Try This 3-Step Process Next Time You’re Stressed Out
A Harvard psychologist’s advice to bust stress.
Susan David’s Father died when she was 15 years old. On the outside, she coped by remaining strong like nothing was wrong. She denied the pain of her loss, even to herself.
But that couldn’t last forever, of course. The emotion, stuffed down and denied, revealed itself in illness and struggle. Emotions are not good or bad, but what we do with these emotions affects everything about us.
So what happened? Susan’s 8th grade English teacher gave her a blank notebook and asked her to write what she was feeling without holding back. And this simple act changed everything for her.
Because that day she unknowingly started step one of what later she would describe as the three-step process for overcoming stress and the difficult emotions of life.
Step 1: Acknowledge your stress
“Stress is inevitable; it’s just a part of life,” says Dr. Susan David. We can’t escape it. But many of us try to ignore our stress and difficult emotions by “bottling them up” — in fact it’s what Susan did.
Even little stresses, when constantly bottled, can pile up and affect us in ways far more negative than any one of these daily stressors ever could have alone.
So, when you feel stressed, just start by acknowledging it. This can be done by putting pen to paper, like Susan did, or it can involve talking with someone you trust or simply acknowledging to yourself what you’re feeling.
Step 2: Create space between yourself and the feeling
Acknowledging the stress or emotion is the first step to untangling it from your mind and body.
After naming it, refrain from labeling yourself with it. This is something we often do, but it’s not without consequence.
You are not your emotions. You are not what you feel.
By saying, “I am stressed”, we intrinsically begin to view ourselves as a “stressed out person” and we end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where we live up to this self-proclaimed identity.
For example, the more I believe I am “a stressed person”, the more easily I then fall into the overwhelm of stress— providing more and more evidence in defense of the lie that I am, in fact, “a stressed out person.”
Instead of this, you can say, “I am feeling stressed.” This may seem like a small and silly distinction that won’t change anything, but its these small mental habits we have that keep us trapped in a tangle of unhealthy patterns.
Step 3: Ask what the stress is trying to tell you
Stress is not a meaningless reaction or the result of being weak. Stress, like all emotions, is trying to tell us something about ourselves.
For example, if I am regularly feeling stressed at work, it might not just be that I have too much work. It might be that behind my stress is the fact that my heart wants to do some other career, but my head is keeping me in this job for money or this or that.
Asking ourselves what our stress is trying to tell us can help us to see what we really value and what we really need. It can go from being the thing that ruins our days to being the thing that leads us to the life we’ve always wanted.
Only dead people never feel stressed
Dr. Susan David likes to say that “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” We’re going to feel stressed; it just is what it is. But the way we react to that stress is what determines the content and quality of our life.
So, next time you’re feeling stressed, acknowledge it, create some distance from it, and ask yourself what it’s trying to tell you. And if you think it might help, feel free to grab a blank notebook… and don’t hold back.