16 min read

8 ways to kill stress for good

8 ways to kill stress for good

We’ve been on a stress rollercoaster the last couple of years, haven’t we? We had all that lovely acute stress in COVID, where we smashed into panic adrenaline superhero mode and rose to the challenge. Then, we had all the ongoing uncertainty and ambiguity stress, which was harder and weirder, but we managed.

Now we’re in this liminal weirdness where we've all got the flu, we have no idea what we're doing with our lives, and if I see one more post telling me just to be more mindful, I might scream.

No, I don’t want to control my breathing and think positive thoughts. I want to be awesome and thrive even when things are shit and stay in my own locus of control.

You can be ambitious without falling apart

Most modern resilience training is a crock. It’s all about coping with temporary setbacks and being OK. Cliche wellness advice. Ugh. No thanks. Here’s the thing: COVID didn’t create anything new concerning uncertainty, change and future-skills. It exposed the reality and put it right in front of our faces.

Being awesome in the face of madness isn’t a temporary thing. It’s a daily skill we need - and have always needed - and thanks to the pandemic, it’s more obvious than ever. Leadership teams are scrambling when it comes to meaningful support with resilience. They’re hiring wellness officers. They’re developing breathing apps. They’re desperately trying to help people cope… but they kind of don’t know how.

And you know what really annoys me? The idea that stress is your fault if you’re a high-achiever. That if you’d like to live a meaningful and peaceful existence, you need to switch off your goals and learn to chant.

What rubbish. Here’s what I think: you CAN be a high-performing, ambitious, awesome human and cope with stress well at the same time. You don’t need to calm the f**k down and put your dreams in the bin.

But to do that well, we need to get better at dealing with stress. Otherwise, every day, you get up, and it’s there. A murky, gut-twisting cloud of trouble. And if you don’t take it by the horns, it will mess you up.

Here’s the gist of it: Stress kills.

You need to kill stress before it kills you

Unresolved, long-term worry puts your internal stress system into overdrive and keeps it there. It messes with your central nervous system, which makes it harder to learn, remember and make good decisions. It fires up your sympathetic adrenomedullary system, keeping you constantly alert and vigilant. Then, it hits your hormones, so you pump your body with a steady supply of chemicals that you’re only supposed to make now and again.

Over time, it touches every part of your body, compromising your immunity, causing pain and inflammation, screwing up healthy gut function, making you more prone to injury and exponentially increasing your odds of debilitating illness.

It’s not good. In short, if you don’t kill stress, it will do its best to kill you.

Most advice about tackling stress focuses on short-term interventions that tackle symptoms but aren’t useful for long-term change. Things like meditation, exercise, nutrition and rest are great. They’re coping mechanisms that support interim relief. But they’re no more useful than a bandaid on a gunshot wound if you remain the same person, thinking, feeling and living life in the same way.

The other end of the stress advice spectrum suggests that you make significant structural shifts to your life - usually ones that compromise your goals. And look, if you genuinely need to switch careers, move to the country or get out of a bad relationship, then by all means, do it. But if you don’t want to sacrifice your ambitions or relationships to live a better life, you don’t have to.

Eight things you can do to reduce your stress

Here are eight genuine, meaningful ways to reduce your life's stress load. They’re not as easy as opening your meditation app or heading out for a run this afternoon, but practised regularly, they will change your life - without putting your dreams in the bin.

Committing to just one of these stress killers, and following it through, will make you much less of an overwhelmed nutcase and lead to you liking yourself and other people a lot more.

Plus, you can keep doing awesome stuff without running yourself into the ground every three months and needing an intervention. (No, just me?). Let’s crack on.

    1. Tidy your backyard
    2. Embrace transition
    3. Top up your tank
    4. Know your limits
    5. Choose guilt
    6. Argue with yourself
    7. Balance your ledger
    8. Refine your tribe

1. Tidy your backyard

When I shifted into my new/old house recently (a story for another day) my first project was to get stuck into the overgrown back garden.

It’s weird because when I’d been imagining getting back in, I kept thinking about the frontage. I wanted to paint the front door and sort the front garden. But once I got all the boxes and furniture in, I was like a woman possessed, trimming shrubs, clearing weeds and making things neat and tidy.

