We’d all love to avoid stressful situations, but some are unavoidable. That’s unfortunate, because stress can have so many negative effects on our physical health, our emotional wellbeing, and our eating behaviors.
The upside is, that because we know that sometimes we’ll have to be in stressful situations, we can plan ahead to manage it as we head into it, rather than just waiting for it to happen to us.
Instead of saying we’re doomed to rapidly stress-eat peanut M&M’s every time we see that one person who gets under our skin, or getting all frustrated at this car that’s moving 20mph on a 60 mph freeway… Let’s just take a deep breath and focus on creating a strategy to respond as our best self instead of reacting from our stressed self.
It’s like getting on an airplane
What’s the one thing you hear every time you get on an airplane?
“Know your closest exit, and be aware, it may be behind you.”
In case of an emergency, it’s a good idea to have a plan. Turns out, it works for stress too.
There are two parts to this strategy:
- Know your closest exit
- It may be behind you
Know your closest exit
Having something prepared in advance makes it a little bit easier to tolerate a situation. Knowing you have an escape route, something that’s already set, lets you relax a little bit. It tells you you’ve already controlled the things you can control.
We’re not in charge of the entire situation. We can only control our thoughts and our behaviors, not the other people, or all the outside factors.
If you’ve already planned for what you’re going to do or say then it takes a bit of the burden off and you don’t have to decide in the moment. It can also provide a little space, internally and externally, for you to get away from the immediate situation.
Have something to say
One example might be to have something specific prepared to say, so you’re not fumbling for a line when you need it.
If you have someone that always makes a comment, or a certain stressful conversation that always comes up, or if there’s any kind of predictable pattern that you can expect, then that’s good news!
You can have a couple of phrases planned out in advance. Think about what you wish you could say in those moments, what your best future self might be happy to have said, and plan to use those phrases. Now you can go into the situation knowing what you’re going to say.
If there’s that one person who always complains, and this drives you crazy, you can also have something prepared as a redirect, something to change the conversation.
Have something to do – the small version
Another way of creating some planned space is to step away to the bathroom. The strategy for this might be to prioritize finding the location of the bathroom when you first enter the situation, so that you know it’s there when you need to go. And by that, I don’t mean go, but just to get away from the situation for a little bit.
This works for meetings, parties, events, basically anything that there’s a bathroom nearby and it’s not unusual to just to excuse yourself to go. Obviously, this doesn’t work as well for traffic, unless you just really can’t stand it anymore and you want to take a little break and go off somewhere else in that moment. That works too. But generally, this one is for events.
Other ideas could include stepping outside for a phone call or just to get some air, or going to the car and grab something.
Basically, think through a couple of things you could have as “escape plans” to work with in your head and find one that you feel comfortable enough to use in the situation.
You don’t even have to use it, but it’s there for you if you need it, a security blanket to make you feel more comfortable and confident.
Have something to do – the bigger version
If going to the bathroom isn’t big enough for you, you can always plan for something bigger. Get a mani-pedi, facial, or massage. Or all three, if you must. Volunteer to be the person to run the last-minute errands.
You might also say something like, “While I was here in town, I thought I might do a little shopping trip for my friends back home, so I’ll need to step away for an hour or so to get that done, and then I’ll rejoin you after that.”
Or, “I’m glad we can all meet today. I have another appointment in two hours, so I’ll have to step out a little early, but I’m looking forward to a productive discussion in the time we have.”
It may be behind you
Another good thing about certain stressful situations being somewhat predictable is that things learned from our past experiences can be applied to our future.
Think about a previously stressful situation that had a positive outcome.
Whether it was because of something you did intentionally, or something that just got resolved, was there something repeatable that you can use now?
Sometimes it’s a specific thing under your control, a certain comment, or the way you redirected a conversation. Other times, it’s something out of your control that you can learn from, like someone else giving you an unintentional (or intentional) “out” of the situation.
