Feel like your life just keeps getting more stressful? You're not alone. Study after study shows that Americans say finding any sort of satisfactory work-life balance is getting harder. These days, adulthood often just isn't much fun, according to research.

There are a ton of reasons for these trends, from economic hardship to technology, and you could debate the primary drivers' of Americans' rising stress levels all day. But there's a more urgent question to ask: is there anything you can practically do about it?

While resetting your boundaries when it comes to your devices or patching the holes in the family budget are big undertakings, it turns out there is one small but effective thing you can do to help you manage your stress levels right now. According to a Harvard psychologist, you just need to ask yourself a single, simple question.

What are two other options?

One of the problems with stress is that our minds tend to ruminate about our problems so that the same painful but less-than-constructive thoughts go round and round in our heads. The solution, Harvard's Susan David recently told Good's Tod Perry, is to halt this cycle of pointless worry by asking yourself a single question: What are two other options? Perry explains:

When Davis' clients tell her they're feeling stressed she always answers with the same question: What are two other options? She found that after asking this question to her clients they often report disappointment with their careers or uncover other underlying emotions that intensified their stress. We often lump our emotional problems under the big-tent label of "stress" which prevents us from digging deeper to reveal the bigger picture.

Emotional granularity to the rescue

The technical term for why this works is "emotional granularity." In layperson's language it simply means getting much more specific about your emotions. Instead of a blanket statement like, "I'm stressed," those with high emotional granularity might say, "I'm a little bit disappointed in myself for not bringing home a higher paycheck and also scared about how that might affect my kids' prospects in life."

The second alternative might just sound like a wordier version of the first, but being able to get specific about your feeling helps you figure out solutions and direct your efforts effectively. And that's scientifically proven to make a difference in outcomes.

"Studies show that people who have greater emotional granularity live longer, healthier lives and are less likely to become ill," reports Perry.

So next time you're stressing out, force yourself to focus on the finer granularity of your feelings by asking yourself to consider more options for describing how you feel.

Or, if you're stressed because of a specific upcoming challenge like a big presentation or job interview, try another tack suggested by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal: mentally re-frame your physical sensations, like a racing heart or sweating palms, as signs of helpful excitement rather than performance-destroying stress. It might seem too easy to be effective, but research suggests this approach actually works.

Published on: Sep 15, 2016
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