Tidying the backyard was something I did for me – (OK, and for my kids, to have some play space) – but anyone who looks in from the front wouldn’t know any different. It’s not for them. It’s given me peace, and it’s left me with pride. When I finally made it around to pull some weeds from the front yard, I pondered what that meant and thought about some of the other ‘backyard’ type projects I’d like to tackle in my life and business.

If you want to do awesome things in the world, you first need to treat yourself like an awesome human who’s worth it. If you’re a serial carer, the good news is that you already know how. All those things you do for other people - reassurance, compassion, treats, love - just do them for you. Seriously, it’s that simple. Because if you don’t get your insides right, there’s no point trying to make the outside look better.

This is critical for integrity, too. There’s no point in being popular at parties if you’re a lying scumbag at home. There’s no use rebranding if your organisational culture’s toxic. There’s no use changing the payment portal on your website if you’ve got a team of people doing manual data entry on the other end (yes, this is a real example.)

So, tidy your backyard first. And not in a ‘put on your own mask, run a bubble bath’ way. Do actual, useful things that make you feel good, improve your life and shore up your foundation. Little things, like leaving the house with matching bra and undies. Big things, like investing in your development and emotional health. Make choices that lead to peace and calm that only you know about.

Because if you don't feel good about your own stuff, it doesn't matter how many external accolades you collect. They’ll just feel hollow. Love the living sh*t out of yourself. Treat yourself like a treasured friend or valued employee. Prioritise yourself and the things that make you great. Then, go spread that conviction like an infection (too soon?) to the rest of the world.

2. Embrace transition

‘Once we get over this bit, things will get back to normal.’

‘We’ve got a bit of change fatigue, but it will be better once this new thing is installed and everything settles down.’

‘We’re just recovering from the impact of COVID.’

New things are exciting and hard. But transition periods are even harder. When we’re in-between things, it feels like we’re in a holding pattern, waiting for something to happen so that our real life can start. It’s wobbly, and we’re looking forward to the stability of getting things sorted. It’s a life of winters and summers, with nothing in between.

Newsflash: we’re always in a transition of some kind. Denying, rushing or avoiding the in-between is a fast road to nowhere. The ticket here isn’t coping with transition and uncertainty; it's seizing it. Transition is full of opportunities: to be exposed, to learn, experiment and adapt. So, what if you expected transition? What if you accepted the hell out of the messiness? What if you loved the ambiguity, and actively sought it out?

The biggest mistake I see people make when they manage the frustration of big transitions is impatience. When you’re in the early days of something new - a job, a house, a project - it’s tempting to get stuck in and sort everything immediately.

I felt that way about the house before I got in, and one of my mentoring clients who has a new CE gig is facing the same challenges - itchin’ to get fixin’. Whether it's renovating the bathroom, changing systems, or restructuring leadership teams, there’s so much that’s needs righting, and you should really do it all when you’ve got fresh eyes… right?

Wrong. This beautiful new bit doesn’t come again, not like this. It’s a huge opportunity, and if you squander it by rushing to the finish, you’ll lose so many chances to make something truly amazing. The messy time you spend in between, learning your context, understanding what makes people tick and getting the lay of the land is extremely valuable.

So, don’t make permanent decisions on who should be on your leadership team or where the couch should stay until you really get your bearings. Sit in the mess. Poke things. Play a long game. Get it right instead of getting it done.

In the meantime, enjoy the chaos. Notice the new things. Write all your ideas down. Delight in the potential of unpacked boxes, new personalities to understand and surprises around every corner. This is what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? Don’t rush it now.

3. Top up your tank

We all drained the tank last year. If we’re not careful, we’ll be setting ourselves up for more of the same this year – except we don’t have the same reserves we used to. It’s like running your car on fuel light. Yeah, it's fun - and sometimes necessary - but it's a dangerous game that will ultimately leave you stranded.

Be careful with yourself as you kick back into the year. If you don’t commit to keeping enough in the tank, you’ll find yourself on empty a lot faster than you think, and it won’t be as easy to get back up anymore.

Topping up your tank needs two things: a healthy reserve and a source of new fuel.

Maintain a healthy reserve

Consider how to put some buffer into your life. Instead of instinctively overcommitting, fresh off the fear and anxiety of last year, take a minute to think about what really matters to you and give it the space it deserves. Consider what you’re most likely to oversubscribe - your time, energy, sympathy, family commitments, social calendar, bank account or workload - and run some thought experiments. What would it mean to leave 20% around the edges? If you took out one committee, could you win back an afternoon to use as you please? If you took a nice-to-have project out of your budget, would you have some breathing room for unexpected issues?

