You’ve heard it before: natural stress relief is basically a myth, and stress is going to kill us all.
“The silent killer,” they call it.
It affects your brain, your heart, your waistline, your muscles, your sleep and pretty much everything else that you need to keep living as a healthy human being.
And yet most people continue to go about their daily lives, just kind of dealing with stress as it comes and goes — accepting it as part of who they are and their personality, reacting only as it happens.
If you’re a human, you’re guaranteed to experience stress from time to time; it’s just a part of life.
What I’ve recently started observing, however, is how the people I know (or know of) deal with stress differently.
If someone I know reacts as stressed to an everyday situation, like potentially being late for an appointment, I often find myself comparing it to how I’ve observed a different person react to the same type of situation—totally chill and relaxed and not concerned at all about being maybe two minutes late for an appointment.
Isn’t it weird how certain people react as stressed in specific situations, while others are cool and calm about it as if it’s just a normal thing they have to deal with?
I’m fascinated by it, and it’s because I’m someone who doesn’t deal well with stress.
Or I don’t “react” so great to situations that could be interpreted as stressful.
I wanted to find out why.
Why the heck does my heart start beating out of my chest when I’m surrounded by traffic idiots on a highway I’m not familiar with, while my friends, in the same situation, can pretty much just zoom through with no trouble at all?
I hate everything about the fact that I let myself get stressed out over the stupidest things.
Why does my body do this?
What can I do to control it?
With some help from science and my own life lessons and experiences, I’ll try to tell you about the little known ways your brain causes you stress, and some of the natural stress relief techniques you can implement to help yourself out.
1. Your genes make you more prone to stress.
Your genes are probably the one thing you can’t control.
My mom gets stressed out about absolutely everything, and she was always kind of like that.
There’s probably a genetic link to why I’ve always been a stressed person too (even as a young child), and it may even foreshadow a scenario of what I could become as I get older—stressed out about every little thing that gets thrown in my way.
I think that when people come to become slightly more aware of certain annoying or seemingly disadvantageous traits they have in their personality or temperament, a lot of them kind of just throw their hands up in the air like “that’s just the way I am” and leave it at that.
Fix It: Identify what stresses you out, and ask yourself why that is.
Write it down.
Maybe you just need more practice dealing with those types of situations, or maybe you just need a more effective way to handle it.
Do some brainstorming.
Make a list of what your ideal situation would be when faced with things that stress you out.
If being late stresses you out, that could just be part of who you are, but you can work with that stressor by setting your watch back five minutes ahead.
Shifting things so that they work with your own personal style instead of entirely against you is all it really takes to turn a stressful situation into a much more bearable one.
2. You look for the negative in everything.
I think it’s no real surprise that negativity is tied to stress.
Things that are the opposite of good and awesome = stress, obviously.
I know people who are optimistic and know how to look on the bright side of everything, and they’re a heck of a lot more stressed than the rest of us.
Not all optimistic people live stress-free lives, but there are certainly more of them than the pessimists.
This can certainly be tied to how you came out of the gene pool, since some people just have a natural knack for staying positive even in the worst of times, but that doesn’t mean that us Negative Nancys and Debbie Downers are totally screwed.
Sure, we may have less advantageous traits on our side compared to the positive folks, but with commitment and work, changing the way you think is always possible.
It just gets harder and harder through time, as you continue living your life and reacting in the only natural way you know how, without controlling it — negatively.
Fix It: Start a daily gratitude journal.
I don’t care how negative you are right now—it’s nearly impossible to keep that up when you practice gratitude.
Every day, either in the morning or at the end of the day, write about all the things that you’re grateful for.
Try to look at every aspect of your life for that day, and find something you can say you’re actually glad to have, even if it’s the simplest thing ever.
Doing this daily will change your whole perspective on life.
3. You need to be in control of everything.
Control freaks feel stressed when they can’t do anything to influence or manipulate the outcome of something.
Is that you?
