How to manage self-inflicted stress

Stress and anxiety therapist Dr. Amelia Aldao suggests waiting 60 seconds before reacting to a stressor, giving your rational mind time to catch up to your emotions.

concept of stress self-inflicted stress anxiety

Studies show that positive emotions (happiness, comfort, pleasure, etc) allow us to consider a larger set of options in order to make faster, smarter decisions.

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  • Stress is a complex defense mechanism that we experience in relation to either internal or external threats.
  • Self-inflicted stress is stress we inflict upon ourselves with our emotional and behavioral responses to certain situations. An example of self-inflicted stress would be your car breaking down on the morning of an important meeting because your "check engine" let had been on, but you ignored it.
  • There are a few ways for you to cope with self-inflicted internal and external stressors, put forth by researchers and therapists.

What is “self-inflicted stress”?

concept of stress businesswoman feeling stressed at her desk

Stress is a complex defence mechanism that each of us experiences differently depending on our personality and the circumstances of the situation.

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Stress is an adaptation of a living organism to internal or external threats. It's a complex defense mechanism that each of us experiences in vastly different ways depending on various factors such as personality, causal factors, and circumstance.

Studies show that positive emotions (happiness, comfort, pleasure, etc) allow us to consider a larger set of options in order to make faster, smarter decisions. The opposite is also true - unpleasant emotions (anger, stress, fear, etc.) overwhelm our rational minds and impact our behavior in ways that damage our ability to make smart, rational choices.

Stressors can be either external or internal, and this greatly impacts how we react to that stressful situation.

Examples of self-inflicted internal stress (stress we inflict on ourselves by how we manage expectations, time, relationships, and emotions) can include:

  • Putting pressure on yourself to excel at something within an unrealistic timespan.
  • Negative self-talk after not being able to complete something (realistic or not).
  • Fear of public speaking, thinking you're going to make a mistake in front of everyone even if you're prepared.
  • Not having enough time in the day to complete your "to-do" list and having thoughts of not being good enough because you didn't complete an unrealistic goal.
  • An "all or nothing" attitude (example: if I can't get everything on my list done today I just won't do anything at all."

In more serious situations, these kinds of internal stressors can lead to feelings of anxiety and/or depression.

Examples of self-inflicted external stress can include:

  • Planning a vacation in a time of budget cuts at work only to discover that your salary has been lowered in a time where you've spent more money than normal.
  • Procrastinating to study for an upcoming exam or presentation and then staying up all night the day before.
  • Ignoring the "check engine" light in your car only to have it break down in a moment of urgency (picking a child up from school, on your way to a meeting, etc).

How to manage your self-inflicted stress

concept stress man squeezing happy face stress ball

A tip: wait one full minute before doing anything in reaction to the stressor.

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Over time, stress can damage areas of your life (adding even more stress) such as you having trouble sleeping, losing your appetite, losing interest in daily activities due to stress. Symptoms that you are stressed can include things like irritability, headaches/migraines, stomach pains, and unbalanced emotions.

How do you cope with stress? There are a few different methods that are specifically designed to help you overcome self-inflicted stressors in your life.

Take a full 60 seconds of pause before doing anything.
The 60 Second Method is simple: wait one minute before doing anything in reaction to the stressor. It can be as simple as that, according to OCD, stress, anxiety and depression therapist Dr. Amelia Aldao.

"In particular," she explains in this Psychology Today article, "don't follow what the emotion is telling you to do. Don't send that angry text, don't decline the invitation to present at work, don't tell your potential date you're too busy this week…"

While this is extremely difficult for some people, pausing before reacting to a stressful situation gives your "rational brain" the ability to catch up. The best thing you can do is "stay with your emotion", according to Dr. Aldao, "but don't act it out."

Experiencing the emotions is a good thing, we should never ignore how certain situations (even stressful ones) make us feel - but acting from a place of pure emotion (instead of thinking rationally about a proper action to follow the situation) can be detrimental to our mental health.

According to Dr. Aldao, by the end of these 60 seconds, the intensity of your initial emotional reaction to the stressor should have somewhat subsided, allowing you to act from a place of rationality than a place of hasty emotion.

Prioritize your schedule and manage your time in a realistic way to motivate yourself.
When it comes to internal stressors, much of the time we inflict these upon ourselves with ever-growing to-do lists and agendas that seem impossible to get through. This, in a way, is setting ourselves up for failure, because we aren't giving ourselves realistic goals that can encourage us to keep going.

Instead, what you're doing, is designing a system that will make you feel more stressed the more work you do because even if you complete the work, it will seem as though you're falling behind.

Instead, you should operate in a prioritization system. This can be done by splitting your to-do list into categories such as immediate (needs to be done in the next 3 hours), average (needs to be done sometime today) and non-critical (can easily be done tomorrow or the next day).

Ask for help and accept that you might not be able to accomplish everything on your own (or risk falling apart).
Productivity coach Ruth Klein, who has also authored a book called Time Management Secrets for Working Women, explains that you should start by asking yourself what the top three priorities for the day are. If there are more than three main things, delegate some of your work to someone else or push back deadlines if you can. It takes courage to admit you can't do it all, but ultimately that might be your best option.

Waiting too long to ask for help, according to Klein, will eventually lead us into an "overwhelmed crisis" which tends to zap us of all energy and motivation.

Acknowledge that some (if not most) of your stress may be self-inflicted and make changes to fix that.
While there are external stressors that we have little to no control over, there are lots of times when the stress we feel is self-inflicted. And when stress is self-inflicted it can also be self-solved, even when that feels impossible.

When we are managing self-inflicted stress, it can be extremely difficult to see outside of our bubble of worry. We are focused on trying to beat the stress because we don't want to feel stressed - it seems like a solution. But if your stress isn't motivating you to get things done (and is instead actually hindering you from being productive) it's time for you to change how you react to your stress.

"What can I do to lessen my stress right now?"

Jamie Sussel Turner (otherwise known as "The Less Stress Coach") explains that asking yourself this question and acknowledging some of the harmful behaviors and emotions you're feeling that are negatively impacting your stress levels can help us re-evaluate the importance of the things we're trying to do.

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