It’s Stress Awareness Month—take a moment to clear your head and focus on making your life a little easier.
Everyone feels overwhelmed and stressed from time to time, but if you’re not careful, even small stressors can end up damaging your health. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), stress affects both your mind and your body and can lead to illnesses such as depression, headaches, stomach disorders, heart disease, and stroke.
While stress is a natural part of being human, many common stressors are not worth our physical and mental energy. Below are seven unnecessary causes of stress and advice on how to avoid them. Take charge of your life during the HHS’s Stress Awareness Month.
Replaying a stressful situation in your mind over and over again doesn’t do you any good and could actually cause you to relive the stress you’ve already experienced, says Kathy Gruver, Ph.D., a health and wellness expert who specializes in stress and mind/body medicine, and who authored the book Conquer Your Stress with Mind/Body Techniques.
“The brain can’t tell the difference between what we are thinking about and what is really happening,” Gruver says. “So, if we are reliving or dwelling on something negative that happened in the past, we will re-experience a stress response in our bodies.”
In order to overcome this bad habit, Gruver recommends changing the way we think about some situations.
“It’s really hard to stop thinking about something,” Gruver says. “It’s easier to replace that thought.”
Gruver says making affirmations about the situation by concentrating on thoughts like “I am healthy and well,” “My immune system is strong,” and “I move forward confidently into the future” can help stop the never-ending cycle of negative thinking.
Take time to meditate, she says. Concentrating on your breathing while thinking “I am” on the inhale and “at peace” on the exhale can also help stop the stress response in its tracks.
Focusing on the possible negative outcome of a situation—such as how a date will go or whether your new boss will like you—only projects negative thoughts into the future, Gruver says.
“We worry about these things when we don’t really know what is going to happen,” Gruver says. “Why suffer twice?”
Life coach, educator, and author Diane Lang, M.A., of Discovery Wellness, LLC, says one way to combat worst-case-scenario thinking is to consider whether the stressor is realistic and ask yourself whether it is something that will bother you one or two months in the future.
“Sometimes, when you ask yourself those questions, you start seeing clearly that this is really not that big a deal and that it’s something you can actually handle,” says Lang.
Another way to avoid worst-case-scenario thinking is to stay in the present, Gruver says. For example, while completing daily tasks, such as washing the dishes, you can take the time to experience the smell of the soap, the feel of the water, or the way the light hits the bubbles.
“The more you can get lost in that stuff, the more it keeps you from dwelling on the past and being mindful of the future,” Gruver says.
Everyone procrastinates for different reasons, but in many cases, people put things off because they feel overwhelmed by or scared of what they need to do. This can create frustration and stress, Lang says.
Lang recommends coming up with a plan to tackle a challenging project in stages, rather than all at once.
“Set a long-term goal and then set smaller goals to reach it,” Lang says. “When you do something in small, ‘bite-size’ pieces, it allows you to get a sense of accomplishment and creates positive reinforcements that motivate you to continue.
“Be proud of yourself for every little accomplishment,” she adds.
There are many reasons for being late, some of which are simply out of your control. But other reasons for tardiness may include being afraid to go somewhere or saying yes to things when you really don’t have the time, Lang says. This can cause feeling of anger and stress, along with the stress you already have about being late.
If a lack of time is one of the reasons you are often late, Lang suggests frequently asking yourself whether an event or obligation will fit into your schedule and knowing when to turn an invitation down.
But when the cause of being late is a missed alarm clock, heavy traffic, or misplaced keys, it’s important to understand that these circumstances are out of your control and that you only have the ability to choose how you react, according to HHS.
Instead of beating yourself up about being late, learn to let go and focus on the positive rather than on the negative. According to tips on stress management from the National Library of Medicine, “A person’s attitude can influence whether or not a situation or emotion is stressful.”
“When you’re overlurking on social media, you’re comparing yourself to others, which causes stress,” says Stephanie Mansour, a certified confidence and lifestyle coach for women and CEO of Step It Up with Steph. “You’re grading your self-worth and self-esteem based on what you see from other people, not on your own benchmarks for success and happiness.”
Oversharing on social media can also make us very vulnerable, making us more likely to get hurt, according to Lang.
“You should really have people earn your trust and respect before you open up and share,” Lang says.
Avoid this stressor by setting personal boundaries and only allowing yourself a certain amount of time each day to check social media, Lang says.
“Clutter is a representation of how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your own life,” Lang says. So it’s no wonder that a messy room or a cluttered office can make us feel stressed.
Lang suggests decluttering one step at a time—an approach that’s similar to methods for handling procrastination.
“Just start with one drawer for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, then take a break,” says Lang. “Then go back, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.”
Another reason some people may let clutter take over is because they don’t know what to do with the space, Lang says. “Visualize what you want the space to look like. That will help motivate you as well.”
If you’re having trouble letting go of something, Lang suggests asking two questions: “Do I love this?” and “Do I use this?”
“If you haven’t used something in about a year, it’s probably time to get rid of it,” she says.
Thinking about money you’ve already spent is a form of dwelling on the past. Continuously turning your spending habits over in your mind will only cause you more stress in the moment.
“You can’t unspend the money,” Gruver says.
To avoid this stressor, it’s important to focus on the present and the things that we can control, such as the financial decisions we will make in the future, says Lang.
You can help yourself spend money more responsibly by understanding that money doesn’t buy happiness, by choosing to socialize with friends rather than going out and spending money you don’t have, or by removing your credit cards from your wallet or purse so you aren’t tempted to spend, Lang says.