Well-Being//

How to Get Ahead of Stress Before It Overwhelms You

When you feel overextended, arming yourself with a few useful tools can help.

Natalia Lebedinskaia/ Shutterstock
Natalia Lebedinskaia/ Shutterstock

There’s a phrase that Thrive’s founder and CEO Arianna Huffington often says: “Stress is inevitable, but cumulative stress is avoidable.” And since we all have days where our to-do list is a mile long and we feel completely in over our heads, it’s important to arm ourselves with tools to get ahead of the stress before it becomes cumulative and leads to burnout.

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the small ways they get ahead of stress before it overwhelms them. Which of these strategies will you try?

Plan your day the night before

“One tip that helps me is to plan my next day the evening before. Before bed, I close my eyes and visualize what I want my next day to be. I then write out a complete list of all the things I need to accomplish. The next day, I wake up open to any new ideas that I need to do that day. Doing this one exercise eliminates the feeling of, ‘Oh my goodness, I forgot that I need to do this today.’ Instead, it just allows me to refresh my list if necessary.”

——Dr. Nadine Collins, spiritual wellness coach, speaker, and author, Atlanta, GA

Try the 3-3-5 breathing exercise

“To get ahead of stress, I implement the 3-3-5 breathing exercise in my daily life. It instantly relaxes my body and allows me to access all the ideas and tools I have to move forward and be productive. You simply breathe in through your nose for three counts, hold it in for three counts, and then release it through the mouth for five counts. It’s simple, highly effective, and can be done anywhere at any time!”

—Nausheen Saumtally, empowerment speaker and trainer, Toronto, ON, Canada

Close your eyes and do a body scan 

“I make an effort to close my eyes and notice my bodily sensations, especially how my gut and neck feel. I feel stress especially in my gut area and in my neck and shoulders. It can sometimes feel as though the whole world is weighing down on my shoulders. Since I had a traumatic accident happen to me and had a bad neck strain at the start of my career, I know stress lodges in my neck and gut. By scanning my body, I can take a moment to acknowledge where I’m holding tension, and then take a break when needed.”

—Anitha Balaraj, executive coach, Chennai, India

Focus on the solution, not the problem

“One great way that I get ahead of my stress is to focus on the solution instead of the problem. When you start focusing on the problem, you get flooded with toxic hormones and chemical reactions. When you focus on the solution, it helps you stay present and look toward the future with hope. The small shift can make a huge difference.”

—Mary, licensed mental health counselor, FL

Carve out breaks in your schedule

“When I know I have a very busy, stressful day ahead, I make sure that I leave gaps of time in my scheduled bookings so I can have a little quiet downtime. I’ll make some mint tea, sit quietly and breathe, and play a mindless video game on my phone to give my brain a rest. I always feel better afterward and am able to take on the next appointment with calm and balance.” 

—Marci Brockmann, author, podcaster, artist, and educator, N.Y.

Write out your weekly meetings

“Each week, I sit down and write out my weekly meetings, using dotted paper and color code. I mark ‘active’ meetings, and ‘no-action’ meetings, so I know which meetings are considered priority for me to join. Re-writing my schedule on paper allows me to visually find pockets of time I can focus on projects and make time to think strategically.”

—Amanda, virtual production, Memphis, TN

Take a moment to go outside

“I head to the beach before I get too stressed out. I am a writer, so I have a flexible schedule, and I live five minutes from the beach. It always helps me get ahead of stress so it doesn’t overwhelm me down the line.”

—Natalie Brobin, writer, Oceanside, CA

Get a haircut

“There are days when I reach the end of my rope, but my number one strategy for getting ahead of stress before it overwhelms me is this: I get a haircut. It’s bizarre, I know. But most of the time, I feel stressed is because things seem overwhelming, disorganized, and out of control to me. Getting my haircut is actionable and feels like I’m getting something finished, tamed, and under control. it takes me away from the office and puts me in another chair to see the world. It also keeps me from using my cell phone, laptop, calculator, pens, or hands while in the barber’s chair, and allows me to talk to an objective person — the hairstylist — outside of my ordinary world. Simply put, it feels like I’m doing something good for myself and taking care of myself.”

—Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA, architect, Los Angeles, CA

Ask yourself how you’d advise a friend

“To get ahead of stress, I ask myself, ‘If I were going to troubleshoot this problem for a friend, what would I suggest?’ This question always helps me reframe. Sometimes simply having a list of a few options helps me become more proactive instead of reactive. It gives me a sense of control when things seem to be sliding sideways.” 

—Kristin Meekhof, wellness and Resilience expert and author, Royal Oak, MI

Make time for self-care

“For me, getting ahead of stress is about the non-negotiables: those daily activities linked to self-care. They just allow me to become much more logical and calm even when a stressful time does arise. Maintaining a clear and positive mindset allows for those stressful moments to become more manageable. The main ones for me are meditating, exercise, walking the dog, and reading. All of those rituals help to keep me balanced and give me space to be able to cope better when more complex emotions are challenged.”

—Amanda Edmanson, primary teacher, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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