How not to sweat the small stuff

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, November 6, 2008

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

What a great message; but the advice is useless. When you need it most, everything feels like big stuff—that’s why we sweat it!

Below are instructions for how to shrink all that big stuff. What’s ironic about my advice, however, is that you probably already know it all (or, at least, most of it). In seeing patients over the years, I have learned that everyone knows many ways to manage stress. Unfortunately, we use only a few preferred methods…and that can be a problem.

Think of it this way; managing stress is a lot like taking out the trash. You need to pick up the garbage, put it in a bag, tie the bag, and then take it out to the curb. There are a number of ways you can accomplish each of those steps. However, if you fail to do even just one of them, you will still be left with your garbage. With that in mind, consider the following steps in stress management.

Make taking care of yourself a habit. Just knowing the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle is not enough–you also need to live them. Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and engage in regular physical activity. Take regular vacations or other breaks from work. And, no matter how hectic life gets, make time for yourself — even if it’s just doing simple things like reading a good book (or my column) and listening to your favorite music.

Learn to recognize when you are stressed. Stress is a part of everyone’s daily life. Problems start, however, when stress begins to overpower us.

We all show our stress—and distress—differently. You might snap easily at others, have trouble concentrating, or get stomachaches. I saw one patient who learned that being disorganized was her main sign of stress. Whenever she began our session with a jumble of confused information, she would eventually smile with the realization that she was stressed. At that point, she was able to begin pulling herself out of the chaos.

Learn to gauge your stress by paying attention to it. Talking with friends or family about your life can help you to identify when you are stressed. Once you are aware of feeling it, note your symptoms. If you are highly distressed by the time you realize something is wrong, follow the trail of symptoms back to learn your early warning signs of stress.

Identify the causes of your stress.  As any good pyromaniac will tell you, there is more than one way to start a fire. So, pay attention to the kinds of situations that get you overheated—that make you sweat. Is your stress related to family, health, finances, work, or relationships? Or, something else? Be as specific as you can in identifying the causes.

My weekly sessions with one patient usually began with her saying she was stressed, but didn’t know why. Then, her family’s chaotic situation came pouring out. The stresses quickly piled up and melded into one unidentifiable, massive boulder that pinned her to the ground. Working together, we isolated her problems, including some realistic concerns, irrational fears, and the possible ways she could manage each situation. While this process was difficult, it revealed the boulder for what it was, a mountain of movable rocks—then we slowly began to push the pile off of her, one rock at a time.

Identify how you cope with stress. There are innumerable ways to manage stress—to move the rocks that weigh heavily on you. You can work harder; reach out to friends for support; or, reach for a glass of wine. Or, if you are like me, you might succumb to a muffled cry from the freezer—a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream calling your name.

Think about it. What do you do when you feel stressed?

If you are a woman, one way you handle stress is probably to “tend and befriend.” That is, you reach out to others. Research studies have shown that this is a healthy way to reduce your stress and help you to solve your problems.

However, many women have found themselves in my office (and, no doubt, the offices of countless other therapists) because they selflessly cared for others while silently suffering from their own troubles. So, although strong relationships can be a wonderful way to reduce stress, at least some of them must be mutually supportive.

If you are a man, you probably respond with a “fight or flight” method of coping—which is just what it sounds like; when faced with a bear of a problem, you either fight it out or run like your life depended on it. “Flight” might be the perfect answer to some problems, but will leave you without anything worth fighting for if you use it too often. With solvable short-term problems, “fighting” can work well. However, it can be intense and stressful. So, with long-term or more chronic problems, it can exacerbate the stress you are already feeling.

Learning to manage stress well requires that you begin with knowing the ways that you typically manage stress. So, identify and list the ways you presently cope with stress or have coped with it in the past.

Choose healthy ways to manage stress. Determine whether each of your strategies is healthy or unhealthy. Be aware that the same strategy can be on both lists; for instance, watching television to unwind can be healthy but is likely a problem if you are glued to the boob tube at every spare moment.

In addition to the strategies that you already use, consider healthy, stress-reducing activities such as meditation, exercise or talking things out with friends or family. If you constantly feel overwhelmed with stuff to do, prioritize your to-do lists. Remember that no one technique works for everyone. Also, what works well for you in one circumstance might not work well at other times.

If you are a slave to productivity, I know just the thing to increase your productivity and recharge your battery—if you have the courage. Steal about 10 minutes to relax; go for a walk, close your eyes, contemplate your navel, whatever. Afterward, you will feel better AND be more productive. Don’t just take my word for it; try it for yourself. You might need a few attempts before you can turn off during your break, but once you do, you will be amazed with the results.

Practice. When you are feeling stressed, choose one of the healthy methods of coping. Of course, this is easier said than done. So, when you resort to an unhealthy habit, acknowledge it as soon as possible. Then consciously choose to stop that behavior and replace it with a healthier one; you might need to revisit this pattern several times. That’s ok. Keep in mind that unhealthy behaviors develop over time and can be difficult to change.

Too much stress can easily take all of the enjoyment out of your life. So, as you work to reduce it, make an effort to appreciate the good stuff. And, as you become more aware of the good, your stress will naturally lessen. It will become smaller. Then you can live the very wise advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.


Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Basking Ridge, NJ