With so many things that are beyond our control, it can be hard to manage stress. This becomes even more difficult when circumstances are constantly changing, and the outcomes are unpredictable. Hello, 2020! But two cornerstones of a happier, more resilient life are the skills of maintaining perspective and of letting go of the things that are beyond our control.
Notice we called these skills, not traits. You aren’t born with these. Both take a little study and a lot of practice. Luckily, the skills portion of building your “perspective muscle” is as simple as learning two steps.
- Identify whether something can be acted on now, acted on later, or can’t be acted on at all.
- Once you’ve identified this for all of the worries at hand, work on how to deal with them.
There are two options (sorry, ignoring the problem isn’t one of them):
Sometimes an issue comes up that can be acted on immediately—like an angry email from a customer. Make a list of possible solutions and identify the pros and cons of each. Once you’ve chosen the best solution, act immediately to resolve the problem. This accomplishes three of things. First, by selecting a course of action and implementing it, you’ll get a feeling of control over the situation. You’ll get a sense of accomplishment by enacting the solution you’ve chosen. Finally, the problem will be resolved and will no longer be causing stress.
Sometimes an issue can be acted on, but the action must wait until a later time. Perhaps you’ve gotten a few customer complaints about a team member, but you’re on vacation. Instead of letting it ruin your trip, go through the same steps as above to determine which course of action is appropriate for the issue. Then choose when you’ll enact the solution.
Even though you can’t act immediately, making a plan to deal with the issue will help alleviate some of the stress and help you feel more in control of the situation. Sometimes, the delay is a matter of hours, but sometimes you have to wait days or even weeks before taking action.
When you can’t act immediately, you need to let the situation go. You have a plan, and you have a timetable. There is nothing you can do in that gap space. Your logical brain knows that worrying about the situation will only increase your stress. But if we were all motivated only by logic, we’d be robots. So let’s next work on our “let it go” skills.
Learning to “Let it Go.”
Unless you’re the supreme dictator of a small island nation, life is full of situations over which you have no control. Items can be out of stock. Social media platforms can change the rules and algorithms. Local health orders can limit or prohibit gatherings. (Actually, most of these things could still happen to the supreme dictator of an island nation. Plus, hurricanes!)
Stressing over these situations will not resolve them, but it will impact your mental and physical health. It can be hard to let go of the worry, but like any skill, it gets easier with practice. Instead of dwelling on the things you can’t change, try some of these proven strategies from mental health experts:
- Journal your worries and fears. Sometimes just seeing, “if I can’t get Sarah those tickets, she’ll hate me forever” on paper is enough to help your perspective get back on track. And even if it doesn’t work like magic, writing out our worries gives our brains permission to ease up on the rumination.
- Have you ever heard the quote, “just because you think it doesn’t make it true”? Our brains love to bend and warp reality with all kinds of thought distortions. For example, we’re much better at remembering insults than compliments and way better at counting setbacks than victories. Challenge your thought distortions. But first, learn to identify thought distortions like all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, mind-reading, personalizing, and more.
- Let your worries run wild, but only on a schedule. For twenty minutes a day, worry, stew, and marinate in every terrible outcome. When the timer goes off, check a box or say, “worrying complete” aloud to the room (or the Starbucks lobby). Then move on to something you enjoy. If worries creep back throughout the day, gently remind yourself that you’ve done your worrying for the day. You’ll pick up that worry during tomorrow’s session. Sound ridiculous? So did a Frappuccino until we tried one.
- Move more. Exercise is a natural stress reducer. Plus, some people report that they do their best problem-solving while pushing their bodies at a medium intensity level. Others enjoy not thinking about anything else because they’re working at a hard intensity level. Experiment to see what works best for relieving your brain of its endless loop.
- Give meditation and breathing techniques a try. No, meditation doesn’t fix your problem. But it’s hard to worry about Maddie’s braces or the future price of real estate in Austin when you’re counting your breaths. The relief of being in the moment for even a few minutes can be as satisfying as a twenty-minute nap.