, this might seem like a trivial thing, but other people affect us—our moods, our thought patterns, even our sense of self—in a profound way.
- No matter how untrue you know it is, if you’re constantly being criticized by an abusive partner, it’s going to take its toll on you.
- No matter how often you remind yourself that you’re not the boss and company decisions aren’t up to you, working for an incompetent person will drive you nuts eventually.
- No matter how good it is for your reputation around the firm, spending all your free time with your meat-head co-workers instead of your real (but socially outcast) nerd friends is going to make you unhappy.
When times are tough and stressful, one of the most important buffers we have against that stress is quality relationships and friendships:
- People who really get us.
- People we feel comfortable around and excited to talk to.
- People who are genuinely understanding and compassionate when we’re struggling.
- People who appreciate us exactly for who we are.
But you can’t take advantage of the benefits of quality relationships if you’ve convinced yourself that you need to spend all your time with people you don’t actually like:
- If you’ve convinced yourself that you need to stay in an unhealthy marriage.
- If you’ve convinced yourself you need to attend every family gathering even though your family drives crazy.
- If you’ve convinced yourself you need to stay at a job because it’s so prestigious despite being filled with horrible people.
Life’s too short to spend surrounding yourself with people you don’t enjoy.
If you want to feel less stressed and anxious and more confident and comfortable, make the choice to spend more time with the people who really matter.
4. Validate your fears instead of trying to avoid them
We all get afraid, especially during tough, stressful times:
- If you’re at risk of losing your job, of course you’re going to feel afraid.
- If there’s a global pandemic ravaging the planet, of course you’re going to feel afraid.
- If you’re out for a hike and a bear walks across the path in front of you, of course you’re going to feel afraid!
Fear is a normal emotional reaction to potentially dangerous situations.
You may not like the way fear feels—heart rate increasing, chest tightening, adrenaline surging through your veins—but to be perfectly blunt, your body doesn’t care how you feel. All it cares about is keeping you safe.
The thing is, our bodies are understandably conservative when it comes to our survival. From your brain’s perspective, it’s better to feel afraid and stay safe than feel good all the time and miss some important threats.
Better to be afraid than dead.
Now, while this may have been a good strategy for our minds to take for most of our evolutionary history when we were living in caves and constantly at war with neighboring tribes, things are a little less dangerous these days. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to live in a first-world country.
For most of us, the world isn’t actually as dangerous a place as our brains imagine much of the time.
Sure, there are still real threats to our survival, but there are also lots of things that look and feel like threats but aren’t actually dangerous:
- Your coworker thinking you’re dumb.
- Your spouse being irritated at you.
- Your kid getting a mediocre score on their SATs not getting into Harvard.
These are all distressing in their own way. But they’re not actually threats to your survival. But remember, your brain’s fear center is pretty conservative. So if something even looks dangerous, it’s gonna make you feel a little afraid just to be on the safe side. And this is where the key fork in the road comes:
How do you respond to your brain’s well-intentioned but misguided fears?
Careful, because the consequences are significant….
If you freak out every time you feel afraid—engaging in endless worry, avoiding things that feel scary—you’re teaching your brain that its incorrect assessment of danger was in fact correct. Which means you’re even more likely to feel irrationally afraid in the future.
For example, if you’re thinking about asking a coworker to help you on a project, but then feel afraid because you’re worried they’ll think less of you and decide not to ask as a result, you’re teaching your brain that it’s useful to feel afraid of asking for help.
On the other hand, if you respond to fear calmly and reasonably, and go ahead with your plan despite feeling afraid, you teach your brain that what it thought was a threat isn’t actually dangerous. Which means, you’re going to feel less afraid and more confident the next time around.
The way you respond to fear teaches your brain what’s really worth being afraid of.
If you want to feel less irrationally afraid all the time, start helping your brain understand which fears are legitimate and which are irrational. And the only way to do that is with your behavior.
The next time you feel afraid but know that it’s not rational, try being compassionate with yourself: remind yourself that it’s okay that your brain is getting a little afraid—it’s just trying to do its job!—and gently go ahead with whatever it is you planned.
The best way to avoid chronic anxiety is to cultivate the habit of being compassionate with your fears.
Validate your fears with a little self-compassion and you’ll be far less likely to get stuck in chronic anxiety and irrational fear in the long-run.