How to Avoid Drowning in Stress


Dirty DishesWhen we are struggling to keep on top of our everyday lives, it can often feel like we are drowning under ever-increasing to-do lists and stress. Sometimes, we say we are drowning in work, or parenthood duties; other times, we feel lost in attempting to maintain important relationships or feel that other aspects of life require more attention and time than we can find.

As with most tough problems, quick overly simplified solutions don’t provide root cause corrective actions to the conundrum. Hence to learn how to avoid drowning, we need to learn how to breath underwater. To do that we need to take measurable actions – a band aid never fixed a broken leg!

The paragraphs below break down this puzzle into manageable pieces and allow a logical application to any unique real-world situation. You will then know how to free yourself of that unsettling drowning feeling.

Hopefully, with a little practice, patience and self-belief, you might just find your snorkel…

Try not to jump into water until you know how deep it is…

Certainly an “easier said than done” ideology, this is worth doing particularly in those few situations where a little forethought, planning, and background research actually do shed light on unforeseen details.

Check the expiry date of your birth control pills, ask the hiring manager about the typical working hours and the job expectations for the position you are applying for. Take a moment to consider what repercussions may arise from significant life choices and consider the effects of inaction or postponing a decision – oftentimes, ignoring a problem is the very cause of the problem.

Humans have a unique brain structure, accommodating the miraculous prefrontal cortex, which helps us predict the consequences of a given situation. Although it doesn’t work quite as well as we usually think it does, it is the best tool we have for choosing our best lives.

There is no denying the benefits of due diligence and forethought. However, you wouldn’t be reading this if we could see into the future and know exactly what actions to take and when. And, whilst you can promise yourself to make better-informed decisions in future, the reality of this current moment is exactly what it is right now. So don’t spend a further second regretting a decision or wishing to be in an alternative situation, you’re here – let’s improve it!

So the Water is deep? Better learn how to tread water then… and fast!  

Firstly, remember we are all on a journey. Secondly, things can always be worse, much worse. So, whilst it is easy to say “before you make this big life change, make sure you understand the consequences”, the reality is that we can never foresee what life will be like after certain actions are taken. If we have bitten off more than we can chew, we need to figure out how to cope, how to prepare for the next situation, and what lessons we can learn, whilst we can, before things gets any worse.

2nd noble truthAccepting the present moment in its entirety means accepting the whole truth. We cannot access the future until it arrives, nor can we influence the past, we can only live in this moment. The Buddha identified in the second of Four Noble Truths that all suffering arises from “craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable”.

We cannot magically escape out of a situation, but we can, at any given present moment, take intentional actions to improve the situation. We are alive and functioning cognitively (and that is all that is required for happiness).

The only way to see if a situation can be brought under control is to commit wholeheartedly to improving it. As with all mind cleaning techniques, it is beneficial to start with a few deep breaths in order to immediately exhale the negative stress and allow for better oxygenated and regulated blood to flow through the body. These intentional breaths stabilise the release of adrenalin and help to align hyperactive thought processes to the present moment, thereby allowing stable, logical, intentful corrective actions. Take as many breaths as necessary. The momentary calm will allow more comprehensive measures in a moment. There are many different mind cleaning techniques, which may also help at this stage.

Next, we can take a slightly less stress-biased perspective of the situation. What support network can be called upon to immediately resolve any issues? What tasks can be re-scheduled or re-prioritised for another day? Most stress and worry is self-generated, by the high expectations we set ourselves. Even with the best will in the world, the consequences of overcommitting are disappointment and failure. Doing the right thing for you is ultimately the right thing for all.

Creating a to-do list certainly helps in some situations, but it has to be used progressively – Tony Robbins often advocates the necessity to schedule the actual focus time on each of those objectives. Don’t just highlight how many tasks you have to get through, break it into manageable sections and be realistic. You are only human, with only 24 hours in a day – if the requirement is not within your capacity, that isn’t anyone’s fault, it is purely the true nature of the situation. Remember the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth!

As you put this schedule together, assume you are going home at 5:30pm, and plan the day backwards. Likewise, set a bedtime and allocate the evening tasks backwards from there. Some things are simply impossible to achieve and hence should not be included in the plan. Take a look at walls in the building of happiness model – are all those important ingredients being provided in your current life? Is there opportunity for time in nature? Time with friends? Time engaging in a skilful and challenging hobby? An opportunity for greater contribution?

Neglecting areas within our happiness building slowly weakens our capacity for happiness.  If we neglect our happiness and no longer balance our lifestyles with an applied mindset, we become less happy.  A lopsided building is far less stable during periods of turbulence, so time must be regularly allotted for prioritising ourselves and our required lifestyle components.

Saying “Yes” too often presents a false sense of capacity and people’s expectations will follow suit. As TED celebrity and all round awesome person Dr. Brené Brown puts it, “choose discomfort over resentment.” In other words, if saying “Yes” will lead to resentment later, choose the temporary discomfort of saying “No” now.

When reigning in your life, make sure the focus is realistic. If you suffered an untimely heart attack right now, would the rest of the world survive? Probably. Would someone cover your work? Probably at least some of it. People and organisations adapt very quickly to change, so if you allow yourself to work more, there will be more work to do; if you were to cut out all the shallow work to focus on the deep stuff, you will output a lot more value.

In the words of Cal Newport, “Shallow work stops you from getting fired — but deep work is what gets you promoted.”

Can’t tread water? Hold your breath and look at the bigger picture.

A lot of stuff doesn’t really need to be done at all and people can help with all the rest. If there is still an imbalance of demand surpassing our capacity, we must learn to accept the reality of the situation and the limitations of oneself, being a real human being. This whole and true situation should be communicated honestly and truthfully to any and all affected parties, as there may be options available to help, which are as yet unknown. Accepting our limitations, capabilities and vulnerabilities is a humbling yet necessary realisation.

