How Writing a 'Stress List' Helps Me Feel Less Overwhelmed
'I feel so stressed.'
Familiar with that statement? It probably runs through my head at least a few times a day.
For me, it’s easy to identify when I’m feeling stressed—racing thoughts and a knot in my stomach are pretty good tip-offs.
The part that’s hard? Knowing why I’m stressed.
But I stumbled upon a definition of “stress” recently that helps me find a little more clarity.
According to the American Psychological Association, everyday stress “occurs when you perceive that demands placed on you—such as work, school or relationships—exceed your ability to cope.”
I felt so seen by that definition.
Why: When I’m stressed, I tend to feel helpless in the face of everything I have to do. My mind starts spinning rather than focusing on what I need to get done and what I'm capable of doing.
Now, I realize that’s coming from feeling like the demands I’m facing exceed my ability to cope. When stress clouds my brain, I forget what I have to help me persevere.
My personal goal: To get curious about where my stress is coming from and what I have to help me cope. To help me do that, I’ve started creating what I’m calling a “stress list” when things start to feel overwhelming.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Get a pen and a piece of paper
Yup, we’re doing this old school. Why: Studies show that handwriting can actually benefit your mental health. And I’ve found that stepping away from technology to create this list helps me really get grounded and avoid distractions.
Once you have your pen and paper, divide the paper vertically into two columns.
2. Write down all the demands you feel are placed on you.
In the first column, free write all the demands you feel like you need to respond to. The work demands, relationship demands, personal demands—give yourself permission to just vent and list it all out.
3. Write down all the strengths you have that can help you cope.
Now, it’s time to recognize what you do have to help you cope. In the second column, write down what you have to help you deal with each specific demand you’re facing.
This could range from an actual object or service that can help you (ex. My “buy holiday gifts” strength = Amazon) to a particular core value of yours (creativity, persistence, flexibility) to even ways you’ve already set yourself up for success (ex. Do laundry—you’ve already bought the detergent and have your quarters at the ready!).
What this does: It reminds you that you aren’t starting from zero when it comes to tackling the demands you’re facing. You're most likely equipped with what you need to do what you have to do.
But if you can't come up with anything for column two: That's when you need to recognize when you might be trying to do too much. The demands placed on you genuinely exceed your ability to cope.
If you’re struggling to find something that helps you deal with a demand, that’s your cue to ask yourself:
●︎ Can I change this demand placed on me?
●︎ Can I release some of this responsibility?
●︎ Can I lower the expectations I’m putting on myself?
●︎ Can I ask someone for help?
Stress is unavoidable—it’s literally hardwired in us as a way to protect ourselves from lions and tigers and bears back in the day.
But in our day-to-day, we’re more often dealing with to-do lists, not tigers.
Try making a stress list to start seeing how you can cope with the demands you’re facing. Like me, you might find you’re more capable than you think.
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