How to fight stress in 3 simple steps
Vassia Sarantopoulou is the founder of AntiLoneliness, and a counsellor-psychologist with more than 15 years of experience, offering psychological support to expats in Leiden and The Hague.
What’s the opposite of stress?
Let's take a moment and think what the opposite reaction to stress would be… Calmness? Peace? Zen? Happiness? Maybe ignorance? Or escape?
What if there is a stressful trigger for you out there: for example, work overload? Or going to an interview for a job we really-really-really want? Or adjusting to your new life as an expat? Can we actually be calm about such a challenge in our life, or even avoid it? Which stance do we need to keep in order to dodge the bullet of stress?
The normality of stress
Indeed, in some cases, it seems that avoiding stress is not a feasible option. It's not because we are incapable of doing so, but mainly due to the fact that it is a normal reaction in the face of a challenge.
Our brain is trying to warn us about possible threats or future mistakes and to protect us from unnecessary risks.
In the rush of everyday life and when events overwhelm us, we hardly ever have time to stop and reflect.
Feeling stressed means that we are growing out of our comfort zone, we are flying without the autopilot. We need the challenge, simply because where we are right now is not enough and we want to take the next step: getting married, leaving your job, finding a new job, speaking in public, moving to a new country.
Therefore, stress is a significant indication of how important this next step is for us. But since we cannot avoid it, how can we manage to get along with it?
The antidote to stress
In the rush of everyday life and when events overwhelm us, we hardly ever have time to stop and reflect. However, the only skill we need in order to fight stress is the ability to observe our thoughts, question them and turn them around, instead of taking them for granted and letting them affect us.
So, take a moment and think of a stressful and challenging situation at the present moment in your life.
Step 1: Observe
First, observe your thoughts and ask yourself the following questions:
Is my self-talk influenced by the over-demanding, critical voice in my head?
“You are not going to make it. You have always failed. It takes a lot of courage and skills to succeed, and you don't have either. Others are better than you. You’d better quit trying.”
Are my thoughts affected by my past experience?
“Since you didn't succeed in previous occasions, it's silly to expect to succeed now! You don’t have the right to ask for more now!”
Are my thoughts drawn into the future and influenced by my high expectations?
“It will be difficult. I will not make it. I will have wasted my time and I will regret it for sure!”
Am I stressed about what people will say?
"People are talking behind my back. They will not approve of my decisions. Eventually, they will not like me anymore”.
Am I thinking in “all or nothing” terms?
“I will either succeed or fail massively” “I'm either the best or the worst”.
Step 2: Question
Then, question your thoughts:
How is it helping me to talk to myself in such a condescending way?
“It actually doesn't. It completely demotivates me and makes me procrastinate, avoid and withdraw even more.”
Am I looking at the big picture or only at a small fraction of my truth and my experience? Am I overlooking something important here?
“I have made mistakes on some occasions, especially in the beginning, but in total, I have been brave and I have achieved many goals so far!”
Have there been situations in the past where things turned out well?
“I indeed remember situations where despite my initial hesitation, I started with a small step and then slowly and gradually I made it till the end.”
Step 3: Turn it around
Finally, turn your unhelpful thoughts around:
Turn your “must” to “want”.
“I want to give my life a chance in what I think is important. It's me that sees the value in it, no one is forcing me.”
See the situation in a realistic way, neither in a positive nor a negative way.
“I don't know whether I will succeed or fail. But I know that I want to try it and that's the most important thing for now.”
Stay in the present.
“I'm not able to predict if there will be a happy ending. I cannot control the future. But at least I can enjoy the “here and now” and do my best.
Accept the simultaneous presence of both negative and positive feelings.
“Yes, I'm scared and at the same time excited for this new challenge.”
Ask for professional help
Sometimes all this change seems overwhelming and very exhausting. You don’t need to go through this all alone. Get professional help. An experienced therapist can guide you through this challenge and provide you with useful tools in order to strengthen your skills to fight negative and stressful thoughts, to cope with uncomfortable feelings, to boost your self-confidence and to find your inner peace again.
The opposite of stress is not the absence of stressful moments in our lives. It's our ability to reflect on our thoughts during shaky moments, catch the irrational and critical thoughts, and turn them into more balanced, helpful and realistic statements that allow us to move on with more awareness and confidence that even if hard times will come, we will be there, ready to handle them.
If you would like more support on how to overcome stress, anxiety, burnout and depression, as well as relationship challenges, please contact AntiLoneliness, a company offering high-quality counselling and therapy services to expats and locals.