This isn’t about doing less; it’s about intentionally doing better. There’s stuff on your list right now that doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t bring you joy and nothing would explode if you took it away. Get some margin.

Find a new fuel source

Reserves aren’t enough. They get depleted - and much more quickly than we expect them to. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that 20% margin will be gobbled up by the end of the month if you don’t find a new fuel source to keep you running. Fuel looks different for everyone. For me, it’s exercise. It’s never worth skipping 45 minutes in the gym to gain an hour of half-productive, resentful effort at my desk. I’ve learned this lesson more times than I’d like to admit. Now, I make exercise a top priority even if it means sacrificing a dinner with clients or friends, an important meeting, or even an hour of sleep. I put F45 classes in my calendar as a priority appointment and don’t shift them unless there’s a total emergency.

Yours might be quite different- a skipped run might not make much difference, but if you don’t catch up with a friend, go for a walk with your spouse or read a chapter of a book, you find yourself quickly irritable and resentful. You do you. The point is to treat those things as the pillars they are.

Another brilliant source of fuel, which is a bit counterintuitive, is to give more. I know! More? I just told you to take some stuff out!

But not all giving is created equally. In Give and Take, Adam Grant makes the case for giving back as a key way to build meaning into your life, boost your energy and create new networks of reciprocity and connection. When you use your unique talents to contribute to the lives of others without asking for anything in return, you add fuel to your tank. Whether volunteering, mentoring, or supporting a cause, adding some giving in could be what you need to stay fuelled when the reserves get low.

4. Know your limits

You can’t keep some fuel in the tank unless you know the capacity of the tank!

How much time, energy and giving-a-f**k do you really have available? Maybe you’re young, single, unencumbered and brimming with enthusiasm. In that case, your container is large, and you can jam it full. But maybe you’re middle-aged, juggling kids, a house, a marriage, and aging parents. Or maybe you’re an active member of a club that really matters to you. In that case, your container is smaller so you need to make decisions to fit.

Setting reasonable limits and boundaries is one of the most critical skills of a high-performing leader. But unless you’re clear on your boundaries, you cannot protect them.

Boundaries aren't something you can download a template for because they don’t look the same for everyone. You might be fabulous on 5 hours sleep, while your partner needs 8 to be human. You might be able to run 7 workshops a week, or you might be dead after 3. You might be able to absorb days of parties and events, or you might be drained after just one. Work out your limits, then guard them with your life.

If this sounds like a nice theory, but an impossible reality given all the limits you’ve already committed to exceeding in the next three months, all hope is not lost. To manage days or weeks where you already know you'll have to push it, we come back to buffer. Or, as someone aptly named it over a coffee this week: “scheduled breakdowns.”

I learned this lesson the hard way lately. I moved house, three kids in tow, and then promptly kicked into a massive work week, including travel, workshops, client meetings up the wazoo - and a programme launch! Oops. If I’d been smart about it, I would have thought about the physical and emotional toll moving would take and left myself at least a day or two. I wouldn’t have scheduled so many back-to-backs and I would have left the launch a week or two, anticipating a loss of energy or unexpected issues.

As it turned out, I did salvage a bit of breakdown time. When I felt the overload creeping in, I backed away from my original itinerary where I could. I canned my evening flight for another night at home and a red-eye the next morning, rescheduled or cancelled non-essential meetings and adapted my workshops to require fewer resources and complications, to reduce the cognitive and logistical load while I pulled myself back together. But it wasn’t ideal.

You can be a hero and run at 120% capacity for short bursts of time when you need to. Because sometimes, you do.

But you absolutely cannot be a hero all the time. It doesn’t work, and, eventually, you’ll drop balls you didn’t mean to drop. So, drop some balls in advance. Leave the evening free after a huge day. Book a long weekend in, the week after your new system goes live. Plan for your own overload in advance because if you don’t, nobody else will.

5. Choose guilt

I love Gabor Mate. He’s the man. I recently read two of his books. ‘When the Body Says No', a recommendation from the marvellous Kate Billing, and ‘Hold Onto Your Kids’ - all about building strong connections with your children.

