Question: I seem to always be stressed out. When any small thing doesn’t go exactly the way it should, such as unexpected traffic delays or when my shirt comes back stained from the cleaners, I feel like it messes up my entire day. I wish I could be more chilled out. Any advice would really help!
Dear Always stressed,
Some of us are able to shrug off life’s small setbacks, while others feel themselves seething and have more trouble cooling down. More than just a personality quirk, researchers note that the way we respond to life’s smaller stressors plays a big role in our overall health. It is not only large, objectively challenging experiences which affect us on a physical level. In fact, small hassles take a toll as well, increasing cortisol levels in the blood stream. While each daily annoyance may increase stress hormone levels by only a small amount, their effects are cumulative. Over time, the resulting chronic stress can have physical implications ranging from a weakened immune system, to compromised memory and learning.
So then, in the name of better physical and mental health, how can each of us aim to be more relaxed in our responses to life’s little bothers? One of the tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT is that if you want to change the way you feel, you must change the way you think and the way you behave. Psychologists explain that with practice, we can indeed change the automatic thoughts and reactions we have in response to stressful daily events. Here are a few tips for doing just that:
- Reframe the situation. By changing the way you think about a situation, you can change the way you feel. When life’s smaller irritants get you down, try to take a step back and view the situation with a wider lens. When a friend’s lateness ruins your plans for the afternoon, thinking about how your day has been ruined will no doubt leave you feeling quite upset. Reframing your thinking, and viewing the annoyance in a broader context, as just one afternoon lost among many, will lead to a less stressed response.
- Speak positively. We are impacted by the speech we hear, including our own. Hearing ourselves speak positively about a stressful event affects the way we feel about it. This doesn’t mean we should lie to ourselves, or pretend that difficult situations aren’t a challenge. Instead, the change can be as simple as adjusting our self-talk from “I can’t” to “This is hard, but I will.” When unexpected traffic delays disrupt your plans, rather than telling yourself “I can’t take this!” why not replace that exclamation with a statement that is both more honest, and adaptive such as, “This is so frustrating, but I’ll just have to wait until the traffic clears,” Speaking positively can go a very long way toward reducing stressful reactions.
- Ask yourself: What would an easy-going person do? An important principal of CBT is “act the way you want to feel.” If you want to feel calmer, the first step is to act calmer. When your mind sees you behaving in a manner that is cool, calm and collected, it actually starts believing that you are the relaxed person that you so badly want to be. So the next time the delivery person messes up your order, or your dry cleaning comes back as stained as it went out, picture that chilled out neighbor of yours. What would he do? Do as he would, and in time, you will feel as he feels. Annoyed? Perhaps. Disappointed? Sure. But not furious, not fuming, and not so stressed. After all, who wants to compromise their mental and physical health over a delivery order or a stained shirt?
Everyday stressors certainly cannot be avoided entirely. And of course, though we may try our best, our reactions to those situations may sometimes get the better of us. But using these techniques is a great way to shift your perspective and the way you feel. The “small stuff” add up, so practicing these tips will definitely leave you a happier and less stressed person.
All our best,
Center for Anxiety
David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., ABPP, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, part-time, and a board certified clinical psychologist. He also directs the Center for Anxiety, which has offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Monsey, and Boston. Moshe Appel, BA, is a research coordinator at the Center for Anxiety, where he systematically evaluates the various treatments we provide. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. at Hofstra University where he specializes in utilizing CBT techniques to treat patients suffering from Anxiety and Depression.
Readers are encouraged to write in their questions and concerns, and each month 1-2 letters will be published along with our responses. Submissions should be sent in via email to [email protected] with “Lakewood Scoop Question” in the Subject line of the message. To protect anonymity, names and other identifying details will be changed prior to publication. Questions are welcome about any topic related to mental health and treatment. We look forward to hearing from you!