Or is it something bigger, more vague, like a larger category of things you might see a pattern in, even if you can’t point to the exact moment? It might be a sense of space, a feeling of “everything’s going to be okay,” a shift in the way you framed the situation.
We can carry these things (specific and vague) into other situations in the future.
Now think of previous situation with a less-than-ideal outcome.
Maybe you didn’t respond as you’d hoped in the situation. Or you weren’t the person you wanted to be. Or it was just more stressful than you anticipated.
Without beating yourself up about it, what might be one small thing you could change to give you a different outcome in in this situation?
We’re not asking, “How would we revamp this entire scenario?” but, “What one moment might be really helpful for me to tweak the next time?” Changing everything isn’t as helpful as changing one thing. It’s much more manageable to identify one specific thing to change vs anything and everything.
(Avoiding entire situations is definitely a helpful strategy in some cases, but for those times where you really can’t avoid the situation, it’s nice to have something else you can try)
Approach it like a scientist or adventurer
It’s really trial and error. We don’t know for sure how any of this is going to go (because we don’t control the entire outcome or situation), but these are things we can prepare to try. As you try them out you’ll change them and figure out what works best for your personality and in each situation.
Imagine it as a science experiment, or a new adventure. In this moment, you’re trying out something new and seeing how it goes. This can even help you frame things so that you’re not a victim with stress just happening to you, but an empowered scientist or a daring adventurer who’s calmly observing, testing, and seeing what works.
You can even plan for your stress
Even with the best advance preparations, the deepest digging into your past experiences, and your best efforts at experimentation, you may still find yourself stressed out. We can prepare for that as well.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say we’re not allowed to stress eat, or we can’t have certain emotions, because when we put those restrictions on ourselves sometimes our brains start going, “Well, this off-limits thing suddenly looks like the most appealing thing.” Then we have a battle of willpower, and that’s just not something we can deal with all the time when we’re already stressed.
Sometimes, it’s easier to make a check-in plan. Before I stress-eat a food, or before I listen to those negative thoughts that come up only when I’m stressed (it’s a trigger), it can be helpful to check in.
I take a deep breath, and ask myself: “Would I feel differently about this (or myself) if I was less stressed?”
A lot of times, the answer is yes. Sometimes, I don’t know. Either way, if the answer is yes, or if I’m not sure, I can choose to put this thought aside for now.
This allows me to stop fighting the negative thoughts (I’m not trying to change or deny them), quiet the internal battle over whether or not I can eat something, and acknowledge when I’m frustrated or stressed.
I’m saying, “Okay, I feel this way right now, and I might feel differently later, so I’m going to package this up for now and put it aside. I’ll revisit it later when I’m feeling a little bit different.”
This doesn’t mean that you can never come back to it–it’s not like I’m advocating that you don’t deal with your feelings–what I’m saying is that, sometimes, there are certain times when you just have too much going on and really unpacking it all isn’t going to be helpful.
I find that many times, when I do feel better, it’s not even an issue anymore. I’m no longer thinking about it, or if it does come up, I think, “That was silly. I don’t need to put attention to that anymore.”
Just having that pause, that moment where I acknowledge it without fighting it, and save it for later, getting that separation from the the harshness of the emotion, gives me a little bit of space.
It’s all about that space
Everything in this strategy is about creating (and advance planning to create) this space within stressful situations. Look for the moments where you had space in the past, figure out how you can make space internally to deal with present stress, and plan to create space in the future.
This strategy can help you feel a little bit more empowered going into these stressful situations so it’s not as scary or stressful when you can’t avoid them. Finding those little things we can prepare ourselves with, the tools that we can bring into those situations, can make them feel more tolerable.
Want specific ideas of things you can have ready to say to people who comment on your food, body, or weight? I have a resource for you! Silencing the Food Police 25+ Ideas for when People Overstep Your Boundaries – you can grab it when you sign up for the weekly-ish email newsletter.
Leave a comment! How do you create space in stressful situations in your life? How do use past experiences to inform the present?