One bad habit you can stop today to greatly reduce stress
Christine Laperriere is the Executive Director of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre and author of the bestseller, Too Busy To Be Happy. She’s also experienced burnout first hand — and credits her personal journey for teaching her the importance of growing self-aware of what impacts stress levels, and the importance of finding some useful practices (beyond meditation) that can really help cut down pressure and reconnect to the present moment.
By Christine Laperriere
Many years ago, I suffered a debilitating burnout.
I also finally took a stand for my mental health — and went on an extended leave of absence from my 70-hour-a-week management role in consulting. Feeling inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, I decided the best place for me to recover from burnout would be in Italy.
And to my delight, Italy truly was the perfect place to help me stop the “too busy” cycle. I loved observing Italian culture. I noticed how many people were productive, but for some reason, not rushed. They didn’t spend their days racing from task to task, and it was rare to see a person who looked visibility stressed. It seemed as if people just didn’t take life (or themselves) too seriously.
One night, early in my trip, two locals asked me and my friend if we wanted to meet them for dinner at their family restaurant. Their English was pretty good and their accents were lovely. We agreed to join them (how could we not?).
“I’d been using the word “stress” as a blanket statement to describe everything that was happening in my life, and everything that I had been feeling.”
It was perfect summer evening in downtown Rome. We were sitting on the patio of a beautiful little restaurant, watching people walk by on the cobblestone streets, wine flowing, with amazing food and entertaining discussion. As the night went on and the stars came out, one of the men asked me what brought me to Italy.
I told him, “I’ve been so stressed out. I have a very stressful job working extremely crazy hours. It turned into this health issue where I couldn’t breathe, and after numerous tests, my doctor says this health issue is due to stress.”
I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he was confused by my story. He leaned over to his buddy, and they chatted in Italian for a moment, and then he looked back at me. Finally, he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand this word… stress.”
His struggle to comprehend sparked an ah-ha moment for me: I’d been using the word “stress” as a blanket statement to describe everything that was happening in my life, and everything that I had been feeling. In a way, using the word like this prevented me from taking a closer look at my feelings, and taking ownership for what was going on.
I started to wonder: What if I took the word stress out of my vocabulary? What if I were no longer able to use stress as a verb or an adjective or a noun? I made a conscious decision that night to stop using the word stress to describe myself and my situation — from then on, I would articulate how I was feeling more specifically. Instead of “I’m stressed,” I would say “I’m struggling to make a decision” or “I’m afraid I’ll fail” or “I’m scared I’ll disappoint people.”
It sounds simple, but it can be a challenge to alter what has become a natural crutch in our language. Here are three steps to help you eliminate ‘stress’ from your own vocabulary:
1. Spot the phrase
Notice if there is a phrase you repeat often. It might be the phrase you use when a friend tries to make plans, or the phrase you use to explain why you missed another critical deadline. Look for phrases such as:
- I’m so stressed
- I’m too busy
- I have no time
- Work is so crazy these days
- I can barely breathe, so much is going on
- I’m too tired
- I’m overwhelmed at work
- I’m exhausted
- There’s so much going on right now
2. Cut the habit
Make a pact to cut this word out of your vocabulary for the next month. Find an accountability buddy at home or work who might often hear this phrase from you. (For example, ask your spouse to call you out if you start each dinner conversation with “Work is so crazy!”).
3. Grow awareness
As you change your vocabulary, take note of how the practice forces you to rephrase how you are thinking or feeling. Notice how you have to be more mindful and really connect to what is causing the feeling you don’t like.
As I would later learn, there’s no real word for stress in the Italian language — they use the English word, stress, in their own discourse when they want to express it. In North America, we use stress as a convenient tag to describe so many things. We label it and move on. If you are like me, once you remove these phrases from your language, you’ll start to notice you are more focused on the real issues you need to solve — and feeling a little less stressed about it along the way.