When you’re stressed, telling yourself to calm down doesn’t always work too well. So I’ve noticed. You think you need a drink. A day off. A road trip. And sometimes you do. But not always.
Relaxing can just make everything worse.
The problem breeds while you’re away. It has kids with your other problems, and they’re all waiting for you now. When you return, you actually feel more tired than before. Why? Because you just spent an entire day trying not to think about something. That takes a ton of invisible energy.
You can always try to relax again. But if that didn’t work, then more relaxing probably won’t help.
Consider a different approach. Block out a chunk of time to tackle the actual problem. Work can relieve stress. At least for me, stress doesn’t go away until I kick the problem in the nuts. An external problem calls for an external solution, not an internal one.
Sometimes, you just have to blast through a dilemma. Simply make a decision and a draft a plan. One you can follow through on. So often, we deplete ourselves by talking our problems to death. Or trying to meditate them away. You don’t need a guru. You need a chisel.
Here’s a few examples.
When you’re worried about having kids…
Should you start a family? Few questions generate as many pro/con lists as this one. Plenty of us never know for sure. One thing helped me make up my mind. My childless by choice friends are adamant. They really don’t want kids, and they’ve always known. It wasn’t a question. The rest of us are open to the idea. So if you’re inclined to have a kid, then do it. Not right away. Just start putting yourself into a situation where it can work. Save up money. Get a better job. Move somewhere conducive to raising a child. Take small but definitive steps and see how they feel.
When you’re worried about death…
Perfectly healthy people think about their end all the time. Why? We know we’ll die, and we want it to suck a little less. A good plan can help. I’ve even started working on my deathbed playlist. Sounds grim, but it’s not. It’s just me knowing that I’ll want to listen to good music on my last day — not whatever crap the hospice staff can whip up.
I’m not afraid of death so much as leaving debt and a mortgage for my family. Stressing over it won’t help. So I write. Run my side hustles. Stuff money into the joint bank account. Draft up a will. You know, just in case. You can’t plan for every aspect of your death, but you can plan for some of it. And if you get hit by a flying shark during a hurricane, well, at least you have an interesting story for whatever version of the afterlife you believe in.
When you’re worried about clutter…
Nothing stresses people out like piles of anything. Papers. Dishes. Diapers. Clothes. If you’re like me, you can’t relax until the chores are done. Some say it’s because we’re high strung. We should learn to live with a little bit of clutter and a few loose ends. But for some of us, letting things go takes more energy and emotional labor than just doing it. Organizing stuff actually feels good. The process itself relieves stress.
You don’t have to run yourself ragged. Do the dishes. Take a little break. Start a load of laundry. Watch an episode of Jessica Jones. Fold your clothes while watching a comedy special.
Some of us can’t really relax unless we’re working. We can find ways to multi-task that actually work. So just own it.
When you’re worried about your job…
Don’t tell yourself everything’s going to be okay. Do something besides wait around for someone to call you in for one of those meetings. You know the ones that begin with, “I’m sorry but...”
You can’t run around inside your own head freaking out, either. And you can’t just jump ship. You have to live in two worlds — one where you stay at your job, and one where you find another one.
This is hard, but it’s the only way. I’ve learned how to operate on two levels recently. My brain spends part of the day doing my job. It spends the other part on contingency plans. At first, it felt like having a split personality. But you get used to it.
When you’re worried about your relationship…
Operating in two modes gets easier. The mental state can apply to almost any situation. Some of my friends have gone through bad breakups and divorces over the last few years. They had to prepare for mirrored futures — one with their spouse, one without. They did this without going insane. So can you. In the end, you don’t have a choice. Planning for only one future leaves you completely unprepared for the other.
Plenty of us have fretted over what to do with a soured relationship. We wonder if it’s worth trying to save. Meanwhile, we don’t do anything until we’ve made up our minds. We distract ourselves with date nights that end in another fight.
Making up your mind about anything causes stress. Planning for multiple futures isn’t quite as bad. Sure, meditate to get into a better head space. Then use that headspace to fix your problem. Fixing your problem may mean rebuilding your relationship, or euthanizing it.
When you’re worried about money…
Nothing freaks people out like sneak peaks at their bank accounts. We always hear “money doesn’t make you happy.” But anyone who says this probably has plenty of cash. The rest of us know how good life can feel when you’re sure you can pay rent and groceries for the rest of the month.
You might have to work a job you don’t especially like but pays well. Or you might need a second job. Or a side hustle. Something you enjoy, that you’re pretty sure you can make money at. Go ahead and try. Extra work never feels as bad as constantly hitting refresh on your bank account, hoping for magic money to appear. You can practice mindfulness and keep telling yourself you’re going to relax. But that’s probably going to end with you right back at the computer screen. Hey, we’ve all done it. Take that energy, and use it to actually improve your finances.
When you’re worried about failure…
Fear of failure always sucks more than actual failure. See, there’s failure and then there’s Failure. Neither one feels great. But you can always come back from failure. Little failure means your article got rejected. Nobody showed up to your concert. Nobody’s buying your artwork.
Big Failure takes a while to admit to yourself. Big failure means five articles rejected, or two years of an unwritten dissertation. But it always brings catharsis. You don’t have to give up for good. But you definitely have to rethink your strategies, and maybe take a pause.
When you’re worried about anything…
A small gap lives between procrastination and overwork. I’m not a fan of killing yourself just to look busy. You can’t usually solve a big problem by hitting it with productivity hacks.
And yet diligent work to fix something that’s bugging me always helps. Convincing myself not to let the thing bug me doesn’t.
If something’s bugging you, maybe it’s not you. Maybe you’re perfectly well-adjusted and healthy. Maybe you don’t just have to adjust your outlook. Maybe something really is wrong.
Chisel away at the source of your stress. Don’t get distracted by the stress itself. Otherwise the source of your stress will just keep breeding more, and you’ll just keep trying to meditate it away with your nature soundtrack and long baths with scented candles. Save all that for when you’ve done something to reduce the source.