When faced with challenges such as stress at school or family issues, we tend to fall back on reliable crutches—such as food, alcohol, procrastination, avoidance, overreacting, arguing or even nail-biting—even though we know they’ll likely make us feel worse in the long run.
Stress and the habits it can trigger are caused by our negative self-talk, not the situation itself, says Jack Singer, Ph.D., author of The Teacher’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide. The key to changing habits is to shift your self-talk from negative messages to realistic, positive assessments of the situation.
Singer says there are two personality types that can be problems for teachers: Type A and People Pleasers.
Type As tend to be impatient and need to be in control, and they think in all-or-nothing terms. A Type A teacher might walk into a classroom of unruly students and think, “I can’t control these kids” or “This is hopeless.” To reduce the stress of a less-than-perfect situation, she can shift her self-talk to “I don’t have to be perfect” and “I can’t control everything.”
People Pleasers tend to be self-effacing and avoid conflict, and they think in terms of self-doubt. A People Pleaser teacher might walk into a classroom of unruly students and think “They don’t like me” or “It’s my fault they’re misbehaving.” To reduce stress, she can shift her self-talk to “Students act up sometimes” and “I can be in charge and still be nice.”
Another trick is to let go of the emotion behind your stress, advises therapist Jude Bijou, M.A., author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. Anger, fear and sadness are the three root causes of stress. Assess which you’re feeling, then head to a private area such as a restroom stall or your car, and spend at least a full minute venting that feeling.
We asked three experts to share their suggestions on how to shift from eight typical negative crutches to more healthy coping mechanisms and productive behaviors for dealing with stress.
Bad habit #1: Excessive/unhealthful food or drink
Positive replacement: Get a handle on your habit by keeping a record. Track what you eat (or drink), when, where, how much and what happens to trigger this habit. Keeping a record helps you let go of the habit by making you more aware of what you’re doing, and that awareness then changes your thinking, says James Claiborn, Ph.D., author of The Habit Change Workbook: How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones.
Instead of automatically indulging, stop and ask yourself whether you really want that second glass of wine, that handful of chips or a second helping of dessert. It’ll become easier to say, “No, I’ll skip it this time.”
Bad habit #2: Procrastination or avoidance
Positive replacement: Make a contract with yourself to always do your most dreaded task first. Hate to grade papers? Loathe scrubbing the stove? Detest doing dishes? Procrastinating only prolongs the agony.
Make a deal with yourself to get the worst job done first (reward yourself if you need to!), and all the stress postponing it causes will vanish. You’ll feel good about having accomplished the job, and the rest of your work will feel easier.
Bad habit #3: Overreacting aka “catastrophizing”
Positive replacement: Counter-punch catastrophizing with a physical action—such as pinching or slapping your arm or snapping your fingers—and tell your inner critic, “Stop!” Then consciously shift your thoughts to more positive and realistic assessments of the situation, such as “One red light is not the end of the world” and “I can handle this.”
Bad habit #4: Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth
Positive replacement: Most who fall into this habit don’t realize they’re doing it until a dentist points it out, Singer says. Swap that clench for a big grin: An eye-crinkling wide smile triggers release of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemicals.
Anything that makes us smile or laugh eases stress, Singer says, but most of us don’t smile often enough. Train yourself to smile: Practice in a mirror until your muscles memorize what a stress-relieving wide smile feels like so you can switch it on when your jaw starts to tighten.
Bad habit #5: Excessive worrying
Positive replacement: Worry drains energy, and that can affect your sleep. Keep a notebook next to your bed, and spend a few minutes each night writing down all the things that happened that day for which you’re grateful. Worry overloads our perception of negative things, but writing down our daily “gratitudes” restores perspective, erases worry and eases stress. It’ll also set you up for a good night’s rest.
Bad habit #6: Crying or anxiety
Positive replacement: Take deep breaths to slow your heart rate, calm the adrenaline rush caused by anxiety and relieve the distress that makes you want to cry. Take a few deep belly breaths (inhale deeply for four seconds, then forcefully exhale for seven seconds). Or for a fun remedy that doesn’t require counting, just belt out your favorite song.
Singing changes your breathing, and a favorite song will lift your mood. Laughing works, too—especially deep belly laughs, Singer says.
Bad habit #7: Pessimism or moodiness
Positive replacement: Quickly lose your blues by practicing random acts of kindness. Singer says that anything you do to help others also helps you by lifting your mood and relieving your stress. Give a stranger a sincere compliment. Let the shopper in line behind you go first. At a tollbooth, pay for the person behind you.
Your random acts of kindness will make your own troubles seem much smaller and more manageable, giving you instant stress relief.
Bad habit #8: Nail-biting
Positive replacement: Press or squeeze your fingertips while you picture a pleasant, relaxing scene that makes you feel safe, secure and totally at ease, Singer suggests. The fingertip pressure provides a competing response that can help break the physical part of the habit, while positive visualization calms the stress that triggered the urge to bite your nails.
Keep up the good work! Changing a habit can be a struggle, and small lapses shouldn’t make you feel doomed to relapse. Cut yourself some slack, Claiborn says: There’s a big difference between a minor slip and a total relapse that sends you all the way back to Square One.
Consider any small lapse as a learning opportunity, and use it to help you figure out what happened, why and how you can prevent future slipups.