Something is going to happen, but you have no idea how it’s going to turn out, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so now you’re stressed and anxious about it.
Or something already happened, and you don’t like the way that it happened because you weren’t able to force it to happen the way you wanted it to, so now you’re feeling resentful and stressed about how to fix it or deal with it if it happens again.
A lot of us just have a natural desire to want to control everything about ourselves, our things, our money, our bodies, our day-to-day tasks, other people’s perceptions or reactions, and everything else that comes into our lives.
Control can be good, control creates order for us in this world.
But when you get mega stressed out about things that are totally, one-hundred percent out of your control — like your teenage daughter’s choice in boyfriends or a blizzard scheduled to hit the day you’re supposed to fly out on vacation — you’re setting yourself up for a never ending, lifelong string of unnecessary stress.
Fix It: Once a week, schedule something fun to do without trying to “plan” much of anything about it.
Just go with the flow as much as you can.
You know when you go hang out with friends or family at a fun barbecue, at the zoo, camping, at a baseball game or some other leisurely activity, and you realize time just flew by because you were enjoying yourself so much?
You’re enjoying yourself because you just let the fun happen, without forcing anything and tying yourself up to specific ideal outcomes.
You need to remind yourself that all your mysterious and unknown notions about the future can actually lead to some of the most beautiful experiences of your life.
Next Saturday, get some friends together to do something.
Don’t plan exactly what you’re going to do or where you’re going to eat or when you’re going to leave.
Let yourself be pleasantly surprised by the experience of actually letting loose of your inner control freak and allowing Mother Nature and Father Time to do their job.
4. You’re not properly managing yourself as an introvert or extrovert.
First of all, let’s get something straight…
Being an extrovert isn’t the same as being outgoing.
And on the other side of the personality trait spectrum, being an introvert isn’t the same as being shy.
And some people can even have qualities of both introversion and extroversion.
Rather than viewing introversion and extroversion as being about shyness or outgoingness, it’s important to recognize it as actually being all about where you get your energy from and what you do to recharge that energy.
So in other words, extroverts get their energy from being around people while introverts get theirs from being alone.
It’s easy to confuse that with being loud and outgoing versus being quiet and shy.
As a huge introvert myself, I know that after too much time spent around people and not enough time by myself to recharge, I not only feel drained and start to lose my ability to be present—I also get stressed about how I’m all of a sudden unable to manage my interactions with people very well.
For extroverts, I only have to assume that the opposite is true—too much time spent by themselves with nothing but their own thoughts is stressful, and they need at least one other person around just to feel that other person’s energy so they can recharge their own.
Fix It: Find out whether you’re more of an introvert or more of an extrovert, and determine your limits.
If you’re more of an introvert, figure out when you start to really lose touch with the people you’re around so you know when it’s time to leave and go be on your own for a bit.
For example, I can’t stand big dinner parties with lots of chitchat for more than two or three hours, usually (unless I’m pretty drunk).
By the third hour, I’ve stopped talking and listening to everyone yammering on and instead I’m staring at the opposite wall fantasizing about how awesome it would be to go home and read a book in my bathtub.
Then of course I snap out of it and get stressed that people have noticed I’m not having a great time anymore.
Extroverts, on the other hand, may feel stressed about not having anyone to talk to about what they’re thinking, or not knowing what to do with themselves when they’re left alone.
They may need to find more friends with similar interests to hang out with when they find themselves alone for too long.
When you keep your energy level in check, you’ve got a better chance at remaining calm, cool and collected when you need to react to who is or isn’t around you.
5. You have trust issues.
We’ve all been a little let down or even outright backstabbed by somebody.
It sucks, but it happens.
What we often don’t realize is that we sometimes build up walls around ourselves to protect us from getting hurt again, and then we don’t feel right when we continue to shield ourselves when realizing we really do need to trust somebody for something.
