Not every day's a day at the beach

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It’s summertime! Like everyone else, I can’t wait to go dig my toes in the sand. Until then, I’m enduring the days that are, well, not a trip to the beach. Life is hard sometimes. Things happen out of our control, we make mistakes, we have to deal with unpleasant people, sometimes we’re the unpleasant people…it’s stressful. So what preserves us during those times? How do we avoid flaking out, flying off the handle, or breaking down? By shifting focus.

Dive down into the moment’s physical details. Disengaging from the situation and the strong emotions you have about it, even momentarily, can help break its spell. One easy way to do this is to tune into your physical experience instead of your mental and emotional experience. Breathe deeply, relax your body, notice the way the light filters through the window, how your back feels against your chair, or the smell of popcorn wafting from the break room. Dropping into your body also helps you see how exactly stress is gripping you. Is your belly, fist, or jaw clenched? Consciously relaxing them will relax your mind.

Look up and appreciate the big picture. The emotional mind thinks something is a crisis, even when it’s unimportant, simply because it’s tied to the ego. To the ego everything it touches is important. Another good strategy is to remember that it simply isn’t. There is always a bigger and grander scheme that makes this terrible and stressful experience seem laughable. Will you remember this experience with the same intensity in a week, a month, or a year from now? Better yet, frame the situation in time in a meaningful way: this experience is a pearl on a string – what is it teaching you, what can you take from it?

Being good at managing stress matters in part because when we aren’t so hot at it, our life experience suffers. If we are stressed too often, our health will begin to suffer. It also matters for social-emotional reasons. People make judgments about you based on how you operate under stress, about your confidence and coolness under pressure. But you are also observing yourself. We think we are who we are, which is why we behave the way we do – but research shows it’s the reverse – we learn about who we are based on how we see ourselves behave. When you look back on this, how you want to have remembered handling it? Responding adaptively to stress doesn’t just make you feel better more quickly, it builds a stronger reputation, and gives you greater confidence across time.

These tips and tricks are deceptively simply, but they’re hardly easy. We have more practice being mindless and manic and letting stress trample us. We need to practice. Remember to do it, keep doing it, then doing it again until your habitual response isn’t the usual dysfunctional one, but one that allows you to calm your system more quickly every time. Life isn’t going to stop sending us waves, but we can learn to let them carry us forward instead of letting them knock us down.

 

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