How Stress Works

How to Reduce Stress

You will need your list of stress triggers that you made on the last page to take advantage of the advice on this page. In this section, we will show you what to do about the triggers you've categorized.

The E-List

Once you've categorized your list of stressors into Es, Rs, and Cs, you're ready to get busy. Start by separating out your E-list -- the list of stressors you've decided you can eliminate from your life. Take a good look at this new list. As you do, inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. If you're like most people, you should already be feeling somewhat better.


If you've got a short E-list, consider the following ways to add items:

  • Is your working environment (or your boss) beyond coping with? If possible, make a note to start preparing your resume and looking for a new job.
  • Is caffeine making you jumpy? Make a commitment to gradually reduce and then eliminate your intake of caffeinated tea, coffee, and soda.
  • Are you losing sleep because you're awakened every morning by the noise of a newly opened airport in your neighbourhood? If you've tried earplugs but don't get relief, consider finding a new place to live.

The goal of this exercise is to be as creative as possible without being extreme. There's no harm in taking a strong stand on issues that have a considerable effect on your sanity. The trick is to measure the impact of your stressors and weigh the costs of eliminating them against the toll they take on your health and well-being.

The R-List

Like the E-list, the R-list is about controlling the external forces that repeatedly get the better of you. Although the E-list offers instant gratification by literally erasing your worries, the R-list requires a bit more creativity. It is about reorganizing and reprioritizing. It is about making some unavoidable stressors seem more tolerable.

Here are some tried-and-true R-list techniques:

Invest in an appointment organizer.

When you have so much to do and so little time to do it, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. It can't clear your schedule for you, but an appointment diary, an electronic organizer, or a simple pocket-size date book can help ease the stress of having to remember what you're supposed to be doing within the next 15 minutes. And for some people, being able to glance quickly at the day's priorities can offer reassurance and a sense of direction and control.

Discover the underrated art of making lists. In addition to keeping a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule, list-making can help clear an overly cluttered mind. While some people find lists a bit compulsive, others find that they help ease the strain of trying to remember everything or the stress that can come with forgetting things.

The idea is to take worries off your mind and put them on a list. There's no need to worry about forgetting something when you know it's safely noted either electronically or on paper.

Once you've created your list, prioritize the tasks on it. If any of the tasks seems too overwge Shelming or too time-consuming for you to ever get through, try breaking it into smaller, discrete, "doable" stages or steps that you can accomplish in the time periods you have available.

If you find making daily or weekly lists helpful, consider trying what the master list-makers do: Maintain two lists--one for short-term tasks you need to do today or this week and a long-term list of goals you need to get done within the month or the year. Call the latter your "in time" list. It can include house- or car-maintenance needs, purchases you need to make, or tasks you need to get done (such as cleaning out the garage). It doesn't matter what you put down, only that you let yourself believe that if it is on the list, you'll take care of it at some point.

Seek gentle compromise. Many stressful situations -- even those that can't be entirely eliminated -- can be eased through negotiation. For example, if you are suffering because your boss is keeping you at work until all hours of the night, try to work out a plan that suits both your needs. Suggest that you are happy to work late one or two nights a week, as long as you can go home on time the rest of the days. If a neighbour's stereo wakes you up at six o'clock every morning, negotiate a time for quiet and a time for noise. You're not getting rid of these stressors, but you are reducing their strength.

Reorganize your life. Once you have started making a schedule and keeping lists, consult them each morning before you start your day. Try to figure out where you can combine tasks in order to reduce the amount of energy it takes to get them done. See if you can put some items off until the weekend, when you'll have larger blocks of time available for running errands. Coordinate tasks, so you can accomplish more at once (such as dropping the dry cleaning off on your way to work and paying the bills while the casserole is in the oven).

Think of every hour that you organize away as an hour that you will be able to spend relaxing. If you organize well enough, you may stop feeling as though you are drowning under the weight of your many responsibilities.

Change your priorities. Whenever you find yourself becoming truly overwhelmed, take five minutes and rank the items on your to-do list in order of importance. Then, proceed from top to bottom. Even if you can't get everything done, at least you can be secure in the fact that you've dealt with the most important ones.

If your list of daily tasks starts to spill over onto the next page and beyond, perform the ranking exercise described above, then draw a cutoff line. Move everything below the line to the next day. And don't panic: Your world will not fall apart if something has to be moved to the following day.

Let Go of the Reins

Trying to be perfect can add greatly to your stress level. If you feel that you have to accomplish everything perfectly, you're sure to feel a lot of pressure. These tips can help you tone down your perfectionism:

Try the "how-important-is-it?" technique. When you find yourself stressed over your house being a bit untidy or because you're running late for an appointment, ask yourself how important it is if you put the cleaning off or show up 10 minutes late. Play out the worst-case scenario in your head (your mother-in-law dropping by and thinking you are a bad housekeeper, your lunch date leaving the restaurant before you arrive).

