Stress is probably humanity’s most notorious yet silent killer. Stress is one of the primary factors for many of the world’s most fatal medical conditions such as diabetes, heart problems and even cancer. In this article, we’ll talk about 8 stress management techniques that really work to “slay your stress”. Individually, they can do a lot to help you minimize the effects of bad stress in your life, but utilized collectively, they can provide you a much greater, synergistic stress management protocol.
Stress Management Technique #1: Know Your Priorities
The biggest source of stress for most people is over-commitment. If having too much to do is the problem, the solution is to choose your battles wisely and strategically. Obviously, this technique demands clarity regarding what you really believe are the most important things in your life. If you don’t have a clearly demarcated set of values and priorities that you can use to guide your daily decisions, then your first assignment is to come up with a list. The list can be long or short, broad or specific. You just need the list. When you know what your priorities are, it’s easy to limit the responsibilities or tasks that you choose to put on your plate.
One of the best ways to be able to identify one’s priorities is to discover one’s life purpose – one’s personal mission and vision. Two resources I can recommend on this topic are: “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren, and “Find Your Why” by Simon Sinek. Both of these books can serve as great guides in this discovery process.
Stress Management Technique #2: The Pareto Principle
In case you’re not familiar with the Pareto Principle, it’s a time management principle that maximizes productivity by focusing only on the most productive tasks or responsibilities. In particular, the Pareto Principle is also referred to as the 80/20 Rule, which states that for optimal productivity, you must put most of your resources (time, effort, money) into the 20% of activities that produce 80% of your results. What does this mean?
For example, I have 100 clients that provide my business with an annual revenue of $100,000. My top 15 clients provide 70% of my annual business revenue. If I were to embark on a marketing campaign to get more sales, I should focus on those 15 instead of all of the other 85 clients. Why? If my top 15 clients are able to give me an average of $4,600 annually, it means they have the budget to buy more compared to the remaining 85 clients that each only bring in an average of $353 dollars in revenue annually. If they can only bring in that much revenue, it means that’s all they can probably afford, which means I’ll probably be wasting my time on them.
Now how does this relate to stress management? Remember how having so much to do on a regular basis can leave you feeling overwhelmed? The Pareto Principle is a very good way to sift through the many things you feel you need to do, and determine which of those should demand your focus. Naturally, these should be the tasks that will contribute the most to your personal productivity. In other words, the Pareto Principle can help you get more things done with less time and effort. And that’s a very good way to minimize your stress levels.
Stress Management Principle #3: Just Say “No”
Another major contributor to having too much on one’s plate and feeling chronically overwhelmed is being a “yes” person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying yes to people’s requests and favors asked. What makes it wrong is when you feel you have to say “yes” to everyone, all the time. If you give in to this temptation, something will eventually have to give. If you don’t learn how to say no to things that are unnecessary or unrelated to your real priorities, then you will be chronically overwhelmed, and your stress levels will always be high.
To learn how to say no to requests and favors asked that aren’t really important or aligned with your priorities, you’ll have to first be comfortable with putting your foot down and disappointing people. The irony being a “people pleaser” is that you will never really get to please everybody! Think of it this way, if you try to be a “yes” person to everybody, some will think of you in a favorable light as someone who is helpful and responsible, while others will see you as a weak, spineless, “yes man/woman”. Harsh? Maybe. True? Definitely.
For what it’s worth, you should know that I struggle with this one daily. My default mechanism is to say “yes” to absolutely everything. But, it’s a misguided mechanism at best, and a destructive one at worst. It’s crucial to get a handle on this habit by focusing in sharply on your key life priorities (Principle #1), and using those to dictate your ability to say “No” when it’s appropriate.
Stress Management Technique #4: Baby Steps
Another major stress factor for many people is the tendency to rush things, especially significant milestones that demand more time to complete. Take, for example, getting promoted to manager from an entry level position. A person may be too impatient to wait for a few years to do so, which makes him or her take on an excessive number of responsibilities and tasks in the office. This excess of responsibility taken on too quickly leads to overwhelm, and overwhelm causes stress to skyrocket.
It’s a similar scenario for many people with weight loss. Since most diets today make hyperbolic “lose as much as 100 pounds in 4 weeks” claims as their unique selling propositions, many obese people think that losing 2 pounds a week at most (the established healthy rate of weight loss) is abnormal or a “loser” way of trimming down. Therefore, they go on severely restrictive diets that not only put a lot of strain on their willpower (increasing stress), but also set them up to gain back the weight they lose and a little more. This process is one continuous stress cycle.
So, while it’s important to have lofty goals in life, it’s not beneficial to rush them at the expense of your mental stability. Take smaller, more calculated steps, and accumulate more victories rather than going for a shotgun approach. With smaller steps and more victories, you won’t feel as stressed, and you’ll be more energized and encouraged as you accumulate more and more little victories along the way.
Stress Management Technique #5: Be Excellent, Not Perfect
To succeed in life, you have to be excellent at what you do. To fail immediately, you should aim for perfection. The former will give you more and more success in life, which can substantially reduce your stress levels, while the latter will make you more and more disgruntled with life and in the process, magnify your stress levels.
Why is perfectionism a surefire formula for high stress? Perfectionism is a myth, and “perfect” doesn’t exist. The more you try to chase something unattainable, the more you’re asking for chronic disappointment and discontent in your life. And, naturally chronic discontent and disappointment will assure chronically high stress levels!
