Summary: Who isn’t familiar with the call to “set priorities” in stressful situations? But we don’t always have the resources to set priorities in such phases. Therefore, Psychologist Corina Sager advises us to practice assessing our stress level in everyday life and to derive a suitable strategy from it. While acute stress requires reducing the current tension, chronic stress calls for longer-term changes. To achieve these, we must first focus on experiencing positive emotions. Because unlike stress, which narrows our view, positive emotions broaden our perspective and allow us to see new possibilities for action.
ressure at work, arguments with your partner, lack of sleep, and your apartment’s a mess. Plus, hovering over everything is the thought: “I can’t take this anymore.” Those looking to fight stress in these situations often receive advice such as getting an overview, prioritizing tasks, identifying stressors, changing their diet, and finally using the fitness subscription they bought months ago. These are all good tips. But in an acute phase of stress, they are overwhelming and thus totally dysfunctional.
Making Stress Work For You
Tension is not a bad thing. On the contrary, we need it to motivate ourselves to tackle things and master challenges. If the tension is too low, we feel unmotivated and can’t get anything done. So ideally, we want to be in a medium tension range. Somewhere between 30% and 70% is where we are present and efficient.
Recognize: My Focus Is Narrowed
When tension rises above 70% due to acute stress, our body releases large amounts of stress hormones. Something also happens psychologically that is essential for survival in crisis situations: our focus narrows and is directed entirely to the current problem. If we were faced with a saber-toothed tiger in the past, these mechanisms ensured our survival. Today, however, we put complex cognitive demands on ourselves in acute states of stress; we try to analyze the situation, weigh options, and set priorities. Most of the time, we fail because we’re not thinking clearly and we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.
Avoiding the Threatening Downward Spiral
As valuable and important as this “emergency program” of the body is for short-term stress and crises, it is problematic if we get stuck in it permanently. In the worst case, this can lead to a downward spiral; the higher the tension, the necessary abilities to reduce stress (prioritization, for instance) become more limited. Those caught in this spiral increasingly spend their lives reacting to circumstances instead of actively shaping their lives, likely leading to exhaustion and helplessness.
Choosing the Right Strategy
Fortunately, we are not at the mercy of this vicious cycle. By choosing the right strategy, we can break out of the negative spiral and regain our balance. The central question is: Do I need an immediate measure to be able to think clearly again, or do I have enough resources to tackle a long-term change? Perceiving and assessing one’s stress level is thus an essential component in dealing with stress. It’s also a prerequisite for choosing an effective strategy.
Recognize the signs of:
- Circling thoughts and difficulty making decisions
- Feelings of anger or helplessness
- Increased pulse, faster breathing, sweating
- Restlessness and difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Fatigue, sleep disturbances
Tips for Acute Stress
In the case of acute stress, the motto is: reduce tension to regain a clear head. Specifically, this means to stop brooding and free yourself (if possible) from the pressure of having to make decisions. Often this has to be done against some inner resistance, as thoughts arise like: “I can’t relax if I haven’t clarified or settled the matter.” However, if you give in to this impulse, you go in circles instead of bringing about change. In contrast, measures to reduce acute tensions at these moments are not merely a distraction from current problems but the necessary first step toward improving the situation.
The following interventions have proven effective:
- Spicy food (chili, wasabi)
- Going for a walk (preferably in the forest)
- A cold shower
- Putting a small pebble in your shoe
- Listening to music
- Sports sessions
- Breathing meditations or progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
A trick to avoid going back to brooding can be setting a time horizon, e.g., “By the end of September, I’ll stop worrying about ending my relationship. Until then, I’m investing primarily in my energy and recovery to regain my decision-making ability. On October 1, I will plan how I will come to a decision.”
Tips for Chronic Stress
Chronic stress requires lasting change. For this, we need energy, access to our needs, realistic planning, and creativity to deal with challenges. So how can we achieve this? Just as stress narrows our focus, positive emotions have the power to widen our focus1. So, if we want to get out of chronic stress, we must first make sure to experience more positive emotions. After that, prioritizing will be much easier.
To get started, use these reflection questions:
- What activities, people, and things trigger positive emotions in me?
- How can I concretely incorporate them into my everyday life?
Choosing the right strategy for dealing with stress saves a lot of frustration and holds the potential to shape your life. You can then grow as a person. To succeed, incorporate scientific findings that also guide psychologists and coaches. Such as, recognize the narrowing of your focus, break out of it through targeted relaxation, and allow yourself positive emotions to tackle your challenges with more energy and creativity.
- Barbara L. Fredrickson in her book “Positivity”
Corina Sager is a psychologist and aspiring psychotherapist. Her favorite topics include emotional competencies, stress management, and mindful self-compassion.