Not every stressor in our lives is negative. Some challenges can actually motivate us to grow—expanding our horizons and fueling creativity. Over time, however, unrelenting pressure and expectations can be detrimental to our mental, emotional, and physical health. And the worst type of stress?
The gap which exists between our longed-for life and the harsh reality where we feel unable to embody our Highest Self.
Sometimes we have a clear idea of the life we long for, but not always. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and stressed-out, the best way forward is to start making space in your life so your hopes and dreams can grow.
Carving out a little breathing room doesn’t necessarily require a week-long vacation, calling in sick, or dropping all your obligations. Sometimes, all we need is to slowly and carefully trim things back.
But where to begin? It may seem tempting to drop a relatively minor commitment as a starting point. While that might be the easiest path, it doesn’t always do much to lighten our metaphorical load.
I’d like to propose a different angle…one I’ve found to be extremely effective in my life—start with the thing that’s causing you the most pain or discomfort. Occasionally this also happens to be a discrete, limited part of your life, which you can yank out like a weed. It’s not always that easy, however.
Though life stressors typically start small, left unchecked they quickly grow into a tangled thicket of vines that often requires a good plan and a pair of pruning shears to clear out. Even so, creating larger amounts of space is most effective when done in Small Steps, so you can assess how things are going along the way.
This post is an invitation to evaluate any aspects of life where you might feel an uncomfortable gap between your Ideal Self and your stressed, survival-mode identity.
Some areas may be quite apparent for not living up to your expectations. Others might be just as you want them.
As you consider the following possible sources of your stress, make note of any questions that resonate for you—the ones which keep you thinking long after you read them.
The preceding questions cover a lot of territory—yet maybe you’ve determined that your deepest disconnect in life stems from an entirely different root.
How can you participate in this week’s Small Step to create space?
First, spend some time reviewing these life areas. Connect with your gut impression of how satisfying or stressful each one feels to you right now.
Rate them on a scale from 1-10.
Jot down a few specific notes about what isn’t working for you.
Next, identify your biggest source of stress: the area that’s most lacking in your life or about which you perceive the greatest longing for growth.
Reflect back on your Ideal Self.
Recall the values, actions, and feelings that you long for.
What one tiny change might alleviate some of your stress?
Think micro-actions, not life-encompassing transformations. Trying to do too much too soon just adds more stress to life. Your unhappiness will only deepen if you make changes that are too challenging to sustain.
You want to find something incredibly small—a tiny change that will build momentum for when you are ready to do more.
When I evaluated these life areas recently, my lowest rated category was Recreation. I’ve been beyond busy these last few months getting my blog up and running, plus helping my daughters choose a new school (the youngest) and transition to college (the oldest).
After ranking all the ways stress adds up during my days, I realized I hadn’t been prioritizing any time for restorative activities.
Looking back at the Ideal Self that I long to be, I remembered how I wanted to:
Last year, I had set aside an afternoon each month for “Adventure.” These artist’s dates, based on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, allowed me to visit local attractions, be spontaneous, and push the boundaries of my comfort zone. The results were spectacular—for my creativity and my vitality.
But this year my schedule didn’t allow for huge breaks of time, and so what’s been lacking is balance—a relaxing hobby or an activity abounding with joy.
Just because I no longer have an entire day to recharge doesn’t mean I’m without an outlet for releasing stress. Instead, I’ve committed to making small, consistent changes. Therefore, I designed two exquisitely easy Small Steps for myself:
The list practically made itself—reading a favorite magazine, giving myself a manicure, sitting outside in my Adirondack chair with a cup of tea, and creating new playlists of uplifting & inspiring songs. The only caveat was that I couldn’t pre-schedule what to do. I would simply choose whichever activity felt most appealing in the moment.
That’s it! I didn’t go crazy and commit to more than I could handle, despite the fact that my coffee table has enough back issues of magazines to keep me reading all night and still not be caught up.
When I started this Small Step, I stuck with my tiny commitment, and have gradually increased the number of times I make space for myself each week.
In future posts, we’ll look more deeply into this topic of managing stress with gentle self-care…and find even more questions to spark our inner guidance. For now, identifying what area of life is causing you the most pain or dissatisfaction will provide a great opportunity to ease your life into a better direction.
So what is your biggest source of stress right now?
And have you found a small step to letting it go?