What then is the difference between excellence and perfection? Excellence is doing the things you do to the best of your ability with constant effort toward improvement. Perfection on the other hand allows no room for mistakes, errors or shortcomings. With excellence, you can deliver the highest quality results but still allow room for continued growth, which is fine for as long as those errors aren’t serious and frequent in nature. Simply make it a habit to strive for excellence, and make perfection the summit you’re aiming for as you climb. Not only will you do yourself the favor of significantly reducing your stress, but you’ll also be able to enjoy sustainably higher levels of personal productivity and success.
Stress Management Technique #6: Proper Breathing
The next time you’re stressed, I want you to pay attention to both your heart rate and your breathing. You’ll find that compared to when you’re relaxed, your breathing is shallow and your heart rate much faster when you’re feeling stressed. With that knowledge in mind, a very practical solution for when you’re already feeling stressed is to de-stress yourself through proper breathing.
When you consciously take slow, deep breaths, you are able to actively slow your heart rate. And when you slow down your heart rate, you signal to your mind that it can be more relaxed in regards to the situation. It settles you down. It makes you calm down.
A very good breathing technique is one I learned from Mark Divine, author of the books “Unbeatable Mind” and “The Way of The SEAL.” He calls it the Box Breathing technique, because of the equal number of seconds involved in each of the 4 phases of this breathing technique. He recommends taking a slow, deep breath for 5 seconds, holding it in for 5 seconds, gradually exhaling all that breath for 5 seconds, and finally holding the exhale for another 5 seconds before repeating the cycle for at least 4 to 5 times. I have tried this myself, particularly doing 10 minutes each morning, as well as when I’m driving, and I’ve found it to be a very effective way to manage and even lower my stress levels.
Stress Management Technique #7: Prayer/Gratitude/Meditation
Ok, so this is three for the price of one! I personally use prayer and gratitude (thanksgiving) for this purpose, but I’ve included meditation as well because I know many people get great benefits from its practice.
Each of these three practices or any combination of the three are helpful in stress management primarily because the allow us to take the focus off of ourselves and channeled on to something outside of ourselves. It seems to me that our pride and ego often get the upper hand, and we allow that inherently human characteristic of self-obsession to overwhelm us. Prayer allows us to focus on God and be in communion with Him, thus eliminating our self-focus. Gratitude allows us to focus on the countless undeserved blessings we have to be thankful for in our lives, which can’t help but bring us joy and renewed vitality.
I’m a Christian, so prayer is my go-to strategy in this category. I try to be in active conversation with God throughout the day, but I make it a specific point to pray when I wake up, in the shower, at meals, and before bed. These set times allow for continuous communication with God, which renews my energy and decreases my super self-absorbed tendencies.
I personally try to incorporate gratitude into these times of prayer, but I know many people have had great success keeping a daily “Gratitude Journal” for this same purpose. Gratitude journaling is personal, and can be done however you prefer. If you happen to be interested in a more formal guided gratitude journaling process, you can incorporate something called “The Five-Minute Journal” into your daily routine. I got one for Christmas, and it’s been very helpful when I’ve been disciplined enough to use it. You can find it at www.fiveminutejournal.com if you want to check it out.
Finally, meditation is a practice with great merit as well. Some of you may be unfamiliar with the process of meditation, and may be asking: “How do you meditate?” Well I had the same question, so here are the basics: Just sit comfortably straight with the eyes closed and for 10 minutes a day, breathe normally through your nose, and just focus on one word – a mantra if you will – like “om’ or “aum.” The mantra will serve as your focus anchor point and will help you to naturally dismiss all other thoughts.
Incorporate any or all of these techniques regularly and you will develop a strong ability to focus on the right thoughts at will during stressful situations.
Stress Management Technique #8: Exercise
Finally, you can manage your stress levels by getting enough regular exercise. The right kind of exercises done regularly can help you sleep more soundly at night (more energizing sleep) and increase your physical energy during the day. In particular, cardiovascular exercise done with moderate intensity for 20 minutes every day can do wonders for you in terms of having more energy throughout the day. When you feel like you have more energy left in your tank, you’ll feel less stressed!
Exercise also produces endorphins-natural painkilling chemicals produced in the brain-and also improves the body’s ability to obtain restful sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
One final note on exercise worth mentioning relates to cognitive function. Since your ability to handle stress effectively is ultimately reliant upon your brain’s capacity to function at an optimal level, it stands to reason that increasing brain function will decrease stress. One key hormone that is impacted by physical exercise is called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF acts on certain neurons in the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system helping to promote the longevity of existing neurons, while encouraging the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses (nerve connections). Certain types of physical exercise have been shown to promote a threefold increase in BDNF synthesis, thereby increasing cognitive function and neurogenesis. On top of that, it’s also been shown that consistent exercise over several months produces significant increases in both general cognitive functioning and overall volume of gray matter!!
And there you have it, 8 Crucial Techniques to Slay Your Stress. As mentioned at the start of this article, I highly recommend that you incorporate multiple, if not all, techniques to get a synergistic effect that will allow you to manage your stress levels more optimally. But if it’ll just “stress you out” then start by applying technique number 4, “taking baby steps”. Choose one technique first and as you become familiar with it, add additional techniques, until you’re able to apply most, if not all of them. The important thing is to ACT on what you learned immediately in order to maximize your chances of applying these techniques and substantially reducing your levels of unhealthy stress!
Book: Unbeatable Mind by Mark Divine;