The best prescription for reducing stress is one created by you based on your knowledge of the stresses you are facing as well as an appreciation of your strengths and weaknesses. Begin by setting some prescriptive goals. The practical maxim, "Keep it simple, stupid" applies while you're doing this. By this we mean that simple plans and more modest aspirations for change are more practical and manageable to accomplish than more complicated plans and higher standards. Intentionally setting lower goals bothers some high achieving people. To the extent this is an issue for you, we suggest thinking of change as a process that can occur over time. It is not necessary to try to get to the finish line all at once, and often, because such a high standard is overwhelming, this goal becomes counterproductive. Though you may make your goals a bit easier to attain in the beginning, you can always choose to add a new goal or two or expand your existing ones at a later time.
Also in the service of simplicity, try to pick goals that you think you will enjoy performing, because these goals will be easier to stick with than ones you anticipate will be aversive. Make sure to keep your goals concrete and highly practical. For example, it is fine for you to set a goal of "being less stressed out," but this is actually a rather abstract goal and one that offers you no guidance as to how to achieve it. It is far better for you to set a concrete goal of performing a values exercise or committing yourself to reading a story to your child every weeknight after work. When you phrase your goals in practical, concrete terms, you know how to accomplish them, and they are easy to measure.
Write down your goals using positive language, saying what you will do, rather than what you won't. Doing it in this positive manner helps you to stay concrete. Here are a few examples of practical, concrete stress management goals:
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- I will challenge and correct my faulty thinking patterns by practicing cognitive restructuring.
- I will have relaxation breaks throughout the day each day.
- I will learn meditation and spend 15 to 30 minutes a day using it.
- I will start a daily exercise program doing an activity I enjoy.
- I will schedule two mini-vacations each month.
- I will walk my dog several times each week.
- I will examine my time management strategies and alter them so that they better fit my values.
It would not be a good idea to try to do this many things all at once, by the way. Such a large stress prescription would likely become overwhelming and might create more stress than you started with. Instead, from a larger list like the one above, choose the one or two goals you think will be most helpful and work on those. Don't try to do too much at once or you will set yourself up to become overwhelmed.
Making a Commitment
When you have a plan you can live with, the next thing you will need to do is to make a commitment to carrying it out. Making a commitment is easy, as you are undoubtedly aware; it is the keeping of commitments when they make you uncomfortable that is very difficult.
Keeping commitments becomes easier when you make them in a formal and public way, thus harnessing social peer pressure and your own desire to please others in the service of your goals. Announcing your goals publicly to people who care about you can also become a way to ask for and receive support. Between the "stick" of peer pressure and not wanting to let people down, and the "carrot" of peer support, making your goals public can help support your motivation to succeed. Do not keep your plans a secret. Find at least one other person who cares about you (a friend, a sibling or a spouse) and share your stress management goals and your plans for achieving them. These people can become your partners in change.
Another way to formalize your goals is to write or type them out in the form of a contract. On this contract, spell out your goals and specify the time frame in which you will meet them. Being specific about time and frequency helps to reduce ambiguity in your contract. For instance, if your goal is to attend a yoga class twice a week, write that entire phrase down. If your contract simply says "I will attend a yoga class" (with no mention of frequency), then you will be able to meet the goal by attending just one time! The lazy part of yourself (and we all have one) may decide to latch onto this loophole one night when you aren't feeling particularly enthused about going to class. Probably, this isn't what you had in mind when you designed your contract, and it won't help very much in reducing stress. Being more specific helps you avoid such loopholes.
For extra formality, sign your written goals contract and have your partner(s) sign as well. Make several copies of the signed contract and place them in several locations: carry one copy with you in your wallet or organizer; keep one in the car. You can even put one in the bathroom, or post it on the wall in the kitchen when everyone will see it.
If you change your goals or the methods you plan to use to meet them, rewrite your contract, sign the new version, make copies, and replace all the old copies with the new ones. Reading through your contract on a regular basis will also help you keep your commitment on track and ensure that the goals are realistic and manageable.