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4 Things You Can Control When You’re Under Stress

Focusing on the things you can change will help you stay calm, cool, and collected.

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Feeling more stressed out than usual lately? It’s OK to admit it. I am, too.

The list of things we have to worry about seems to grow a little bit longer each day. Kids are home from school, millions are out of work, social gatherings have disappeared from calendars, and our top priority is staying healthy. Of course we’re stressed! So much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dedicated a full page to coping during this time.

You’ve probably heard before that some stress is good for you. And up to a point, that’s true: Stress helps you escape danger and can motivate you in non-life-threatening situations like competing for a promotion. On the other hand, long-lasting stress can cause your body harm through lost sleep, digestive problems, headaches, and even disruptions to your cardiovascular system.

When stress threatens to overwhelm you, keep your head above water by focusing on the following four areas of your life that you can control:

1. The People in Your Circles

You have control over which people you spend time with. Keep in touch with friends and family, especially those who bring out the best in you. Surround yourself with people who make you feel confident and happy. Cultivate work relationships with people you admire and respect. Be selective — you’re not obligated to socialize with people you’re not comfortable around.

I’ve made an effort to adjust my circles based on my needs a few times in the past. When I had a child, I realized I needed to strengthen my relationships with friends who had kids around his age. He got playdates, and I got solid advice from my friends who were in the trenches with me. And as I started to pick up more speaking opportunities, I searched for awesome speakers to follow online. Over time, I built real personal and professional connections that have helped bolster my career.

2. Your To-Do List

Collecting everything you need to accomplish in a day (or week, or month) in a to-do list is a great way to exert some control over your daily routine. If your list seems unmanageable, though, it might be time to restructure it. Break down large, vague tasks like “prepare for presentation” into smaller ones like “outline speech” and “create slides.” From there, identify which tasks are actually critical to complete today and which could wait until tomorrow.

When you’ve checked all the tasks on your list, take a page from Green Cow Venture Capital co-founder and managing director Maggie Sprenger. “I end every day with a quick review and to-do list for the next day, which helps ensure things don’t slip through the cracks,” she says. “I obsess over good processes, and when I am more disciplined in setting up a methodology, I am always more successful in moving forward.”

3. The Content You Consume

Right now, a major stressor for many is the constant influx of data, predictions, and opinions about the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Anthony Puliafico at Columbia University, it’s important to be informed about regulations and recommendations so you can follow critical safety procedures. But listening to the news 24/7 can provoke anxiety and prevent you from getting the break you need to de-stress and avoid burnout.

If excess news consumption is adding to your stress, try to limit your exposure to it. Do you find yourself exhausted after back-to-back Zoom happy hours on weekends? Space them out or shorten them if you can. Is social media causing FOMO? Set a time limit for your scrolling. And if watching “Great British Bake-Off” brings you joy, don’t feel guilty for hitting “play” on that next episode.

4. The Way You Treat Yourself

Extend to yourself the same grace you give your co-workers, friends, and family. After all, as flight attendants note, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others. Being too hard on yourself can increase your levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that can worsen some of the symptoms I previously described. That means cutting out the self-criticism helps both your mental and physical health.

Carve out a little bit of time for yourself every day and be kind when you don’t finish every single item on your to-do list. Practice caring for yourself, comforting yourself, and accepting your flaws. Being kind to yourself can also take the form of sleeping a full eight hours, eating a balanced diet, and getting in a little bit of exercise when you can.

Under stress, it can feel like you’re drowning under the weight of situations you can’t control. But you can combat the feeling and minimize your stress by pouring your energy into the elements of your life that you can master. Just remember: Don’t beat yourself up if your dinner consists of frozen pizza instead of a gourmet meal. We’ll get through this, one method of stress reduction at a time.

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