How to Sort out Your Stress


Many of us who struggle with stress spend much of our energy focusing on the big things. With so much overwhelming us at once, we find it hard to concentrate on anything else.

The same often rings true for me. I sometimes wake up every morning paralyzed at the sudden realization that I have so. much. to do. Everything just swirls together.

One morning just before finals week last fall, I was talking to one of my favorite professors. He knew I’d been struggling with stress for a long time. I guess I must have been feeling especially bad that day, since the conversation quickly turned to any kind of encouragement he could think of.

“You got this,” he said, over and over. “It’s not going to last forever.”

And then he gave me some advice I’ve replayed in my mind during many moments of internal crisis.

“You just have to find little ways to take care of yourself. That’s how you get through this.”

He then went on to describe one of his friends and fellow grad students who ate dozens of donuts at once as a coping method whenever he felt particularly overwhelmed.

I’m not encouraging you to eat an entire box of Dunkin’ Donuts (not necessarily, at least), but I think my professor had an important message.

Little things matter.

In fact, they’re of utmost importance. Courage doesn’t consist so much in doing grand things but in finding small victories. Similarly, the fight against stress isn’t as much a grand final showdown as it is a series of little battles each day. It is a succession of small steps.

Those little steps will guide you away from the hurricane of “big things.” They may even be the only way out of the vortex. On a practical level, I mean that you must sort out your worries one by one. You must go through things a little bit at a time.

I like to write down each small worry I have every day. Not only does this force me to look into the flurry of fears—and thus rob it of much of its power—but also it helps me take it apart, bit by bit. A way you could implement this in your own life is to journal about all your worries about the day and make a list of them. Organize them in any way you like.  Structure defeats chaos.

You can also break down the big parts of your day into small steps. I turned “getting out of bed” into “turning off the alarm, stretching my arms above my head, putting one foot and then the other on the floor, etc.” Before I knew it, I had done what had been the impossible. I felt far less panicked, too. That’s because this kind of careful focus on everything around you, a little bit at a time, is like a magical cure for anxiety.

I encourage you to practice the same careful, focused organization with the different areas of your day or even your life. Turn “getting my dream job” into “building a resume, finding internships, networking with others,” or “writing this term paper” into “researching, outlining, writing a paragraph each day.” This will break down big processes into small ones just as it will break down your stress into small pieces that you can deal with easily.

Another important insight my professor had is that you must take care of yourself. It doesn’t matter how you do so. Eating mountains of sugar probably won’t do you much good, although it did seem to help my professor’s friend. As long as it’s something small that you make time for each day, you will begin to feel better.

Some ideas you can implement in your life are the following:

  • Making yourself a cup of tea or coffee and drinking it slowly
  • Going for walks outside
  • Painting your fingernails or toenails (this is my go-to for stress)
  • Coloring
  • Reading a book

(If you really want, of course, you could do all of these. Together, they would make for a nice mental health day off of work or school.)

No matter what you do to care for yourself, remember that you do deserve priority. Don’t feel bad about giving yourself time to back away from the storms of stress to sort yourself out. Just do so piece by piece, bit by bit—and things will begin to fall into better places. This kind of recovery is slow, but it is possible. Have hope. Keep trying.

Take it a step at a time.


MWiermanWilabHeadshotI’m a rising junior at the University of Dallas double majoring in English and French with a concentration in either applied math or international studies. Clearly, I’m not quite sure what to do with my life yet, but, having spent my childhood in Canada and a semester in Italy, I love traveling. I also love writing about anything that comes to mind and catches my attention.

Location: Irving, TX/Wichita, KS