Here’s how not to be stressed out all the time

In the self help aisle of any bookstore, there are plenty of books touting the benefits of relaxation, a sort of Marie Kondo approach to ridding your life of stressors (Is it stressful? Toss it out!). But avoidance is the wrong way to think about stress, writes Elissa Epel in her new book, “The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease” (Penguin Life), which draws on scientific research about stress and the physical impact it can have on the body. 

“You can’t eliminate all stressors…stress is interwoven into even the most joyful and fulfilling aspects of our lives: everything from parenting to career growth to reaching for big life dreams can be very stressful. These things are stressful because we care a lot about them,” says Epel. “Many strategies for relaxation end up being quick fixes, Band-Aids, that don’t really help you in the long term. When the next wave of stress comes along, it’s just as overwhelming as ever.” 

The good news, she emphasizes, is that people have far more control over their stress response than they might think. 

Author Elissa Epel
Author Elissa Epel
Jeremy Montemayor
The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease (The Seven Days Series) by Elissa Epel PhD

“I wrote this book because it’s too common to live with stress dominating our days, for most of our lives. And I am not a stranger to that! I have lived years of my life in what I call a chronic stress state. So if I could look back and realize now, how unnecessary that all was, I had more freedom than I could see. I could have stopped trying to control certain things that were out of my control. Instead of just documenting the harms of stress on our health, which I am guilty of, I have now devoted myself to understanding how we can lift the dark veil of stress. It should not be our most frequent daily emotion.”

Epel points out that just as muscle can be built up through physical fitness, stress fitness can also be worked on. “There are short small practices that we can do every day. We don’t need to do all of them — just find what fits our lifestyle. We can tune up our nervous system. We can’t control events. But we can change our stress response.” 

Here are 3 simple steps she advises: 

  • Embrace uncertainty: “When we realize that the uncertainty of the future is an invisible factor often stressing us out, we can actually get some relief from this.  We can become more comfortable with the feeling of uncertainty and with not knowing the future. We don’t need to be constantly vigilant and preparing for events that never happen.”
  • Put down the weight of what you can’t control. Where do you want to put your energy, and what can you let go of? “One of the best things we can do is check in with our mind and body and notice that we are holding on to so much stress — that we can put down extra baggage that we’re carrying.”  
  • Practice Deep Restoration: Leverage stress busting techniques like deep breathing and experiencing nature. “Nature has a big effect on reducing our anxiety, but we don’t usually think of using it that way.”