Here's the brutal truth: you're not going to eliminate stressful events from your life. Unless you happen to be a billionaire or a zen master (and probably not even in those cases), there's little chance any one of us will succeed in avoiding tough challenges and unpredictable situations.
Nor would you probably want to. The most stressful aspects of our days -- the tough work project, the crazy toddler antics -- are also usually the parts that give our lives the most meaning. In short, we're stuck with stress.
You can't eliminate stress. But you can rethink it.
So if you can't eliminate the causes of stress, are you doomed to pass through life feeling tense, exhausted, and jittery? Nope, says Stanford psychologist and star TED speaker Kelly McGonigal. Eliminating stress might be a pipe dream, but rethinking it to mitigate its worst effects is totally doable, she insists.
How, practically, do you do that? Blogger James Clear recently extracted one great and totally actionable idea from McGonigal's book The Upside of Stress -- regularly write down your values and how they connect with your day-to-day life. It's a simple 10-minute exercise that basically anyone can use. Here's how McGonigal explains the practice and its upsides:
It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.
In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping. In many cases, these benefits are a result of a one-time mindset intervention. People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later."
Why is consciously reflecting on your values in this way so effective? Research suggests it "helps to reveal the meaning behind stressful events in your life. Sure, taking care of your family or working long hours on a project can be draining, but if you know why these actions are important to you, then you are much better equipped to handle that stress," Clear explains.
In other words, forcing yourself to reflect on why you do the difficult things you do makes them more meaningful and less painful. Or, if you discover your actions and your beliefs don't always line up, this exercise pushes you to shift your behavior to be more in line with your values, which also eliminates stress.
So how do you do it exactly? Clear opts for an annual, self-conducted "values review" (get more details on his personal procedure in his post) but a daily journaling exercise can also work. Executive coach Michael S. Seaver, for instance, tells clients to "take up to 10 minutes each day to write out your life's mission/intention/most important personal values and then describe how the day's events directly connected with it/them."