How to Create a Stress Reduction Plan That Really Works
Is absolutely everyone stressed out these days?
More than three-quarters of the U. S. population say they regularly experience stress-related symptoms. Not just stressful events alone, but actual symptoms like fatigue, headaches, upset stomachs, muscle tension, change in appetite, anxiety, and depression.
Stress has become so commonplace, it’s temping to ignore or minimize it, hoping it will go away. After all, you don’t want to be the odd person out, the only one who isn’t complaining about how overwhelmed and stressed they are.
Or do you? Think about it for a moment.
The truth is, if you’re caught in chronic stress, there’s a very good chance your stress response will get stronger due to constant repetition. That means stress-related symptoms are likely to continue and probably worsen. And, on the long run, all the wear and tear on your body from chronic stress may contribute to the development of a serious condition like cardio-vascular disease or lowered immunity.
Deep in your heart, I’m sure you would love to say a relaxed but resolute “no” to stress. But how do you make it happen?
You Need a Plan to Conquer Stress
If you're serious about saying "no" to stress, the first step is to make a plan and commit it to paper. This works far better than impetuously announcing you’ve had it with stress, trying to chill out for a few days, and then going back to your habitual stress responses.
When you create a plan, you invest your time, energy, and heart into a new possibility. As a result, you’ll be more likely to carry through. In addition, creating a plan increases your sense of control, which will already starts to lessen your stress level.
To make it easy for you, I've made a simple framework for a year-long stress strategy. But if you prefer, you can plan your stress strategy in 1 or 3-month blocks of time. Just follow the steps below, write down your answers, and you'll have an effective plan for letting go of stress. Or use the workbook I created for you:
Step 1. Select 2 - 4 stressors to eliminate from your life.
Imagine how different your life would be if you eliminated several stressors from you life. Browse through the list below and consider which stress triggers you would like to eliminate from your life. Which ones would have the most impact? You can add your own to the list too. To get the full picture for each one, read my article: 21 Ways to Eliminate Stress from Your Life.
Now, go through the list and circle the ones that standout for you. We’ll pare them down later.
- Let go of expectations
- Reduce the number of deadlines you have to meet
- Focus on the positive
- Change underlying beliefs that keep you locked in the cycle of stress
- Eat a healthy diet
- Create and use safety zones
- Reduce your exposure to noise
- Prioritize rest
- Make it a habit to single-task
- Drive less
- Commit to a peaceful morning routine
- Change jobs
- Practice mindfulness
- Watch less news
- See challenges as opportunities
- Move to a less stressful place
- Practice gratitude
- Start early
- Take breaks throughout the day
- Speak up
- Add your own ideas of how to eliminate stress from you own life
Look through the ones you’ve circled and select your final choice of 2-4 stressors to eliminate this year or in whatever period of time you've chosen. Try to be as realistic as possible so you don’t overwhelm yourself. We’ll go into scheduling and how to’s later.
Step 2. Select the stress reduction techniques you will use over the coming year.
Select as many or as few as you would like. The goal is to use one each week, but you can mix them up and rotate them over the coming year. To learn more about how to execute these tips, download my free 50-page e-book, 21 Simple Stress Tips.
Circle the stress reduction techniques you would like to use in the coming months. Set yourself up for success by choosing ones that immediately catch your interest, that would feel enjoyable to you, and that would be easy for you to consistently integrate into your life.
- Learn my early warning signs of stress and practice catching stress before it catches me.
- Walk in nature
- Pause regularly during your workday
- Smile often
- Improve your posture
- Visualize a restful place
- Hug someone you love
- Respond to stress with positive self-talk
- Stop doing too much
- Improve your sleep hygiene
- Use waiting time to capture bursts of stress relief
- Reduce morning stress
- Check email less often
- Take movement breaks so you don’t sit too long at a stretch
- Question your “have-tos"
- Use relaxing essential oils like lavender
- Listen to relaxing music
- Get into a regular exercise routine
- Add your ideas for stress-reduction activities
Step 3. Commit Your Stress Strategy to Paper
On a single sheet of pager or using the FREE workbook I created for you, Your Stress Strategy, list the 2 - 4 ways you'll eliminate stress from your life this year or for whatever period of time you've chosen. Then write a start and end date for each one on the page and in your calendar. You could schedule them by season or quarter if you wish.
Here’s an example:
- Winter - Learn my early warning signs of stress and practice catching stress before it catches me
- Spring - Walk in nature three days a week
- Summer - Focus on the positive
- Autumn - Eat a healthier diet with less stress inducing foods and more stress relieving foods
If your goals are big, like changing your job or moving to a less stressful place, you can schedule just one over a six-month period or even a whole year if it will take that long.
Then list the relaxing stress-reduction techniques you’ll use over the year or coming months, like this:
- Walking in nature
- Checking email less often each day
- Get up from my desk more often
- Visualize a restful place
Now, take out your calendar and schedule one stress-reduction technique as your main focus for each week over the coming 52 weeks or whatever period of time you would like to work with. You can pencil them in if you think you might change your mind and want to try something different.
This is an important step, so don't skip it!
You can always do more than one if you wish, but this way, you’ll have a fallback stress technique for each week of the year. When one of these becomes a habit, like checking email less often each day, you can add another to your list to replace it if you wish.
Step 4. Break down your goals.
Turn over your sheet of paper or take another one. List your main goals from Step 1 again - the 2-4 ways you are going to eliminate stressors from your life this year or this season - and leave space underneath each one. In that space, break each of your main goals into smaller, manageable tasks.
For example, if you want to eat a healthier diet with more stress relieving foods, your tasks might look something like this:
- Remove unhealthy foods from my cupboards.
- Remove unhealthy foods from my refrigerator.
- Lower my sugar intake in October.
- Increase my intake of vegetables in October.
