Break free from the cycle before you break down. Let’s face it: Many of us are hooked on bad stress habits. A simple review of one’s life on any given day will point out how many of our actions take place while we’re on autopilot. Most of these are harmless. Making it through the morning routine while still half-asleep is probably not going to jeopardize your well-being in any major way. But habitually driving to work with the radio on, while you’re eating breakfast, texting and shaving at the same time, could get your morning off to a rough start.
Strangely, it seems that bad habits are much easier to adopt than good habits. Everyone knows that starting smoking is easier than quitting, over-eating is easier than dieting, and sitting on the couch, smoking, over-eating and watching reality TV is easier than going to the gym.
When it comes to the habit of inner tension, many of us have become stress junkies. With addict-like regularity, we repeatedly practice those things we know, deep down, are only sharpening our “Life sucks, then you die,” vision of the world. Meanwhile, the dream of the good life gets increasingly blurry.
What’s a stress-o-holic to do? Taking a page from our friends in drug and alcohol recovery, consider what happens when we simply acknowledge the existence of our habitual behaviors and then practice the gentle art of not engaging in them.
Let’s take a look at seven bad stress habits (there are many more, but no need to stress over that) and see if we can begin to see the light at the end of the tension tunnel.
“We are what we repeatedly do.” —Aristotle
Bad Stress Habit No. 1: When asked, “How are you doing?” you respond, “I’m alive.”
This habit speaks to the systematic lowering of our expectations in hopes that we will be spared one more disappointment. The subtext of this message is, “The only thing I feel in control of right now is my ability to exchange oxygen, and even that is beginning to stress me out.” To break this habit, we can change the inflection of our voice as we say it. Rather than “I’m alive” with all of the intonation of a teenager having to share an F with a parent, try a sense of enthusiasm more akin to a teenage cheerleader, jacked up on an energy drink, whose star football player just scored the winning touchdown: “Give me an A, give me an L, give me an I!” You get the idea. Even if you have to fake the enthusiasm, there is a healthy reward for breathing some life back into being alive.
Bad Stress Habit No. 2: You talk to yourself more than you talk to other people.
Many people identify their source of stress as the other living souls around them. Therefore, it makes sense to talk to ourselves rather than those who are pushing us toward our nervous breakdowns. Unfortunately, these monologues have all of the balance of a political campaign rally, and we are left with ourselves as our own “reliable sources.” To break this habit, we don’t need to stop talking to ourselves, unless we’re doing this out loud and in public. Instead, it can be just as stress-reducing to simply stop taking those conversations in our heads so seriously. Feel free to question and even laugh at the truly ridiculous thoughts that often arise. Again, best keep the laughter private, as laughing out of context is a red flag to others that the Sane Train has left the station.
Bad Stress Habit No. 3: You refer to going to work as, “Another day in hell.”
Adopting the “I hate my job” mentality only drives the pain deeper into our psyches. What’s the most one can expect from another day in hell? If you’re lucky, you walk out only slightly scorched and taking comfort in the fact that the person carrying the pitchfork is just as miserable as you are. To break this habit we need to realize that whatever hell we find ourselves in is, to some degree, a projection of our inner world. When we take responsibility for the quality of our day, thereby getting a grasp on our inner demons, we are better prepared to address the devilish details of the work-a-day world. If all else fails, remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Break This Habit No. 4: You’ve Changed All Your Passwords to “whocares?”
The Internet is our personal connection to the outside world, and what better way to tell everyone that our healthy selves have checked out than to become cyber-bitter? The boomerang effect is that the more venom we pour out, the more we get back, and soon the only people “friending” us are those whose screen names would frighten even Stephen King. We break this habit by using technology to simplify, not complicate, our lives.
Say it again: simplify. Use social network tools to stay in touch with friends and family and make new friends through connecting around common interests.
Just Say No to Habit No. 5: Your voicemail greeting is, “Now what?”
This habit develops as we get to the stress point of no longer caring that others know we are stressed. We begin to wear it as a badge of honor—a black and blue heart, if you will. This is our way of telling the world that we are out of straws for the “last straw,” and that whatever it is they’re bringing our way had better come with flowers or chocolates.
Break this habit by realizing that most of those we have contact with have a minimal interest in our stress. This does not mean that we keep our stress to ourselves and just “suck it up.” That’s a whole other bad habit. But rather than telling the world something they already know about us—that our stress is stressing us out—we let them know that we plan on doing something about it. We can, through words and deeds, broadcast that when it comes to stress, we will no longer be a Super-Soaker™, nor will we be the sponge.
Smile at Habit No. 6: Your first thought when you see someone smiling is, “What are they on?”
This habit is the result of being under stress for so long that we cannot even imagine people who go through life as if they are actually enjoying the experience. This response is the result of believing that distress is a normal condition, and that anyone not showing signs of it must be under the influence of a mind-altering chemical. Break this habit by realizing that we are already under the influence of mind-altering chemicals in the form of stress hormones. Then smile at the irony, knowing that neuroscientists tell us that a genuine smile actually changes brain chemistry and makes us feel better. This is a true “natural high,” whose only side effect is other people asking, “What are you smiling about?”
Banish Habit No. 7: You’re turning your daydreams into nightmares.
This habit starts out as an honest attempt to imagine something better down the road. However, after repeated attempts to retreat to one’s “happy place,” the return to the real world takes on the form of an ice-cold splash of water to the face. The thought process then shifts from fantasizing about better times to brooding over the countless dangers that the future holds. We break this habit by learning to be exactly where we are, minus the mind-judging voices that want to critique our experiences. When we realize that even our wildest fantasies and darkest nightmares have no power over us, because they exist only in our heads, we find the peace that we never lost.
Originally Published: May 2, 2012
Updated: April 1, 2019