By refusing to trust people, you’re trying to avoid experiencing rejection, being ridiculed, being disappointed, being wrong, being taken advantage of, or even having to live up to responsibilities you might think you won’t want.
But when you don’t have anyone to rely on, to love, to work with, to share your deepest secrets with, to tell jokes to, to get your business off the ground with, to go bungee jumping, or whatever else—protecting yourself from all the things you think will stress you out becomes a stressor in and of itself.
Fix It: Recognize that humans are primarily a good-hearted, loving, and compassionate species, and then make a conscious decision to slowly put your trust in people again.
This fix isn’t as easy as some of the others in this blog post.
It’s like I’m basically telling you to just deal with it.
And it’s the harsh truth, because no human being on planet earth can escape the necessity to trust people — unless you decide to become a recluse and move somewhere far away from civilization.
I underlined conscious decision because this isn’t something you can just hope and wish to work itself out so invisible rainbow-coloured angels come and roundhouse kick every seemingly bad and untrustworthy person who comes across your path in life.
You must decide to trust wholeheartedly and openly the people who you think deserve it, and then actually do it.
Learning to trust people partly means accepting the fact that there is always a possibility you could be let down again.
Trust isn’t about never getting hurt again.
It’s about seeing the good in people, having faith, and staying committed to working through tough times.
I bet every religion and spiritual path probably has teachings about this.
If humans really were evil, we would’ve blown ourselves up a long time ago.
People are good, and you need to remind yourself of that so you can consciously decide to trust the people whose goodness you sense and believe in the most.
6. You’re afraid of your own emotions.
Isn’t it weird how some people have absolutely no problem with letting the entire world see them lash out or cry or get defensive, while the rest of us feel disgusted at the thought of feeling vulnerable in public?
You’re stressed about protecting your ego and fear the thought of people thinking you’re weak.
It’s strange, really.
I get stressed out about funerals not only because I never know what to say to the closest family members of the person who died, but also because I don’t want people to see me potentially get visibly upset during the really sad parts.
It’s embarrassing and I look like a weakling who can’t pull herself together and my mascara goes everywhere.
But I don’t view other people who are crying at a funeral as weak.
What the heck is going on?
In this case, I’m separating myself from everyone else and I’m inflating my own self-importance.
If you stress over getting emotional about something that’s typically normal to get emotional about, then you’re probably doing the same thing — becoming a victim of your own ego.
Fix It: Put yourself in other people’s shoes.
You need to practice your empathy, my friend.
If you can imagine yourself from someone else’s point of view, and find that they’d probably react emotionally to something you typically think you shouldn’t, then you need to realize and accept that it’s totally okay to get emotional yourself.
I know accepting that isn’t easy.
I’ve spent my whole life burying my emotions out of fear of people judging me as weak or crazy or unstable.
Guess what happens when you do that?
It builds up until you’re so stressed, you just have to explode.
Now, I totally understand we’re taught that emotions are often a big no-no, like in the workplace, and that probably has a lot to do with good leadership and team management and all that other boring stuff that make workplaces run smoothly and professionally.
Which makes sense, but when we apply that belief to every situation and aspect of our lives, most of us forget that emotions make us more human than anything else.
And I think it’s important to consciously realize that some people are more sensitive than others.
Introverts, like me for example, are often very sensitive to the energy of other people and things that are happening around them, so they may react to them by getting emotional.
What if you think emotions are just gross?
I hate to say it, but you’re still suffering from a big ego if you think emotions are gross and nobody (especially you) should have them.
You’re not a robot, and expecting other people to act like robots around you to protect your ego is pretty dumb.
7. You don’t deal with change very well.
My sister is a person who gets bored easily with everything.
She needs constant change in her day and schedule to thrive.
Me? I love routine and sameness — a little too much sometimes.
But when something needs to change, like the need to put off a project to get something unexpected done, I easily get stressed.
Seriously, I stress over the dumbest changes, and it probably has a lot to do with the whole control freak thing too.
