Three Proven Practices to Manage Stress

by Diane Berenbaum

Many of us feel overwhelmed by all the things we need to do, usually in a short amount of time. It can be downright stressful. You may not be able to eliminate stress, anxiety or the feeling of being overwhelmed. But, the good news is that some amount of stress can actually help. 

Where Does Stress and Anxiety Come From?

According to Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits, it’s helpful to start by recognizing why we have this basic anxiety. It may be caused by:

  • Uncertainty about life, about the current situation, or about people

  • Wanting certainty, stability when life isn’t stable or certain

  • Dissatisfaction with the above facts — which is also dissatisfaction with our situation, ourselves, and others

We could run from this anxiety or try to cope with it by using food or shopping (some of my favorite distractions). Or, we can pay attention to it, get in touch with it, and aim to figure out how to deal with it. By doing so, we may be able to shift from overwhelmed to just "whelmed."

Four Step Process to Manage Stress and Anxiety

Here is Babauta’s four-step process:

  1. Acknowledge the physical feeling. Drop the story that’s spinning around in your head, which is causing the anxiety. Instead, just be mindful of how your body feels. What does the anxiety feel like, and where in your body is it located?

  2. Stay with it; be curious about it. Don’t run, just stay with the physical feeling. Instead of rejecting it and wanting it to stop, just open up to it and see it with curiosity. What does it feel like? Does it change? What kind of reaction does your mind have to the feeling?

  3. Smile at it. Develop a feeling of friendliness towards the physical sensation of this anxiety. See it as one of the fundamental realities of your existence, and learn to be friends with it. See this as a chance to work with something that will be with you for your entire life, an opportunity to get comfortable with this discomfort. If you can do that, you’ll need your coping mechanisms a lot less.

  4. Open to a bigger space. Our usual way of relating to this feeling is rejecting it, because we’re stuck in our own way of seeing it. Instead, we can start to touch the wide-open space of our minds. And, in this open space, we can hold the anxiety like a cloud against the backdrop of the blue sky, but not be lost in the cloud. It’s not all-encompassing; it’s just floating by. This wide-open space of our mind is always available to us.


Babauta also notes that when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, you can do one or more of these three practices:

1.    The Practice of Training in Uncertainty. When you’re feeling this way it comes from a feeling of uncertainty. We don’t know how things are going to go; we worry that we can’t do it all; we don’t know how we’re going to do with any of it; or we’re not sure we’re good enough to handle all of this. 

Our minds don’t like that feeling, and we want stable ground under our feet, something certain, or reassuring. Life doesn’t give us much reassuring certainty. So we’re often trying to cope with the uncertainty by doing as much as we can. We make lists, we find distractions, or we deal with it later. Instead, we can train our minds to stay with the uncertainty, and gradually become more comfortable in this state. And then we can be at peace in the middle of chaos. Read more about this practice.

2.    The Practice of Letting Go. When we’re stressed out, it’s because we’re attached to something — to our self-image, to doing everything, to how people see us, to meeting a goal or deadline or reaching some outcome. What if we could let go of these attachments, and just be in the moment? Things would suddenly become easier. Luckily letting go is something that’s within our power. Read more about this practice.

3.    The Practice of Doing Just One Activity. Our minds are stressed and overwhelmed because we’re multi-tasking and thinking about doing a hundred things at a time. What if, instead, we immersed ourselves in the activity before us? In other words, pick one and focus completely on that one thing, right now, as if it is the most important activity in the world. You may want to do a hundred, but focus completely on that one thing, and do your best. Read more about this practice.

Sometimes the stress or anxiety seems small, but sometimes it overwhelms us. We can’t do everything at once, and we can’t always do everything we want to do in our day…no matter how hard we try. When you recognize that it’s the best you can do, you’ll be better able to do your best.

As John Wooden (UCLA's legendary former basketball coach and modern day philosopher) once said:  

"When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts."

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .

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