They’re a bit long and tough-going in parts, but they’re packed full of data, evidence and information. If you’re keen to dabble in some Gabor (and you should!) I recommend listening to podcasts or webinars where you can - he speaks much more clearly than he writes. That said, a line from When the Body Says No has stuck with me like glue since I first read it. I return to it about 20 times a day, and I’ve sent it to countless friends. The line says:

‘If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time… Resentment is soul suicide.”

I just love this. I can think of so many situations where I chose to do what I "should" do and carried long-term resentment when one tough conversation would have been over and done with. (This is especially for you, ladies and people pleasers!)

Resentment triggers the same neurological and physiological responses as stress. It follows you around like a bad smell, leaving you feeling burdened, overwhelmed and unappreciated, and erodes your sense of agency and control. Almost without exception, resentment is the wrong option.

Guilt is usually selfish. When we make choices to alleviate our guilt, we often tell ourselves it is to serve others - to protect them from harm or save them from consequences. But the reality is darker. When we make choices out of guilt, we’re usually doing it for us. We’re trying to protect our identity, feel powerful or valuable, or control the situation.

It’s not worth it, team. Choose the guilt. Cancel the thing.

6. Argue with yourself

Most feelings are lies. They look and feel real but are secondary emotions, masking the real culprit.

It’s kind of our bodies to do this. When faced with a secondary emotion, it’s a defence mechanism to save us from the weight and upset of the real problem.

We talk about this a bit more in Angry People. Anger is a secondary emotion that covers up fear or sadness. Frustration is another flavour, usually about disappointment… which is sadness, too. Like colours on the wheel, while there are many blends, emotions generally boil down to just a few primary states: anger, joy, love, fear and sadness.

Everything else (pride, optimism, resentment, jealousy or anxiety) is rooted in one. You can’t always trust your first thought, instinct or reaction. Those habits you’ve developed over time to keep you moving, but they’re often not the real culprit - which means that reacting on their behalf won’t make you feel better. The stress doesn’t go away, even though we’ve tackled the things we thought were bothering us. Annoying, eh?

So, when you’re mad, take the time to think about what you’re scared or sad about. For real connection and insight, make a habit of digging a bit deeper into your psyche. Develop a practice where, before you respond, you pause and interrogate yourself. Poke around. Question your own assumptions. Feel the actual thing so you can move on from it.

Even better, question the thoughts that your feelings trigger. They’re generally full of stuff that doesn’t need to be there.

In the landmark ‘The Work,’ Byron Katie recommends asking four critical questions of things that are bothering us.:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
  3. How you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought? 

When you’re furious at your colleague for throwing you under the bus, for example, taking the time to notice and interrogate your process is transformative.

“John is a selfish assh*ole. He doesn’t care about me and he’s only worried about looking good to the boss.”

Is it true? Maybe

Can you absolutely know that it’s true? … No. I don’t know what’s going on in John’s head. He could be motivated by many different things, or trying his best.

How do you react when you believe that thought? … I feel unsupported. Unappreciated. Foolish. Put upon. Fearful of my own status with the boss. I react with sarcasm, martyrdom and bitterness. I’m passive-aggressive, and I’m not much fun to be around.

Who would you be without that thought? ... Oh, if I didn’t think John was a selfish asshole? Well, I guess I’d be less angry. I’d probably be more open to assuming positive intent and asking better questions. I’d probably respond in a way that didn’t project all my own fears and issues onto John. John would like me more and probably be more inclined to work alongside me. He’d trust me more.

…Oh. I’m probably better off without that thought. My initial feeling might have had more to do with me, than John.

Right. Carry on.

Rinse and repeat.

7. Balance the ledger

“You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs”

This is a line from the Netflix show The Queens Gambit, and I adore it. What a difficult and beautiful truth. We all have skills and capabilities that we’ve been rewarded for developing over time.

Not only do those result in lopsidedness, – which we talked about last week – they have a shadow side. The same skills, overdeveloped, will become what holds us back.

Mine are resilience and independence. I’m from a long line of strong women, who take care of themselves. But that makes it extremely hard to depend on others, and, taken too far, comes at a cost to my relationships and health. When I lean too far into that resilient streak, it inevitably costs me. I look up from my little island of achievement and I realise I’m not happy with the price I’ve paid along the way.