Sometimes, it really may be important that you perform perfectly. Many times, however, you'll be able to convince yourself the world will understand if you are human. The latter, more forgiving attitude can help reduce your stress level significantly.

Delegate tasks. Many people live by the motto "If you want it done right, do it yourself." This attitude can keep you overwhelmed by leaving you with an overly large volume of work.

Using the how-important-is-it technique described above, ask yourself what the worst-case situation would be if you delegated a task to someone who performed it poorly or, worse, didn't perform it at all. Then try playing out a more realistic scenario where, perhaps, the person gets the task done, although less perfectly than you would have done.

When you do delegate a task, take steps to reduce possible error by clearly stating your expectations and finding sources of help you trust to carry out your instructions well.

Practice imperfection. This is not to suggest you purposely mess up important projects, but simply that you give yourself a break once in a while. For example, when you're exhausted, save the dishes for tomorrow and go to bed. When you're really overwhelmed, reschedule an appointment or try to rework a deadline. The reduction in your stress level will make you even more productive when you do get a chance to take care of what you've put off.

Set Aside "Me" Time

Feeling stre­ssed is a strong signal from your subconscious mind that something is wrong in your life. Somehow, you are not getting your needs met. More than likely, you're devoting more time to work, meeting other people's needs, or de­aling with a troubling situation (such as the loss of your job or the breakup of your marriage) than you are taking good care of yourself. Even if you must continue to overextend yourself for a certain length of time, it's important to make space for yourself in your busy schedule.

Here are some tips for getting enough "me" time:

Take a lunch break.­ Even if you have a very demanding job, make an effort to schedule a midday break, even if just for 20 minutes or so. Use the time to walk around the block, collect yourself, breathe deeply, and relax. You'll be amazed at how much good a short break can do.

­Don't fill your day. Leave one hour of time unscheduled every weekday and two (or more) hours a day on weeke­nds. Make it a rule and live by it. Everyone needs a little time off.

During your hour, don't pay bills, clean dishes, or sort mail. Take the phone off the hook. Use this time to do relaxing activities: Take a bath, lie down, meditate, read a book, or watch television. Or, if your body needs it, use the time for a healthful activity, such as a brisk walk or some gardening.

Go to bed early. If at the end of the day you feel as if there's still so much left to do, pretend that your day has ended and go to bed early. Once alone, grab a good book or listen to relaxing music with headphones. And don't feel guilty. This is perfectly healthy behaviour.

Vent feelings on paper.­ Keeping a diary of your feelings can be a healthy way to blow off steam. It can also serve as an effective stress "barometer," allowing you to gauge how much pressure you are under and what effect it's having on you. Here are some guidelines for keeping a stress journal:

  • Choose blank pages. Don't buy one of those books that post the date on top of every page. Instead, invest in a free-form notebook of some sort. This way, if you miss writing for many days, you won't feel guilty. Your notebook doesn't need to be anything fancy. Even a spiral bound school notebook works.
  • Take a breath before you plunge in. Before you start to write, spend a few minutes with your eyes closed, trying to get in touch with all the feelings you have at the moment. Are you angry? Tired? Overwhelmed? Relaxed? Sad? Happy? Open your eyes and write down all the feelings that come to mind.
  • Describe the day's events. Write about what led you to have the feelings you have now. This might clue you in to some of the reasons you feel stressed.
  • List any worries you have in the back of your mind. We are not always consciously aware of what is bothering us. Getting it down on paper may give you some insight.
  • Try writing a note of encouragement to yourself. Writing to yourself as though you were writing to a dear friend who needs cheering up can be an effective way to give yourself the support and caring you may be lacking.
  • Draw pictures. Sometimes words may not be adequate to express what you feel inside. At these times, illustrating your feelings may be easier and more helpful.
  • Let it flow. When you feel mentally blocked, try an exercise used in psychology: Simply write whatever comes to mind, even if it seems to start from nowhere or makes little sense. Omit punctuation entirely, if it improves your flow of thought. Don't stop to correct yourself. Just allow one thought to flow freely from another. When you run out of steam, go back and read what you've written. You may be surprised to discover previously hidden clues to your emotional state.
  • Rewrite reality. If a situation left you feeling frustrated or angry during the day, write it down the way it happened. Then try rewriting it with a new ending, the way you would have liked the situation to unfold.
  • Don't allow your journal writing to become yet another chore. If you feel as though writing in your journal is just one more task you have to do before you can go to bed, try another approach. Try to see your journal-writing time as a positive way to let go of the day's stress.