Once the reality of the situation is better understood, it’s time to take another deep breath and look at the bigger picture. This is one of the simplest concepts, yet it is incredibly difficult to apply.

mindfulnessThe fundamental idea of taking a figurative step back and assessing our life situation sounds easy, but in the height of the moment, when our biological stress levels are high, we typically paint a darker picture than the truth, which does nothing to help that sensation of drowning.

Before we can consider our “bigger picture”, make sure this exercise is always done in a controlled peaceful environment, free from interruption and distraction. Observe the breath as you fill your lungs more deeply, and allow the air to carry the stress hormones, adrenalin and other worries out of the body. In parallel to accepting the situation in its whole reality, we can imagine the effects of today on our lives in five or even 10 years from now. What might those repercussions be? Then, consider what might the future version of you think of today’s situation? What advice might you give yourself?

Then, broaden your perspective a little further. How is your current situation affecting your old childhood friends? Or your family members? Zoom back further still. What impact does today have on what anyone living in China or India will be thinking next month when they fall asleep in their beds? That’s 39% of the world probably not affected in the long-term by your situation. And if the situation is still incredibly impactful, zoom out even further.

Remember also that it is not your fault. This situation is how it is because every past decision was based on environmental conditioning from the past. Every decision and action would only have been made with the hopes that it was the right thing to do at the time. And maybe you have learned something since that decision moment of the past, but that cannot be changed now. If it was, things could have turned out an awful lot worse.

So free yourself from blame and guilt, and forgive yourself of hindsight. Regret is only useful at highlighting how much you have subsequently learned.

Allow yourself the reassurance that everyone is in the same boat – we are all trying to minimise our suffering and maximise our happiness, we just often go about it in quite peculiar ways!

People are inherently trying to achieve the best possible outcome for themselves, it is only through ignorance that people believe they desire conflicting things.

It is human nature to compare our situations to those of others, just be mindful of only allowing selective and realistic comparisons, if any at all. Check out the techniques in the “Independent Interpretation of External Events” section of the Happiness Building. sad money

Alternative outcomes to past events are not realistic comparisons, as we simply cannot predict the potential subsequent repercussions  – otherwise known as the butterfly effect. Likewise, it can be unwise to compare any situation to one we haven’t fully experienced – “Mr X has it so good”,  “Mrs. Y never has to worry about A, B, C or D”, “If only I had more money, more energy, better health, more youth…” Well it is possible that Mr X is being falsely accused of child-molesting and Mrs Y is concealing unimaginable turmoil at home. Increasing financial wealth has no correlation with happiness. Desires and aversions cause all suffering.

So, if a mental comparison is absolutely necessary, make sure it is with a far worse situation that we can be grateful we are not in, like “At least I’m alive, right now”, “At least, I’m able to think”… “I have still got more comfort, security and better health and education than almost every human to have ever lived, and in 5 years’ time I’ll probably be in a better place than right now.”

Finding your snorkel and enjoying the best of both worlds.

With a metaphorical snorkel, we can temporarily be fully immersed without compromising our needs. By being constantly connected to the place we want to be (not drowning), we can keep calm and stay happy through temporary submersion, knowing that we will do what we can whilst we can, and soon enough we will be safely out of the danger-zone.

We can start by training the mind to accept that there is the possibility for good in all situations – and there really is, you just have to look for it and allow the possibility for good to fill your soul with optimism. One example could be that every moment is an opportunity to learn something, and those big life lessons are only learned from tough situations. We are extremely lucky to be able to face life challenges, as it is only then that we can learn, grow, and ultimately benefit the most. The bigger the knocks, the bigger the opportunity to mould ourselves into greater people. When facing any life situation, try to see optimism and opportunity.

Nurturing optimism is also a very possible mind trick and can be done by tracking progress and positive steps. Remember to be “micro-ambitious” sometimes in order to appreciate achieving something productive immediately. Review your log of completed tasks and be mindful to really celebrate those progressions and victories, however small they may seem once completed.

We cannot live in the past but we can take a brief glance backwards and be proud of our progress. All those small victories along the way deserve to be celebrated and will motivate you to take action in this present moment that we can affect. Practicing the techniques detailed in Looking in and Seeing out will help with this macro and micro vision duality.

We can create reminders in our daily routines to instigate the right thoughts, such as a photo of a loved one in our wallet, or a motivational or inspirational quote in our living space. Reminders of the temporary nature of all things, even that of stress and troubles, will help remind you of your snorkel.

The other 1%…

If every attempt has been made to remedy the situation and still you are facing an unsustainable and overwhelming torrent of stress, negative thoughts and total misalignment, and still the grass seems greener on the other side, this might be a case of “the other 1%”.

mahatma-gandhi99% of the time, we are better off doing everything we can to improve what we have built. However, when we face that other 1%, our best action really is to make some calculated (estimated) life-changing decisions in order to “harmonise what we think, what we say, and what we do” (Gandhi), to step into the unknown with a giant leap of self-propelled faith.

The difficult thing is that no one can tell you when you are facing a 1% situation, and no one can tell you what the right thing to do is. Only you can. We all face 1% situations… Sometimes, we just wind up in the wrong place, misaligned to our values, living someone else’s life. Delaying the big actions and postponing the right things soon enough become the very source of the drowning.

With dedicated effort, stringent consideration and a bold will, you are destined to find the way.

Good luck finding it.

Good luck following it.


David is a Mindset Trainer and Coach specialising in habituating scientifically proven exercises as natural daily routines.  He is the founder of A Good Way To Think, and provides habit-forming coaching via our partner platform: Coach.Me