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Let’s face it: life can be stressful at times. It’s frustrating enough thinking about the things that are stressing you out, but you know what’s the worst?

A lot of times, you don’t even know where the stress and anxiety are coming from.

Many of us live with a base level of stress. The first step to getting out is acknowledging stress that’s already there.

In this episode, we talk about some extremely practical tips for reducing stress. These are very specific, actionable things you can do to help discover, acknowledge, and decrease stress in your life.

Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins:
  • Stress can be a big issue that arises or it can be something little that feels like having a rock in your shoe. It comes with you and you get used to it, but it never gets better.
  • The awareness of what isn’t in your control or what the unknowns are can help you move past those things.
  • If you’re carrying stress you didn’t even realize you had, get away from your current situation so you can get clarity.
  • Talk through your stress with other people.
  • Schedule a break and ask yourself: what kind of break am I going to take and how is it going to benefit me when I return to my work?
  • Save and revisit words of encouragement people have sent you in the past.
  • Prepare for the ability to reduce stress in the future by going to bed earlier.
  • The more margin you have in your life, the less stressed you’ll be.
  • Expressing gratitude in an outward sense relieves stress.
  • Try a breathing exercise: Control your breathing—breathe in and then exhale in a 1:2 ratio.
  • A lot of reducing stress is developing good habits and not dwelling on it, which is why stepping away from it is good.
Show Notes
  • 03:34 Ben: We had a conversation in the chat room earlier that started by trying to define stress and getting into the nuances of that. For the purpose of this episode, we didn’t want to get so specific with the definition of stress that we disqualify it. We want to think about the general, societal understanding of stress as a negative force in our lives that has physical, emotional, and mental consequences. We also talked about anxiety as a form of stress, going into the unknown. For example, stage-fright: you feel stressed because you know you’re going to be in front of a bunch of people, but the root of that is what you don’t know and that’s causing you stress. You don’t know how people are going to respond to what you have to say or, because of your lack of experience, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to deliver the talk as you intend to.
  • 05:07 Sean: When it comes to public speaking, I think it’s a combination of known and unknown anxiety or stress sources. You know you’re going to go out there and there will be a bunch of people staring at you, you know that much. That in and of itself could be scary to you, but then there’s a ton of unknowns, which tend to be the more prominent causes of stress.
  • 05:50 Ben: When you talk about the knowns and you say, “There are going to be a bunch of people staring at me,” I want to know why that stresses you out. Why does that bother you? You’re standing in front of a bunch of people staring at you, but you’re not in any physical danger. Maybe they’re going to throw things at you or boo you off the stage, and ruin your reputation. You wouldn’t be able to pursue that career anymore, therefore your identity will be ruined and you won’t be able to provide for your family.

Acknowledging Stress

  • 07:56 Sean: This is the kind of stress people deal with at work on a regular basis: they’re trying to do something and something else keeps nagging at them that they shouldn’t be focusing on. It takes some of their focus and the more they try to ignore it, the more they realize it’s there.
  • 08:28 When it comes to stress, do you or don’t you think acknowledging what you can control and what you can’t control can help? Do you feel like that’s a productive thing to acknowledge or it isn’t always something that can reduce stress for you?
  • 08:51 Ben: That does take away the nagging and you can do the, “What will I do if…” exercise. You can try to think through different scenarios for those things you don’t know, but you can do that too much. You can spend so much time focusing on those potential negative outcomes and making a plan for those that you don’t actually accomplish anything. It’s good to accept the fact you don’t know and you’re not going to know until you do it.

The awareness of what isn’t in your control or what the unknowns are can help you move past those things.

  • 09:58 Sean: In a way, knowing that you’re not going to know to a certain point is somewhat of a relief. For me, not knowing, if or when I’ll ever know, is more stress.
  • 10:16 Ben: It’s the difference between wanting to know the things you don’t know as soon as you can and part of me refuses to move forward until those unknowns are answered because of the potential danger it might put me in. There’s some level of fear going on there. Though we may not be able to articulate specifically what the consequences of those unknowns are, we know conceptually in our minds that those unknowns have consequences that could potentially harm us. It’s in our best interest to try to know as many of those things as we can before moving forward, but that process sometimes takes over and causes our creative, intentional, and motivated self to take a back seat. We have to recognize it’s taken over and if we want to move forward, we have to tell it that we’re not going to get the answers to those questions until a certain point.