Like most of these stresskillers, the key skills here are awareness and acceptance. You’re like this for a reason - a good reason. You’ve been what you’ve had to be to do what you’ve had to do. And maybe you’re not happy with that now. Maybe you’re sick of having no confidence. Maybe you’re sick of being all sizzle and no steak. Maybe you’re sick of being a workaholic. Maybe you’re sick of being a chiller. Maybe you’re sick of being the highly-strung one. The funny one. The pedantic one. The dependable one. Whatever it is, you feel like you’ve leaned in too far, you’ve been pigeon-holed, and don't know how to get out.

Guess what? You’re not stuck. There is nothing about your identity that is fixed or immovable. Just because your team, or your family, or your friends know you as being one thing doesn’t mean you can’t wake up today and decide to be something else.

Set an intention, right now, today, to rebalance your ledger. To remove some of the costs of your gift. To be something and someone different.

Make no mistake, it will take time to change. There will be setbacks and frustrations, and you will revert to type regularly along the way. And like any gradual change such as weight loss, it will take longer for others to notice it than you’d like.

Do it anyway. Start in your own backyard, remember? Make changes about you, for you. The stress and upset of being trapped inside an identity that no longer fits isn’t worth it.

I have a mentoring client who recently confided in me that he’d always dreamed of joining the Police, but having risen to the top position in his field, he didn’t feel like he could ‘throw it all away now’. This same man is thirty-seven. He’s been an adult for 15 years, he will more than likely live for a good fifty years or more yet, and he felt like he couldn’t start again? What rubbish. You can decide to be someone new any day, and it’s never too late. Start now.

8. Refine your tribe

There’s a famous Jim Rohn quote that I’ve rattled off a few times over the years:

“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

The idea here is simple: unless you’re surrounded by people who share similar goals, values or attributes to you, you hold back your own growth and happiness.

Turns out this is wrong. You’re not the average of the five people you see the most - it’s much larger than that.

New research on the power of social influence on everything from health to money and happiness tells us that you’re influenced by the networks of the people you hang out with. If your friends are obese, you’re more likely to be overweight. If your friends smoke, you’re more likely to smoke. If your friends get promoted and earn higher incomes, you’re more likely to do that too (phew, finally good news.)

But even if your friends aren’t doing those things - and their friends are, you’re also more likely to be influenced. What? How does that work? Friends, of friends, of friends, whether we know them or not, have the power to influence the choices we make in our lives by dictating our broader norms, perceptions, anchors and worldview.

The people you know, the communities you’re part of, and the networks you participate in have a massive, sometimes invisible, influence on the life you lead and person you are. Humans are deeply connected, social animals. We exist in relation to one another.

Which means you get to choose who you exist in relation to. If the circles you move in don’t align with your goals, values or lifestyle, it’s OK to move on. The stress you’re absorbing will eat you up and hold you back.

Refining your tribe means forging new connections that fit and removing ones that don’t. Not all relationships are meant to last forever. No matter how long you’ve worked together, been friends or lived together, many relationships have an expiration date.

Maybe you’ve changed, and they haven’t. Maybe they’ve changed and gone in a different direction. Maybe your goals are different, and you no longer like the vibe they bring to your life.

Maybe your goals are too big, too ambitious, or too foreign for them to understand. Maybe you want different things than you used to, and it doesn’t include them. This is one of those times to choose guilt over resentment.

Move on gracefully before you hate them. Replace them over time, and watch your stress levels plummet as you share experiences, failures and successes with people who truly get it.

Feel the joy of being stretched and pushed by people you want to be more like. Experience the warmth and affirmation of really belonging. Get excited about going to work, to drinks, or for a run with people who bring light into your life. Cultivate new, old or weak links and nourish them. They exist, you’re worth it, and the difference in your life will be astonishing.

In summary

  • If you don’t kill stress, it will kill you.

  • You don’t have to become a zen master to manage stress. You can still be an ambitious high-achiever.

  • Short-term fixes are just that: short term.

  • Eight meaningful ways to manage your stress are:

    • Tidy your backyard

    • Embrace transition

    • Top up your tank

    • Know your limits

    • Choose guilt

    • Argue with yourself

    • Rebalance your ledger

    • Refine your tribe.

Happy stress-killing, friends.

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