Even when some change is not really something I’d consider stressful, just the fact that it disrupts my regular routine or schedule causes me stress.
If you’re someone who gets stressed over dealing with change, that means you’re addicted to staying in your comfort zone.
I know this all too well.
But the only way to actually get more comfortable with change is to put yourself in more situations that require change, which are often scary situations.
I’m not telling you to go cage-free shark diving if you have a crippling fear of the ocean — I’m just saying that challenging yourself strategically and intelligently helps you become more comfortable with getting uncomfortable, if that makes any sense at all.
Sometimes, you have to face your fears.
Life will always involve change whether you like it or not, and the more you resist, the harder it gets to react to it.
When you force yourself to face and accept small changes in your life regularly, you can only get better and better at it, and I’d say that’s an important necessity in keeping your life journey exciting, fulfilling, and meaningful.
8. You’re a perfectionist.
A perfectionist isn’t someone who is perfect; it’s someone who is obsessed with trying to be perfect.
Got that “all or nothing” attitude?
Perfectionists tear themselves apart because they didn’t live up to the absolute best expectation of a situation, even if they did extremely well.
They focus on all the things that they did wrong rather than all the things they did right.
When perfectionists place such high expectations on themselves or dwell too much on things that went (or will go) wrong, they’re left with a life of bad feelings, of “what ifs” and “if onlys” — and of course, stress from all that worry.
Fix It: Force yourself to make a small change that scares you just a little bit (and make it a habit to do it more often).
Ouch, that’ll sting a little.
But the sooner you become aware that you’re focusing on so many trivial things rather than actually living your life, the sooner you get the reality check you need to work on stopping it.
I definitely think that perfectionism is another problem on this list that’s intertwined with the ego.
You see yourself in a way that’s kind of superior to other people, someone who above all must be perfect and nothing less than that is satisfactory.
This is especially true if you don’t find it such a big deal when somebody else makes a mistake, but you’re mortified about it if you, yourself make the same mistake.
I can tell you that I lost out on a lot of things the few years after I graduated university, because I thought I needed to have secured the perfect job and career path right away.
I didn’t, and I was bummed out and felt embarrassed and assumed I was a huge loser.
I wish I had embraced exploring all sorts of different career paths instead, especially after I read I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was just recently.
By choosing to dwell on my own career problems (which everyone else was experiencing too, by the way), I missed out on a lot of opportunities to learn and try new things so I could see it more as a journey to finding my path rather than wanting it to drop down from the sky and into my lap immediately.
So, here’s my advice: give yourself a break.
If you don’t, you’ll probably look back one day and wish that you did.
9. You lack self-confidence.
Being uncomfortable in your own skin is one of the worst stressors of all, in my opinion, because it’s with you almost all the time.
And if you nodded your head all the way through the perfectionist stuff above, then you know it often comes hand in hand with low confidence.
It’s that little voice in your head reminding you how bad you are at stuff, how you’ll never be enough, how dumb you’ll look if you do something, and so on and so forth.
And so you live in constant fear and self-doubt, simply wishing that maybe it’ll somehow just work out… until the next big scary thing comes along and you’re stressed yet slightly hopeful all over again.
How do you even stop that evil little voice?
How do you stop the endless cycle of stress and anxiety that leads up to something, getting through it, breathing a sigh of relief because you were stressed for nothing, and then doing it all over again?
Fix It: Build actionable habits by identifying something that makes you feel self-conscious, and then do a 30-day challenge.
How do you build confidence?
You take action.
The more you take action, the better you get.
The better you get, the more confident you become.
And if you’re experiencing that endless cycle of fear and doubt followed by the “it wasn’t that bad” feeling again and again and again, then you’re not taking enough action to build up your confidence.
That’s why I do 30-day challenges that involve some simple forms of action to take every single day.
Then I build off of them with different challenges when the 30 days are up, after which the things I’ve been doing daily have pretty much become personal habits that aren’t hard or scary at all.