Big Stress vs. Small Stresses Over Time

  • 11:55 Sean: I was asking people in the chat room what they do to reduce stress and we got some really great answers. Steven was saying that stress can sometimes be a large amount at once, like a sudden stressful issue that arises, or it can be a little over time. It can be something that accumulates and builds. You live with this low-level, baseline stress that creeps up on you.
  • 12:33 Ben: The latter is the worst for me. I almost prefer something that’s big and difficult but is relatively short.
  • 12:47 Sean: At least you know exactly what you have to deal with in that moment. Suddenly, there’s clarity—“I have to take my kid to the hospital.” That’s not fun at all but it’s immediately clear what you need to do.
  • 13:05 Ben: For example, the other day, my second oldest came downstairs and he was having some kind of allergic reaction. His eyes and cheeks were all puffed out. I had all these plans for my day, but that was stressful. It’s scary to see that happening to your kid, especially if it could lead to life threatening symptoms. Without having to think about it, I knew I was clearing my morning to take care of that.
  • 13:50 Sean: There’s this big thing that’s dropped in front of you.

Stress can be the little things that feel like having a rock in your shoe.

It comes with you and you get used to it, but it never gets better.

  • 14:13 Ben: Those kinds of stresses end up having worse long-term physical, emotional, and mental consequences. The physical ones scare me a lot. Think about developing heart disease and those kinds of problems because of stress, when you’re otherwise a very healthy person. That kind of stress is a little devious thing that gradually sucks the life out of you over time. Sometimes we don’t know how to deal with it or we don’t believe we can. We think we have to live with it, or maybe it’s so small we don’t realize it’s eating away at us.
  • 15:14 Sean: We learn to live with it and eventually, you have all this stress baggage. Like you said, it manifests in physical ways sometimes, which can be really detrimental to your health. You may not even realize it because you’re so used to it. You’ve had the rock in your shoe so you don’t think about it. It’s not pleasant but you just accept it. Do you have any advice to speak toward recognizing you’re carrying stress that you’ve accepted, and are not working toward minimizing?
  • 16:01 Ben: I wonder if there are certain types of stresses we can face and actually do something about and other stresses that are just part of your reality. Say it’s something small that grows over time, I would say do what you can to make it grow as quickly as possible. Make it the biggest form of that issue so you have the same kind of experience as when you’re faced with big stresses. Take that molehill and let it be a mountain so you can deal with it.

If you’re carrying stress you didn’t even realize you had, get away from your current situation so you can get clarity.

  • 16:58 Sean: Take a break, take a vacation, change your scenery, or get around different people. Start wearing a different pair of shoes so you can realize they don’t all have rocks in them. It can help you recognize there’s a rock in your primary pair of shoes. Another way to get perspective is to talk through your stress with other people. Most people say, “I’m fine,” when someone asks how they’re doing. They don’t say that they have a rock in their shoe.
  • 18:06 Ben: If you do say that you have a rock in your shoe, that person may have the opportunity to say, “You have a rock in your shoe? When I get a rock in my shoe, I don’t put up with that.” That’s a way to discover stress or give it the appropriate amount of significance in your life so you can tell whether or not it’s something you need to deal with. An example I think of is if you have a boss who has unrealistic expectations of you. You go into work every day and do your job but there’s this low-grade fever of knowing what your boss expects and knowing you can’t deliver on that.
  • 19:25 Sean: Some people have bosses that tell them to do one thing and then when they do it, the boss comes back and says, “No, no, no. You did it wrong,” even when they did it exactly as they said.
  • 19:42 Ben: Taking that little thing and turning it into a big thing, for me, looks like having a confrontation with that boss and saying, “It really bothers me that you do this.” That’s stressful and scary—there might be consequences that come out of it—but think about the other side of it. Maybe it fixes the little thing that was eating away at you for so long.
  • 20:13 Sean: Start it off by saying, “I want to do my best work and I feel like this is keeping me from being able to do that. I want to be able to do my best work for you.”

