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Psychologist Trevor Davis rated each strategy from one to five stars. (Illustration: Brendan Leonard)
Psychologist Trevor Davis rated each strategy from one to five stars.

A Psychologist Rates My Stress Strategies

From pizza to ultramarathons, what's the best way to chill out?

Like you, I am trying to get better at dealing with stress and anxiety. I am aware that I suck at it, and that the methods I have used to try to deal with it—along with not being created or recommended by any mental-health professional—also suck. But I thought I would get a professional opinion on how those methods suck, and even maybe how much they suck, so I asked my friend and psychologist Trevor Davis for his professional opinion. He rated each strategy from one to five stars (one being bad and five being good) and wrote some notes in response to each one.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Thinking Everything Will Be Fine Once I Get (Thing X) Done

In this strategy, I do nothing to mitigate feelings of anxiety and stress when things are piling up on me and it all feels very out of control. Instead of actually changing the way I look at things, or do things, or even stopping every once in a while to practice some calming breathing exercises, I just keep going for hours or days at a time, telling myself that once I finish a creative project, or meet a deadline, or get moved into a new house, or get through a public speaking event, I will feel better and things will be OK. 

Rating: 2 stars

Davis’s Notes: Man, this one seems all about context and the big picture. Do this for a few hours, not a big deal. Do this for a few days? That is a recipe for some stomach ulcers. Like a hamster on a wheel, there’s always something to be done. Sounds tiring. While this strategy is probably better than procrastinating, the long-term consequences are what will get you eventually. Limited balance today means limited balance tomorrow.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Saying Yes to Everything That Scares Me

The idea behind this strategy is, theoretically, personal growth—saying yes to a thing that is outside my comfort zone in order to push myself to rise to the occasion and therefore improve or prove to myself that I was better, stronger, and more capable than I assumed I was. And, eventually, to be scared of nothing, which will decrease or eliminate anxiety (I guess). Examples: ultramarathons, mountaineering objectives, creative projects, contract gigs I am not qualified for on paper, writing a book on a subject I don’t know that much about, any sort of professional interaction that will cause me to have impostor syndrome (all of them), etc. 

Rating: 3 stars 

Davis’s Notes: This one has a lot of potential. If you would change the “everything” to “some things,” you have a winner. The problem with saying yes to too many scary things is that you’re always scared, which I generally don’t recommend. But with balance (there’s that word again), I think this is a great example of pursuing your values, like pushing yourself. Just keep this in check with remembering your own worthiness without having to “do it all.”

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Thinking of Every Single Thing That Could Go Wrong in Advance, in the Belief That, if I Have Thought of Something That Could Go Wrong, It Won’t Actually Happen

Example: in advance of a complicated travel itinerary, if I go over all the ways I could fuck it up (or it could get fucked up without any input from me), everything will go smoothly—i.e., I could hit traffic on the way to the airport and be late for my flight, check-in could take forever, TSA could take forever, they could change my gate at the last minute, my flight could be delayed and I could miss my connection, at the other end my bag could not arrive, I could be late for the last train, and so on.

Rating: 1 star

Davis’s Notes: This one actually makes me anxious just reading it, but a lot of people use this strategy, even me. This might be less of a strategy and more an example of anxiety. Tolerating uncertainty is something most people struggle with in one way or another. What’s interesting is that, while you may not like uncertainty, you do a lot of things that entail a good amount of it—climbing, ultramarathons, traveling. For those of us who can get loaded down by uncertainty, I find it helps to first acknowledge the unknowns of the situation we are facing. But don’t stop there. Actively pull your mind to times when you accomplished something in a similar situation or another time that things went well even when there was an unexpected setback or challenge. Remind yourself that you’re capable of managing changes and challenges, even when you cannot control all of the variables.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Eating a Whole Pizza

Even if it’s not a whole pizza, it’s an amount of pizza higher than my caloric needs for the day, or two days, and I am not eating it to satiate hunger so much as to feed my emotions.

Rating: How big is the pizza? 1 to 5 stars.

Davis’s Notes: The usefulness of this one depends on a number of things. Sometimes emotions are hungry, and it’s OK to feed them. Is it a treat, or is it a regular occurrence? Are you going to hurt yourself by doing this? I also know that if you tell yourself no, you’re probably going to want to do this even more. That’s why restriction-based diets don’t really work. I’d recommend improving this strategy by examining how much benefit versus harm it brings. Once the scale tips to more harm than good, it’s worth finding a way to balance it out. It’s probably not a great strategy long-term, but next time, just invite me over, and we can finish it together.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Eating a Whole Pizza, but Instead of Pizza, an Unreasonable Quantity of Ice Cream

Rating: 1 star

Davis’s Notes: I’d say, “Go for it” sometimes, but again, keep track of the risks involved. I’m dairy sensitive, so for me (and those around me), the risks are just too high.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Working Late at Night to Get Just a Couple More Things Done so I Can Go to Bed Not Having to Think About Those Things

Working, of course, involving a glowing screen of a laptop or an iPad. 