Even just the feeling you get from realizing you completed 30 days of powerful habit-building actions is enough to boost your confidence!
You can thank me 30 days from now.
10. You consume too much sugar and caffeine.
Have you ever noticed how disturbingly happy certain people are who eat really well and exercise often?
If you don’t believe that the fuel you put into your body has an impact on how you feel and react to things throughout the day, then you need a science lesson.
Cuz guess what?
Your brain uses about 20 percent of the food you put into your body.
When you consume sugar, it activates all those feel-good reward hormones, and the more sugar you consume, the more addicting it becomes.
But humans didn’t evolve to live off a diet of loads of and loads sugar, and you should know this by now.
Our bodies need a wide variety of food with vitamins and minerals to keep us functioning right not just physically, but mentally too.
Deprive your body and brain of the nutrients it needs, and be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Reacting to stressful situations becomes more difficult, anxiety may become an everyday occurrence, depression could even be an issue, and the only way you think you can put those feelings aside is by feeding your sugar addiction for a temporary fix.
Caffeine is another one you should be careful with if you’re stressed out.
People seem to think that caffeine just makes you feel awake and alert and sometimes kind of jittery, but you need to understand that when you drink it, it actually puts stress on your body.
Caffeine is a stimulant that activates the body’s stress hormones.
A little is fine, and I honestly can admit to drinking just one cup of coffee as a pre-workout drink in the morning every day.
But in large quantities, even if you build up your caffeine tolerance, you could end up stressing yourself way beyond what the normal, non-caffeinated version of yourself should be experiencing.
I unknowingly did this to myself last year, and let me tell you, it is not fun to feel perpetually wired and anxious and stressed about the smallest little things at the same time as feeling DETERMINED to be productive as HECK.
Fix It: Either quit sugar and caffeine all together, or switch to using healthier substitutes.
There’s no nice way to say it.
You need to quit putting that crap inside of you on such a regular basis.
The more you have, the more you want, so just stop it.
Do it for 30 days and see how you feel.
I can pretty much guarantee that after a prolonged period of time without shoving caffeine or sugar down your throat every single day, your cravings will be virtually non-existent, because you will have eliminated them.
Your brain is good at rewiring itself — all it takes is creating proper habits.
I know this because I’ve done it myself.
Do you even know how good it feels to NOT constantly crave sugar and caffeine and find yourself actually WANTING to say no when it’s offered to you?
It’s freakin’ incredible.
If you need to, switch to decaf coffee or herbal tea or use a natural sweetener like Stevia in place of sugar.
11. You don’t plan ahead.
I’d say this is the type of problem that’s the opposite of what the typical control freak experiences.
Maybe you’re a huge procrastinator who has just made such a bad habit out of dealing with things until it absolutely needs to be dealt with, or it’s just too late, so you give up.
Either way, you’re living in a state of chaos, reacting to things only just before or as they are happening (or even long after they’ve already happened).
I’m usually a control freak who will literally consume herself in planning out all stages of execution and readying herself for all possible hurdles and outcomes, but I can also be a huge procrastinator when it comes to things I just don’t want to do.
Procrastination is failing to plan and planning to fail — plain and simple.
When you realize you’re not ready for something, it’s a terrible feeling.
It’s even more terrible when you damn well know you had all the time and resources you needed to be ready for something.
If you didn’t let it pass already, all that’s left to do is just react and hope for the best.
In some cases, you may be able to wing it and get through fine, but a lot of situations don’t end up that way.
It’s just one stress-filled reaction after another, followed by the resentment of not being better prepared.
I love this book.
When I realized I had a huge problem with procrastination, I knew I had to read it.
(I remember the cashier who I bought it from laughed and told me I’d procrastinate reading it, and I totally did.)
You’ll discover a lot of things about yourself through this book, with real ways to fix your bad planning habits.
Just the simple act of bringing the reason why you don’t plan ahead to consciousness can be enough of a push to get you snap out of it.