Take a Break

  • 20:48 Ben: There are things you deal with that you can remove from your life, but there are other things you can’t. If you want to survive those things, there are practices you can put into place that help reduce the effects of those stresses in your life that, by necessity, have to be there.
  • 21:09 Sean: The number one thing I do to reduce stress is take a break. Maybe some people are thinking, “Of course I take breaks!” but for some of us, taking a break isn’t a given or something we do regularly. It’s something we have to force ourselves to do, because we get in the zone, deal with the stress, and go full speed ahead. I had to purposely put these break points in, like beanbag time. When we’re feeling like there’s too many overwhelming things, we stop and reset with beanbag time. We talk everything through and get it all out there. Sometimes it feels like there’s six things to do in the amount of time it takes to do two things, and you simply can’t do it.
  • 22:16 It feels like they all need to be done but the reality is you can only do two. You’ve got to drill down and ask yourself: what is the most important thing to do right now? What is the second most important thing to do? If they’re equal, ask yourself, “If we do A, what are the results? If we do B, what are the results? What are the pros and cons? Of the cons, which negatives outweigh the others?” A lot of this stuff is spinning around in our heads and I don’t like using our brains for storage devices. I would rather get it all out and use our brains to process what we’re dealing with, instead of using it to store all these variables.
  • 24:15 Ben: I’m one of the people for whom taking breaks comes more naturally, but the question I would want to ask is what kind of break are you taking? Are you playing on social media or something that isn’t making the best use of that time? When I would come back from some types of activities that I used to do on my breaks, my mind was more scattered and fragmented. That’s an important question:

What kind of break are you going to take and how is it going to benefit you when you return to your work?

  • 25:01 Sean: What kinds of breaks can you identify? If you had categories of breaks, what would they be?
  • 25:09 Ben: I like thinking breaks, going somewhere comfortable and relaxing, and allowing yourself to do a brain-dump. It’s zooming out so you can get a better idea of what’s going on. I also like breaks that calm my mind and takes the focus away from the work.
  • 25:29 Sean: There’s the thinking break, where it’s processing and brain-dumping, and then the meditative break that’s a clearing of the mind. Then, there’s a physical break.
  • 25:44 Ben: You could get up and stretch so you’re not just sedentary all day.
  • 25:55 Sean: Aaron Dowd will take walks and I always liked that. I associate certain things with certain people, even if it’s taking a walk as a break, which I associate with Aaron. One time he was over here when we used to do the podcast together, and we took a walk before the show. It’s a cool way to get away. It’s physical, you can think, or you can clear your mind—the trifecta of breaks.
  • 27:04 Ben: When you’re talking about ways to reduce stress, that packages up many of the ways we’re going to get to, because you’ve got the break, in and of itself. You’ve also got the thinking space, exercise, and being outdoors, which is also a natural stress reliever.

Revisit Words of Encouragement

  • 27:48 Sean: Another thing you can do is if you have people emailing you or writing you letters, create a folder—in your inbox, on your computer, or a physical folder—of encouragement people have sent you, especially if you’re a words of encouragement person. Revisiting that can do a lot to reduce stress.
  • 28:21 Ben: Some of our stress comes from the feeling or the fear that we’re not competent, capable, or appreciated. Appreciation finds it’s roots in competency or worthiness—are you really worth being in this space, saying the things you’re saying? When you look at that encouragement, it’s an affirmation of those things that are true about you but in those moments you’ve forgotten.