- Reduce my caffeine intake in November.
- Buy a smoothie or blended soup “cook book” and start making smoothies in November.
- Stop using unhealthy oils in December.
- Make a shopping list of stress-relieving foods and beverages.
- Shop at the Farmer’s market.
- Weigh myself daily.
Create manageable tasks that feel right for you. Pencil these tasks into your calendar for the timeframe you’ve chosen. Again, it’s important to actually put them in your calendar so you’ll be reminded. If you don't want to do this for an entire year, you can do it for a month or a quarter at a time.
You should now have a 2-page year-long stress strategy with:
- 2-4 stressors to eliminate
- A list of manageable tasks for each main goal
- Any number of stress relieving techniques that you can rotate on a weekly basis
- All the above scheduled into your calendar
Or an abbreviated plan for your chosen timeframe.
We’re not done yet though because you also need a system of accountability and a regular reminder to celebrate your successes. You can add your system of accountability and your habit hacks into your plan after you read the following sections.
Step 5. Create accountability.
Create a system of accountability to make it more likely you’ll achieve your goals. Choose one or more of the methods below.
Schedule Regular Progress Check-Ins
Pick a day and time each week (or month) for an accountability check in. Let’s say Friday afternoon, Saturday morning, or Sunday evening. The end or the start of the week is a good time. Pencil it into your calendar, and be sure to keep the date with yourself. Set a reminder on your computer or digital device so you don’t forget.
Evaluate your progress for the week, based on the goals you set for that timeframe. Be sure to celebrate the wins. The brain tends to have a negativity bias so you need to make a special effort to remember the positive and congratulate yourself for what you did well.
Acknowledge the challenges and lapses too, but don’t be hard on yourself. Instead try to examine what stopped you and problem solve a solution. If you let your goals for the week (or month), don’t get into a tizzy. Just start again.
Work with An Accountability Partner or in an Accountability Group
Partner up with a friend or participate in an accountability group to achieve your goals. Make regular accountability dates with each other where you share your progress, brainstorm how to overcome challenges, and encourage one other. You can often find like-minded people in online forums if no one in your immediate circle is interested.
Announce Your Challenge
Whatever your goal is for the season, announce it to family, friends, on your blog, or in a supportive forum. We tend to take our public commitments more seriously.
Use your discernment, of course. It won’t help to tell people who will try to sabotage your success.
Set Up a Consequence
While I’m not one for negative reinforcement, it works for some people. For example, you could decide to give $5 to charity each day you miss using your stress-reduction technique. Ask a friend to collect the money from you weekly or monthly so you don’t blow it off.
Use a Habit Log or Habit Tracker
Use your calendar to mark off progress, log your progression in a spread sheet, or use a mobile habit tracker app. A log or tracker will help you to be consistent, and consistency leads to success. Here’s a good example, Bullet Journal style: 40 Things to Track in Your Habit Tracker.
Whatever system you decide on, add it to your written Stress Strategy, pencil it into your calendar, and use digital reminders so you don’t forget.
7 Habit Hacks to Help You Defeat Stress
It’s not easy to change habits. They become engraved along your neural pathways. You need to create new pathways through repetition. To make the process easier, use any or all of these habit hacks.
In habit stacking, you use an existing habit or regular event as a trigger to create a new habit. For example:
- After I finish a project, I will get up from my desk and move for 5 minutes.
- After lunch, I will go for a walk in the park for 15 minutes.
- When I see another person, I’ll smile.
- When I got to sleep at night, I will put a dab of lavender essential oil on my pillow.
Get the idea? Once you have a habit firmly in place, you can stack another on it.
Now create a list of ways you could habit stack your stress-reduction activities for any given week.
Use triggers to remind you to do your stress-reducing activity.
Set an alarm on your phone to gently ring a certain number of times a day or set up a notification on your computer. As in habit stacking, use a regular event like waking up, arriving home from work, or finishing a meal as a trigger to engage in stress prevention activities.
A Plan for Challenging Situations
There will be times when life gets busy or complicated. Decide in advance how you will keep up with your stress relief program during those times. For example, when I traveled to the mainland recently, I bought a small, personal blender so I could have a healthy breakfast each day.
It’s not easy to change habits so you will most likely lapse at some point. Know that this is the case for almost everyone. Make a commitment to yourself at the start of the program to just start again if you lapse. Never punish or speak rudely to yourself.
Do something nice for yourself to celebrate your progress each week or even each day. If it’s something relaxing, it will reinforce your efforts too. What would be an enjoyable, intelligent reward for you?
Think it through and take steps to make it easier to engage in your stress reduction habit.
For example, if you like to walk at lunch or after work, keep a pair of walking shoes in the car. If you want to reduce your caffeine intake, buy a nice selection of teas for your home and office. Create playlists of relaxing music that you can access on your digital device at anytime.
You can exacerbate stress with negative self-talk. Avoid, telling yourself, “This is so stressful.” Use positive self-talk instead like:
- Even though I feel stressed, I completely love and accept myself.
- I’m in charge of my stress response.
- I release all expectations that are leading to feelings of stress.
For more positive self-talk ideas, read 33 Mantras to Quickly Calm Your Stress Response.
Once you decide on the habit hacks you'll use, add them to your written Stress Strategy too.
Follow these steps and you’ll have a stress strategy that you can use for an entire year. Or, if you prefer, you can plan your stress strategy in 1 or 3-month blocks of time.
The most important thing to remember is that you deserve to live with more ease. While the world may want to pull you in twenty different directions, you don’t have to obey. You can take charge, reduce the stresses in your life, and build more relaxation into your day. You’ve got this!
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- You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Sending loving thoughts your way today and everyday. Thank you for reading! I appreciate your presence. May you be well, happy, and safe – always. With love, Sandra