Most people put things off or ignore them until they happen because they see it as a difficult struggle they don’t want to deal with.
They identify struggle as something that’s extremely bad and must be avoided at all costs, or they want to feel like they’re “in the right mood” before they get started on something.
This book teaches you how to move past things like this so you don’t see planning and working as such a grueling, awful thing to put yourself through.
It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, and I’d like to read it again.
12. You never take any time to just relax, and if you do, you’re doing it wrong.
Finally, the last thing on this massively long list has to do with the exact opposite thing you do (or don’t do) to feel stressed: RELAX.
And I know exactly what you’re thinking…
“What the hell dude, I’m a lazy bum who spends like five hours a day relaxing on the couch and I’m still stressed!!!”
If that thought just popped into your head, then I have to say it’s time for an overhaul on what you think “relaxation” really is.
How do most people relax these days?
They do it by plopping themselves on the couch in their dimly lit mess of a den or bedroom, turning on the TV or Netflix, pull out the smartphone or laptop, and surrounding themselves by a feast of fat and carb-packed comfort food.
If this is you, then I really hate to rain on your Netflix binge parade, but you ARE DOING IT WRONG.
Television and internet browsing keeps your mind constantly stimulated with information.
Stop lying to yourself by saying it’s relaxing to overwhelm your mind about all the dumb things happening on Twitter or the latest local news stories that don’t even really affect you personally.
And that messy, stuffy room with work papers sprawled across your table or desk and maybe dirty laundry hiding every inch of the floor is just creating bad energy for your mind to suck up.
And the comfort food?
Obviously it feels great when you’re in the moment chowing down on chips and two-bite brownies, but you already know that you’re always left with the guilt and grossness of a full gut that makes you feel twice as worse about yourself as before.
How often do you take one look at the mess you’re sitting in, or the stupid crap you’re watching on TV, or the endless social media posts online, or the empty boxes of greasy Chinese takeout you just devoured, and think to yourself… I’m still super stressed out?
Fix It: Commit to spending as little as 15 minutes a day (or as long as you want) doing something that’s actually calming and restorative for your mind and body.
Relaxation is meditation.
It’s taking a bubble bath.
It’s going for a massage.
It’s doing some yoga, stretching, or tai chi.
It’s listening to some classical or ambient music with a cup of herbal tea.
It’s going for a long walk in the woods.
It’s even spending some time with a hobby you really love (other than TV and internet use).
I can’t say enough good things about meditation.
If there’s one thing you should do to help you relax and rid stress from your life, it’s meditation, and you can even do it while doing all the other things I listed here too.
All that meditation really has to involve is learning to quiet your mind and focus on just your breathing.
It’s great for the brain, and it can help you become a more creative and productive person.
Whatever you do, just don’t keep trying to distract your mind with all the technology you’re already addicted to.
It just temporarily fills your mind up with more stuff so you don’t have to think about what’s stressing out.
You are an amazing person who deserves to concentrate on what makes you happy, what’s meaningful to you, what can make you better, and what you can do to improve your relationships with people.
You don’t need unnecessary stress getting in the way of that.
I know that in this 5,000-word blog post I’ve barely even scratched the surface of explaining what stresses people out, and all the different simple and complex things you can do to fix it.
I know that mental illness, environmental factors, relationships, traumatic events, childhood experiences, and all sorts of other things affect our stress levels.
I’m not trying to sugarcoat all of life’s stressfulness and make it sound like I have all the answers, because I don’t.
All I know is what I wrote.
I’ve experienced all of it and I’ve applied all these fixes at one point or another.
If I hadn’t, there’s no way I would’ve have been able to type it all out here.
It has taken me over 28 years to realize that I often get stressed for a lot of lame reasons, but fixing it isn’t as hard as I try to convince myself if I’m just willing to put in the work.
You can too.
Fear and stress and anxiety are life’s worst enemies.
We need them for survival, but we don’t need them so much to really live our best lives.