Prepare & Create Margin

  • 29:01 Sean: Prepare for the ability to reduce stress in the future by going to bed earlier. It’s not something I’m always successful at but when I’m able to go to bed earlier, especially waking up earlier, I feel less stressed or rushed. How many people wake up with only enough time to get ready for and start their day? I’d say most of us have just enough, or not even ideally enough time, to do what we need to do to get ready to start our day.
  • 30:05 Ben: It really sets the tone for your day. If you wake up and you’re rushing from one thing to the next, you’re going to approach every task you do that day with that mindset unless you catalyze some kind of shift in your mindset. Why not give yourself the benefit of easing into your day? It’s like that, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” thing. Slow is smooth, so if you make slow movements, it allows you to do things more precisely and that smoothness is fast because you’re not making mistakes or getting ahead of yourself. I take that to mean in my day, when I’m not rushing from one thing to the next, I’m not missing things and I’m more present. I’m not rushing myself and I’m taking the appropriate amount of time, and because of that, I’m able to do things more smoothly. I’m more efficient because I do things more smoothly, and therefore accomplish things in the right amount of time.

The more margin you have in your life, the less stressed you’ll be.

  • 31:57 Sean: It’s creating that margin that’s difficult because it feels inefficient. Why would I schedule a blank space of time when I’m not doing something? We just got back from a conference a couple of weeks ago and this happens with almost all conferences: it’s hard to schedule as many speakers as you want, ensuring they’re all on time, there’s not technical difficulties, making sure the speaker doesn’t go over, and ensuring there’s enough speakers to entertain the attendees.
  • 32:56 Most conferences I’ve ever been to have a hard time staying on schedule, and the reason is because they’re not efficient. It’s a domino effect—the first speaker is late and everything else is late unless you make up for that time somewhere. You would have to remove some of the margin you scheduled and you now have to not only get ahead, but prevent future lapses, otherwise, it cascades exponentially. You want to have safeguards. Not just gaps between what you’re doing, but intentional, scheduled gaps. They’re keeping you from being consistently stressed throughout the day and eventually burning out completely.
  • 33:50 Ben: On paper, it looks like you’re getting fewer things done. In reality, if you were to do an AB test where this week you don’t schedule any margin and kept track of how much you get done, the quality of that work, and your emotional state, then take another week with margin built in, you’d see the difference. You’re definitely going to be in a better emotional state, the quality of your work will be better, and it’s possible you’ll end up doing at least the same amount of work, if not more, because of the focus you’re able to have from not being stressed.
  • 34:46 Sean: In the latest Lambo Goal episode, Matt remembered me telling him, “90% is better than 0%,” which he took to mean if you burn out, you have no output. It seems inefficient to schedule gaps or margin but if we don’t, we get stressed and burnt out to the point we’re not productive or can’t work. That’s a lot worse than scheduling little breaks.
  • 35:19 Ben: Unless you have a lot of practical experience with being burnt out, we’re not very good judges of what it’s going to take to burn us out. I’ve been surprised at how quickly I’ve arrived at burn out.
  • 35:37 Sean: It’s all the little rocks in your shoe you can live with until you sprain something. I like what Jenna said about taking a walk being obvious, “Almost all of reducing stress is obvious. It all comes under the umbrella of taking care of yourself—exercise, sleep, eat well, be upfront with people, be good to yourself. People tend to put themselves last.” I like what she said about everything being obvious, because everything is “obvious,” if you’re thinking about it and breaking it down. There’s so many topics and areas of our lives with obvious things, but we can’t be bothered to notice all of the obvious things in our lives when we’ve got more important things going on. We need to slow down and talk about the obvious things like taking a break, taking a walk, going to bed early, etc.

Express Gratitude

  • 36:57 I’m a words of affirmation person so someone telling me, “Hey you did a good job. I appreciate you doing this,” means a lot to me. That’s my energy and I can go off that. A nice comment like that goes a long way. When I don’t have that energy and I’m feeling depleted, it can bring me down. It’s easy to want other people to help me, say nice things to me, and build me up. It’s like a pendulum that’s just sitting and you’re on one side of it. You’re wanting, wishing, and willing this pendulum to swing toward you, but if you pulled it toward you and let it go, it’s not only going to swing away from you, but it’s going to swing back and continue.

If you initiate positivity, you’ll receive it back.

