How to Deal With Stress and Anxiety

Photo Credit: Neil. Moralee Flickr via Compfight cc

Americans are stressed. We are a wealthy nation. We have the world’s best military and aren’t worry about invasions. We might have a broken healthcare system, but Americans receive better healthcare than most others in our world. Yet we have high stress levels.

In fact, this does not seem to be improving with millenials. I work with 18-25 year olds, and most of them are stressed. According to the American Psychological Association, millenials are more stressed than other generations. Since I work with millenials, I’ve had many opportunities to help people deal with their stress. In this article, I want to share my main advice.

Before I give my advice, here are some caveats. I typically talk to people who are stressed about interviews, grades, or their relationships (I work with college students, after all). So this advice would work best for similar kinds of stress. And I’m not a psychologist. I did manage to get an ‘A’ in Introduction to Psychology without going to more than two lectures. But that was because the class was easy, not because I have prowess in psychology. So approach my advice with some healthy skepticism. If it clicks with you and manages to work, then good. If not, forget you’ve ever read this.

Where I Developed My Advice

I developed this advice after noticing a two things:

First, I heard countless people try to help others with their stress. I saw the common advice and saw how it worked — or, more accurately, how it didn’t work.

Second, for years I have seen someone close to me successfully deal with immensely stressful situations. I have learned from them how they deal with stress.

So let me begin by telling you the normal advice for how to deal with stress and why it doesn’t work.

The Typical Way to Deal with Stress

Imagine a college student named John. John has graduated college and is looking for a job. He also has managed to get a series of job interviews. He’s worked hard at his degree and is excited about starting his career. But he is nervous that he won’t get a job, especially after his series of interviews. John’s self-doubt is at an all-time high. He isn’t sure he is skilled enough or experienced enough to get a job.

So how do most of John’s friends help him with his stress? They say, “Don’t worry, John! You’ll certainly get a job.”

I understand why most people respond this way. The obvious way to help a friend anxious that he won’t get a job is to assure him that he will get a job. But have you seen what this does to worried people like John, particularly those with lower levels of self-confidence? Their friends’ insistence that they will get a job raises the stakes. Now if they do not get a job, it makes them look even more incompetant.

Think this through with another example. Imagine a person nervous about failing a test. If she doubts that she will pass, assuring her that she’ll pass increases her anxiety. If she fails the test now, she’ll prove herself to be dumber than her friends think.

So the way that people normally try to assuage other’s stress does not work. Or, at least, it does not work in most situations.

How to Deal With Stress

So how can you deal with stress differently? Here is how I advise people to handle their stress. Instead of assuring them that they will succeed, I help them see that the failure they fear is not that frightening. I try to make them comfortable with failure. I don’t want to increase the stakes. I want to lower them.

I learned this from someone who, out of everyone I know, handles stress better than others. This guy’s life has chaos and many potential stressors, but he hardly ever seems stressed. Over the years, I have learned that he normally just lowers the stakes. He convinces himself that failure won’t be that bad. He becomes comfortable with outcomes others would be worrying about.

Take the earlier hypothetical case of John. If I were talking with John, I would make not getting a job from these interviews sound better than John currently envisions. I might stress how little money one initially needs after graduating. Or how a few months without a 9-5 would give him flexibility he would never again have in his life. I would also tell him about my friends who didn’t get jobs on their first round of interviews but ended up in great jobs. As for the student worried about a passing a test, I would tell her that the grade is not as important as she thinks. It usually is not.

I think there are good reasons to minimize one’s fear of failure. First, we tend to overestimate the unhappiness we will feel when something doesn’t go our way. Failure is not typically as traumatic as we think. Second, for those of us with religious beliefs, God still works and blesses our lives, even if we fail at a goal or task. So helping someone get more comfortable with failure can help to reduce that person’s stress levels.

Doesn’t This Encourage Faliure?

You might think I’m encouraging failure by helping stressed-out people become more comfortable with failure. But I’m not. I think this advice actually does the opposite. Stressed-out and worried people are more likely to do poorly on an interview or a test. Anxiety tpyically interferes with good performance. So, oddly, if I can make a person okay with failure, then I can increase his chances of actually succeeding. His stress is no longer holding him back.

So the Next Time…

So the next time you feel stressed about a situation, don’t try to convince yourself that the situation will turn out how you want it. Instead, work hard to convince yourself that everything will be okay even if the situation doesn’t turn out the way you want. I think you’ll find your stress levels decreasing as you come to accept that failure won’t be so bad. And, paradoxically, you will be more likely to succeed.

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