Rating: 2 stars

Davis’s Notes: This one isn’t necessarily horrible, but it is going to vary case by case. How late are you staying up? How often are you doing this? Is it harmful to your relationships? I’d encourage a review of time management and how many things you’re taking on at once. Give yourself time to preplan the next day, before it gets late. Prioritize. Try to give your eyes (and brain) and break from the screen at least 30 minutes (if not more) before bed. It’s also good sleep hygiene to try and keep a consistent sleep-wake routine. Of course, life happens. There’s always a need for flexibility.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Running Long Distances to the Point of Extreme Discomfort

A twofold strategy, in that running until the point of extreme discomfort allows me to forget all my worries during the period of minutes or hours that my legs and body hurt so much that I can’t think about anything else, as well as in the hours and even days following a long run, thanks to the flush of endorphins that make me feel calm for a while. 

Rating: 2 stars

Davis’s Notes: You know, a lot of these strategies could be improved if they were less extreme. Exercise is great for the body, mind, and health, but too much can just be too much. Personally, I’d worry about that extreme discomfort turning into an injury, and then you’re left without running at all.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Watching Crappy Action Movies

This is a way of escaping reality for two to three hours: watching a movie. But not just any movie—a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 55 percent or lower. I don’t know why I do this, or why so many people have to die violent deaths on-screen, or why I can’t just watch documentaries or even just good movies instead. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Davis’s Notes: This could be five stars if you were more accepting of how much this helps you. It is OK to take a break. Ever heard of it? Invite me over for this, and I’ll bring the pizza.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Treating Everything in Life Like a To-Do List in Order to Be So Busy that I Don’t Have to Be Present, Check in with Myself, or Even Think About How I’m Feeling

With enough to-do lists, and enough action toward completing items on those to-do lists, and continually adding to those to-do lists, I can go entire days or weeks without ever realizing I don’t feel that great! 

Rating: 1 star

Davis’s Notes: I suppose this is better than the alternative of not doing anything, but this strategy you’ve described is a perfect recipe for burnout. The good: making lists, taking action on goals, reviewing goals and accomplishments. The bad: ignoring your other needs, and not checking in with yourself. The ugly: not noticing the other emotional needs. Again, the best thing to do is strive for some balance and make some space for checking in with how you are doing. Consider something like a daily check-in, asking yourself how you are physically, emotionally, and in your relationships, and how you’re progressing on some of these important goals and tasks.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Taking a Nice Relaxing Stroll, but Instead of Being Alone with My Thoughts, Listening to an Audiobook or Finding Something Else to Distract Me

I could just take the dog for his evening walk and relax, but no, let’s plug in some earbuds and listen to a harrowing survival story or, even better, a tale of a shipwreck tragedy with no survivors. Or let’s scroll through social-media apps, real estate listings, weather apps, and bank accounts. Repeat ad nauseam. 

Rating: 4 stars

Davis’s Notes: A relaxing stroll sounds like a super strategy for anxiety management. Do those distractions help you relax? If so, great! Nothing is inherently wrong with any of the things you listed, as long as they’re done intentionally. Entertain yourself sometimes, but sometimes practice saying no. When you say no, your mind will kick and scream for a little while, but eventually it will calm down, and that urge to distract will settle.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Same As Above, but Replace the Nice Relaxing Stroll with Just About Any Situation in Which I Would Be Alone with My Thoughts

Rating: 2 stars

Davis’s Notes: Wherever you go, there you are. It’s totally OK to take some time away from thinking. Distraction is not always bad, but learning to be alone with your thoughts is important in managing anxiety in the long run.

(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Strategy: Trying a Meditation App for One to Three Sessions, Then Failing to Establish a Regular Practice of It, Then Quitting

In this strategy, several times a day for several weeks, I think to myself, Maybe I should try meditating. And then I download a meditation app, and two or three days later, I give it a shot. I may do only the first session, I may do a couple sessions or even a session every day for three days in a row. Sometimes I’ll even do a few sessions, fail to do any more sessions for a week or so, and then start over. Regardless of which way I start, I never manage to keep it up. 

Rating: 4 stars

Davis’s Notes: This is very good. It’ll take multiple starts to find the right fit and the right habit sequence. Keep trying, and pay attention to the specific things that work or don’t work. And practice not putting yourself down for not keeping it up. It’s supposed to be a good thing—let it be. 

Brendan Leonard’s new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems: More Funny Shit in the Woods from, is out now.

Lead Illustration: Brendan Leonard