  • 38:19 In the Community chat room, I started thanking people and expressing my gratitude for the things they’ve done and the person they are. It was contagious! The positivity was infectious. People started saying nice things back to me and nice things back to each other. It was a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it feels like other people are causing you stress or your boss isn’t appreciating you, but when’s the last time you appreciated your boss? What if you were to say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been working really hard and have a lot of things on your plate. I just wanted to say thanks for doing a good job and doing your best to keep all of us informed.” I can’t see a scenario where that doesn’t come back to you directly or indirectly. Expressing gratitude in an outward sense relieves stress for me.
  • 40:10 Ben: Not just to people but in general. Rachel did an exercise daily where she would pinpoint something in her life that was causing her stress or was frustrating and she would turn it around into something she could be grateful about. An example of this was that she’s glad she has children that produce obscene amounts of artwork on paper that clutters our house, because it means we’ve given our children the freedom to express themselves artistically and it leaves us with mementos of this time that’s so precious. It’s stressful when you come home from work and the house is a mess with paper and crayons everywhere, but I like that she turned it into something she could feel gratitude toward. It neutralizes the affect of that stress.

Control Your Breathing

  • 41:51 Sean: Controlling your breathing goes along with the meditative practices we talked about earlier. Breathe in and then exhale in a 1:2 ratio. If you breath in for four seconds and exhale for eight seconds, you’re controlling the exhale and slowing it down, instead of completely opening the throttle and letting it all out. That 1:2 ratio about five to ten times and it will completely calm you.
  • 43:11 Ben: There are things your body does involuntarily, like breathing, your heart beating, blinking, and digestion, and they are somewhat out of your control. I wonder if when you take control of the process of breathing, it’s almost a metaphor for you taking control of the things that seem out of control in your own life.
  • 44:26 Sean: I asked our listeners in the chat room: what are the ways you reduce stress? Not everyone is going to think of everyones’ obvious things so we all get to benefit from what they say. Wilda says, “Meditate: focus on something good I’m looking forward to.” Eric says, “To reduce stress, I use an app called Headspace for quick 10-minute guided meditations. I also like to engage in creative activities that require focus but are less serious. I’ve found that action sports are very stress relieving for me due to all of the freedom and expression involved.”

How Listeners Reduce Stress

  • 46:39 Steven says, “Walking and exercise.” Ryan says, “Break down on scrap paper all the ‘things’ that are stressing me out. Breaking them into digestible steps minimizes the intimidation of it all. Scrap paper is important because theres no pressure to be perfect. This is meant to be tossed out, or used as a checklist and then tossed out.” Kyle says, “Thinking past my current situation and realizing what the future will look like. I sit back and stare sometimes, thinking of where I’m going. The stress reduction from that alone is awesome. It’s also probably an INTJ thing, breaking it apart and seeing stress at face value.” I definitely resonate with that as an INTJ, but I think different personalities can benefit from that.
  • 47:45 Ben: Regardless of our personality, we all want to deal with things on an intellectual level. Some people need to work through more emotional territory than others do before they can get there.
  • 48:03 Sean: Brent says, “When I’m stressed with something work related – maybe it’s frustration, or I’m just to the point where I won’t produce good work because I’m so stressed, I’ll step away. Doing anything other than sitting in front of the computer usually clears my mind. And you can use that time to be productive as well. For me I might walk the dog, do the dishes, mow the lawn, etc.”
  • 48:23 Ben: I wonder if sometimes the thing you’re doing that you need to take a break from and that’s causing stress to build up might inform what you need to do. We’re doing something that’s calming, clearing your mind, and getting outdoors but what if you’re working outdoors or you’re around a bunch of people? Maybe what you need to retreat to is something that offsets that. If the task is really mundane, maybe you need to retreat to something more mentally stimulating, or if you’re around a bunch of people, you need to retreat to solitude.
  • 49:18 Sean: Jenna says, “Recognize the stress. Set priorities and say no to things (reduce obligations). Exercise/yoga. A support group (friend, family, community, church).”

A lot of reducing stress is developing good habits and not dwelling on it, which is why stepping away from it is good.

  • 50:42 Ben: I want to encourage people to schedule and write down some things they can put into practice, so it becomes a habit. Don’t let these things sit in your mind and think, “That would be a nice thing to do,” make a plan to build this into your life so it’s not just a nice thing that seems obvious but you never do.