Getting rid of “stinkin thinkin” can help reduce your stress

Stress reduction is not necessarily about doing less in your life. In fact, many people become depressed or anxious simply because they don’t have enough to do. (Just ask anyone having a hard time adjusting to retirement!)

It really boils down to what you do with what you have. If you’re trying to reduce stress, try shifting the focus from what’s outside of you to what’s inside of you. In other words, don’t think in terms of ‘what’s happening to me.’ It only adds to your anxiety to think about life as happening ‘to’ you. It’s more reassuring to switch the focus to: ‘How am I handling this stress and what can I do to manage it better?’ It’s empowering to know that you’re equipped to handle—rather than just endure—whatever life throws at you.

Yes, ‘handle’ is a vague word, so here are four specific tips for doing a better job with what you have:

1. Don’t get lost in the ‘big picture.’ When coping with a problem, focus on the first step in the process. You’ll get back to the big picture later. Avoid thinking that ‘I have to get this done right now—and I still have to get seven other things done before the day is out. HOW CAN I DO THIS!?’

Feel the anxiety rising? Let’s try a different approach. Why not scribble down a ‘to do’ list at the start of the day. This is as much of the ‘big picture’ as you’ll need. Write down the things that are really and truly essential for today. Then, list the things that are most important. The difference between ‘essential’ and ‘important’ is that the former really must get done today, while the important can (if you run out of time) be carried over to tomorrow. It will help lower your anxiety to remind yourself throughout the day of the distinction between the essential and the important.

2. Baby steps are good. If you’re overwhelmed, there’s probably a reason for it, so make your goal more realistic. You can add to it later. Aim for the finished product, but also think in terms of a ‘work in progress.’

3. Delegate when possible. That’s what employees are for. Spouses, friends and family members will sometimes be willing to help too. We hire electricians, plumbers, landscapers and contractors because sometimes they can do things better and faster. When it makes sense financially, consider letting others be a part of what needs to be done. Loosen up some of the control. Never assume you have to do it all.

4. ‘Time outs’ are not just for kids. Even the busiest days ought to have a little down time. If there’s no relaxation and mental refueling, you’ll have problems coping with future stress. Many people who work by appointment fret and fume over cancellations or unexpectedly free hours. I keep a pair of sandals in my office for just that occasion. A short walk on the beach in the middle of the day can really work wonders!

So if you’ve been told to ‘reduce stress,’ think about how to modify your attitudes and belief system. It’s a powerful way to control unnecessary and unpleasant feelings.

Why do some people make things more difficult for themselves than is really necessary? This tendency stems from false assumptions and self-defeating beliefs that I like to call ‘stinkin’ thinkin’.’ Three top examples of how stinkin’ thinkin’ can increase stress are:

1. Irrational perfectionism: The false belief that a perfect solution is the only solution—even when the best possible solution is simply good or very good. This leads a person to seek the impossible under the pretense of excellence—VERY stressful. Sometimes perfection is just not an option.

2. The mistaken belief that life must always be a struggle, so the hardest approach is taken first because it never occurs to the person that more efficient approaches may be available. The easier way is not always the wrong way. Why make things harder than they have to be?

3. The widely held, yet very wrong idea that others must always be pleased, even at substantial expense to one’s self. This belief is usually coupled with an equally false principle that it’s possible to split the difference between opposing views or preferences when, in fact, it’s usually not. In 1972, singer Ricky Nelson was booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden for playing newer songs instead of his older favorites. ‘Garden Party,’ written as a reaction to his hurt and disappointment, set to music his realization that, ”it’s alright now, I’ve learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.’

I know we’ve just skimmed the surface of stress management, and I look forward to your own examples of how you cope with life’s frustrations. I’m now at risk of increasing my own stress by going over my word limit. So I will stop when I have done enough. You should too.