My therapist is the bomb (that’s still cool to say, right?). I started going to her a couple of years ago when my consistent health anxiety was peaking, and I knew I needed some help in managing it. She gave me tools to deal with anxiety, but she also helped me realize how stressed out I was, like, all the time. I just thought that everyone else was as stressed as I was, and I didn’t realize how much stress was affecting my life.
Flash forward to two years later: a pandemic has shut down the world, headlines get scarier every day, and a Netflix show about tiger zookeepers is the most normal part of our lives. Whether you’re currently feeling overwhelmed with stress (emotional burnout is real!), or you’ve dealt with anxiety and depression in the past, 2020 is undoubtedly a stressful year.
Even though mandatory isolation might have made you feel otherwise, you are not alone. Whether it’s scheduling an appointment with a therapist or utilizing online resources (some of our favorites are Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Therapy for Black Girls), we can take action to lower stress levels. In the meantime, here are six techniques to reduce and handle stress that my therapist taught me (and are really coming in handy right now):
1. Once you stop trying to be perfect, you can actually be better.
When I first started seeing my therapist, I told her about my health anxiety by explaining that it was “illogical” and “a little crazy” (as if that somehow made it less illogical or crazy). I also explained behaviors like falling asleep with the TV on or scrolling through Instagram during my morning meditation time by prefacing with, “I know it’s bad for me.” I’d get frustrated if I failed a health goal, wasn’t able to sleep at night because stress kept me awake, or made a wrong decision for my well-being.
The judgment over my own behaviors came from the idea that I had to (or wanted to) be perfect. But the worst thing to do when you’re stressed is to get stressed about being stressed (did you follow that?). Vicious cycle (and confusing redundancy) aside, once you stop worrying about not being good enough, you can start focusing on feeling better. Accept where you are, and know that progress (even when it comes to mental health) is not a straight path.
2. Notice what’s going right, not just what’s going wrong.
Naturally, when we have a migraine or a fight with a friend, we’re painfully aware of what’s going wrong. Maybe it’s hard to focus on anything else until your migraine goes away or you resolve the disagreement. It’s like when you have a bad cold and it feels impossible to fall asleep with a stuffy nose, so you lie awake and think, I took sleeping without a stuffy nose for granted! So why do we take it for granted when everything is going OK?
This question came in handy when dealing with health anxiety. I reminded myself to scan my body for what’s working well. I thought of the symptoms that I’m lucky to not be feeling (like a headache, fatigue, toothache, upset stomach, broken foot, or more serious symptoms). But the same goes for all other stress; remind yourself to consistently scan your life for what’s going well. This doesn’t mean you should be ignoring the bad. If you get a headache, you take ibuprofen, and if you’re stressed out at work, you confront the issue to fix it. But it will help make the things going wrong feel more manageable when you also notice what’s going right.
3. Replace “but” with “and”
When a cross-country move to Los Angeles was fast approaching, I started saying to my therapist, “I’m so excited to move to LA, but I’m so nervous I’m going to miss my family.” She responded with, “Why does it have to be ‘but’ as if those two emotions cannot happen simultaneously?” (mind blow, right?). Replacing “but” with “and” helped me realize that the worry about missing my family does not negate the excitement over moving, and vice versa. This small shift helped ease confusion over what I was feeling and stopped me from questioning if my decisions were going to be mistakes. You can equally feel two emotions at once. For example, know that you can feel sad and angry about current events and feel excited about a future trip you’re planning with your friends; it’s human nature to hold multiple emotions at the same time.
4. Actions and stress affect one another
Brace yourself: we’re about to get technical. In my first session, my therapist showed me the “Cognitive-Behavioral Triangle,” which is a very easy-to-understand diagram, with thoughts, emotions, and behavior at each of the points. The diagram demonstrates that each point of the triangle connects to all the other points (you took elementary geometry, right?). How we think affects how we feel and what we do, but this pattern can work in reverse too.
That means that certain behaviors will affect thoughts and feelings. Breathing techniques or relaxing the shoulders are physical actions that signal to the brain that everything is fine. Sometimes, the mind can be hard to control (when I’m really stressed, I cannot always reason myself out of it), but one point of the triangle will affect the others. If you find your stress is hard to control or reason out of, start with physical actions. Try breathing techniques, improving your posture, exercise, or yoga poses.
5. Notice “all-or-nothing” thinking
My therapist showed me how my thought patterns would go into “all-or-nothing” mode, or better known as black-and-white thinking. Either I was totally healthy, or I thought I was having a heart attack; either I was crushing it at work, or I thought I was completely messing up; either I was super anal about the cleanliness of my apartment, or I’d get so messy that I wouldn’t see the floor for days.
The reality is that 50 shades of gray is not just a sexy romance movie you regret watching with your parents that one time. It’s also the way that life almost always is. Plus, it’s not just gray, but a variety of colors you can choose from. Realize where you’re thinking in black and white, and add in other options. For example, you can be really good at your job while still making some mistakes, you can be healthy while indulging in cake every now and then, and you can still be overall happy with your life, even when you’re feeling stressed about some aspects.
6. Stress is an opportunity to heal
Happiness is a skill, not a circumstance. Stress management is a muscle that needs to be worked repeatedly in order to make it stronger. Without stress, we would never get a chance to work on mental health skills and adjust our thinking to manage negative emotions better. Every stressor that comes up is a practice round to improve stress management, and when we can handle stressors and manage negativity, we’re more likely to feel overall happiness.
Just like pushing through every run or tough workout class improves physical endurance, every stressor allows us the chance to push through as well. Stress is extremely uncomfortable and can feel isolating, overwhelming, or sad. But it’s also an exercise to practice stress management skills, so consciously work on and prioritize your mental health. Most importantly, when you look at stress as an opportunity rather than a burden, doesn’t it just feel a little bit better?