How to Manage Stress

Written by Eric Ulchakere

May 20, 2020

As I write this, I am stressed out! I’m a college student, but I’m also an intern, an employee, a fellow, etc. I have so much stuff to do that I feel like if I wrote it all down the list would go all the way from the desk where I’m typing, out the door, and down the street to the next block.

I don’t know what it is about this time of year that makes people feel so overwhelmed–maybe it’s because there’s this feeling that summer is just around the corner, and we’re still working on things we thought we’d have done in the winter. Whatever the reason, people keep telling me they’re stressed out this week, so there’s a good chance that you are, too.

I think there’s two situations in which you “manage” stress: the first is that you do an amazing job managing your stress on a daily basis, so that you don’t experience mountains of stress out of nowhere. If you manage your stress this well, congratulations! May we all someday become people like you. However, if you’re not that person, the second situation might apply to you (it applies to me, too!).

Here’s what I do, and here’s why I find myself wanting to write about how to manage stress today: instead of dealing with stress on a daily level, I let it grow and grow and grow until I have so much stress that I have to find a way to not be stressed out before I get any work done. You may have experienced something like that, when you’re so stressed out that you can’t even do the things you’re stressed about (see: list of to-do items that goes out the door). I know there are ways that I can do a better job of managing my stress from day to day, and preventing it from building up to a point that I get really overwhelmed. But that’s not where we are today, so let’s get to managing stress when it’s a whole lot of stress all at once.

Like a lot of things, I think it’s important to first admit that you’re really stressed out. Sometimes being stressed can feel like a failure, like you’re admitting that your responsibilities and commitments have gotten the better of you. While that feeling sucks (a lot), I still think it’s important to just stop with what you’re doing, slow down, and admit that you need to change your approach.

Once you recognize how badly stressed out you are, you might feel hopeless, like you can’t imagine actually succeeding in everything you need to do. This might not seem intuitive, but I think it’s important to not jump immediately from saying you’re stressed out to trying to tackle everything on your to-do list. Instead, I think it’s important to take a few (or several) moments to yourself to really feel how stressed out you are.

I know we don’t want to be stressed out for longer than we have to be, but I think that taking some time to yourself to think about why you’re stressed out, and to really process your feelings, is a good way to send a signal that you are going to be okay, and you have enough time to make sure that you feel good. The success of everything on your to-do list isn’t going to matter if you’re not in the right emotional state to enjoy it!

After checking in with yourself, you should do something that legitimately de-stresses you. For me, I go on short runs. It’s a way for me to get my heart racing in a way that’s actually good for my body–and when the run is over, and I’m all sore and sweaty and have those endorphins running through me–I feel like I not only accomplished something, but I did something good for myself. And that’s a great feeling.

The next step is to play triage with your to-do list. I was an RA for two years, and I had a lot of experience with counseling first years on how to survive exam week. One student came to my room late at night, close to tears, because he had this long list of things he needed to study for and do during finals week. I sat down with him and asked him how much time he needed to do each task, and which tasks were really the most important. I had him schedule out his week according to the ranking we came up with, and I made him give himself room for meals and sleep. What had been, only minutes before, an insurmountable, unthinkably difficult week became something that he could reasonably do.

My advice is to schedule out your time in a way that is both realistic and honest with yourself. You are not going to be able to finish that project you’ve been putting off for three months in four hours, no matter how much coffee you’re planning on drinking. Write the tasks you have to do down, and write how much time they’re going to take you. Be generous with yourself–you don’t benefit from giving yourself a task list that only a superhero could hope to accomplish.

There are two important things you should remember when you’re getting ready to tackle all of the things that are stressing you out: the first is that you need to make sure you give yourself time to be a person. You need time to eat, sleep, and talk to other people (or watch a show, or listen to a podcast). You’re not going to do your best work if you feel emotionally and physically fried.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that the importance of most things is fleeting. That is to say, you’re going to be fine, and whatever you’re worried about right now is most likely not going to matter in a month from now, let alone a year. Of course, do your best work. But also understand that if you’re a person who is continually trying their best, one week or two of being a little frazzled isn’t going to undermine the lifetime of dedicated effort you’ve put it to your relationships, job, etc.

Well, I’m off to tackle that to-do list. Good luck!

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