Halfway to a Heart Attack? Here’s How to Drop the Stress

Angela Colley — Ask an Insider

Americans’ stress levels are on the rise. According to the 2017 American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey, 59 percent of participants consider this the lowest point in U.S. History—a group spanning every generation “including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”

When asked why, 62 percent of people cited money and 61 percent cited work as major stressors—both responses the APA has gotten for more than a decade. But last year, they also found the new major contributor to people’s stress: 63 percent of respondents are worried about the future of our nation.

If you’re feeling the pressure—whether the source is your debt, your boss, or the 24/7 news cycle—we feel you, and we want to help you learn to cope.

So, we spoke with Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University, and author of “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist,” to get her advice on how we can all calm down a bit and survive.

Many of us now feel squeezed by our hectic jobs, income levels, debts, family obligations, and everything else. It’s easy to almost hit this breaking point of feeling like if something in our life doesn’t change significantly, we’re never going to be able to cope. Is there a way to manage that feeling?

You know what, yes. You actually can manage your stress.

Listen, girl: if I cut you a check for a half a million dollars tomorrow, that would alleviate a whole hell of a lot of stress. You’d hire a cleaning company. If you have kids, you’d hire a nanny. You’d take a vacation. A lot of people out there would say, ‘Sure, if someone cleaned my house every day, drove my kid around, cooked all my meals, those things would go a long way.’ But that’s only part of the equation: resource management.

The other part is what I call the cognitive piece of stress, or how we think about it. How controllable is the stress? How predictable is it? The same event means different things to different people based on their perception of controllability. And that’s the piece we can attempt to tackle because you can think differently about things—you really can. It is all about controlling your expectations.

What’s an everyday example of a stressor that we can control—or at least work on perceiving differently?

Social media is a great example. People look at it and think ‘Oh, I’m not making as much money as my friend, or I’m not as thin, or I’m not getting as much done.’ That adds a burden and our bodies respond to that burden as a threat—a threat to our sense of self and a threat to who we are.

This is where human beings are screwed because animals respond to real stress—a bigger animal about to attack them, a car about to hit them. Animals respond to real threats in their environment. We respond to threats we make up in our head.

And if you have anxiety, does that just make those imagined threats 1,000 times worse?

Oh,1,000 times worse. Because what is anxiety? Mostly just a big misinterpretation. A disproportionate worry about something that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely going to happen. I’ve had 25-year-olds [with anxiety] tell me, ‘Oh, I’m never going to get married.’ That worry isn’t founded in anything.

Then some anxieties, like people who worry, ‘Am I going to be able to pay my bills’ when they only have $50 in the bank—that anxiety is different. That anxiety is founded in something.

But the problem is, those two people—the person sitting there worried about never getting married and the person worried about the rent that hasn’t been paid-—it is quite possible their bodies are reacting the same way physiologically because they’re both perceiving a threat. That’s why anxiety is such a head game.

Do you think that stress is getting worse for everyone in general?

We’re living in a time where there isn’t a lot of predictability, where people can’t always get their basic needs met. And a lot of Americans right now are worried about the future. So, part of it becomes, how do you think differently and how do you distance yourself from it?

You can’t distance yourself from everything. The first of the month, the rent is going to be due, there’s no getting away from it. But other things, like, you don’t need to look at your social media six times a day and see that your sister is a lot thinner than you. You don’t need to watch the news 24 hours a day. There is a boundary you can set. Turn some of this volume down.

Even if you can’t distance yourself from your biggest stressors, is there something you can do differently this week to at least manage it better?

A lot of it is learning how to increase your perceptions of control. A really lame example would be: can you leave the house 15 minutes early in the morning? It is such a small thing, but those little structural fixes, like going to bed 15 minutes earlier, leaving for work earlier, or packing lunch ahead of time will dial down your stress level.

I always tell people they should frontload their days. We have the most cognitive bandwidth first thing in the morning. That’s why we’re so good at our diets in the morning and by four in the afternoon we’re at Dunkin’ Donuts. In those few hours a lot of energy got lost to a yelling boss, a fender bender, a sick kid, a deadline. But in the morning, we’re better able to handle stuff. So that’s when you can take advantage of the little things like leaving early to set up your day.

What if you feel like you’re at your worst in the morning?

Are there night owls? Sure. In which case I’d say: backend your day. Be the person who sets up everything the night before so when you wake up in the morning and you’re a hot mess, at least some of these structural things got done.

You just need to know your rhythms to get your day set up.

Frontload or backload it-—just load it. Use that control over your schedule to take away as many little things you can trip over as possible. You’re still going to trip over something, but at least it won’t be something you left in the way. It will be something someone else dropped in the way.

Do you think it is typical to almost feel guilty about your stress level? Especially if you feel like you aren’t managing your time well in that way?

What ends up happening in stress management in the U.S. is we blame the individual and we don’t look at the system. It is a great trick because it lets the system off the hook and puts it back on the individual like, ‘Well, you’re not getting enough sleep and not doing enough yoga,’ but really? Yoga? There are people out there that can’t pay their bills. I don’t care how much downward dog they do: that’s not going to put more money in their pockets.

And money is the source of a lot of people’s stress, right?

Yes! And it is all relative. The person who makes $20K a year is stressing out about bus fare and rent. The person making $100K is stressing about a new car. The person making $500K is stressing about their winter ski vacation—it is always something.

It isn’t for me to say that some of those concerns are more valid than others, but for people more at the low-income level, there’s more risk. They’re less likely to have access to health care. Less likely to get time off. The things that contribute to stress—the lower you are on the socioeconomic radius, the worse it is going to be.

Doesn’t that almost get compounded by all these self-care products you’re supposed to buy now?

Self-care is a four-letter word in my book.

But there’s so much junk you can buy!

Great! So now you’re wasting money.

But come on: this specialty Goop face mask can send all your problems away!

Right? If I buy this face mask, I won’t care if I get a grant that saves my career. I’ve got a white thing all over my face while I’m having a panic attack. Great!

My issue with self-care, particularly for women, is that once again, it puts the onus on the woman. [As a trend], it is just giving women one more thing to buy or do when they already feel like they can’t get everything bought and done.

Is there a better, less time- and money-consuming version of self-care?

Find moments in the day. For example, you’re not making work calls during your commute, so give yourself that 30 minutes to listen to the most 80s pop playlist you can find, with the windows closed or while the subway goes, and that’s your moment.

This idea that there’s a right way to do self-care is wrong. What you do has to be somewhat health promoting and involve rest, but it can be something like watching Netflix. It doesn’t always have to involve taking a yoga class or going to a mindfulness meditation seminar. The important thing is that you take a moment to yourself.

[Try to] get some outdoor time every day, too. Just having the sky over your head instead of a roof can make all the difference.

What about vacations? If you can afford it, is “getting away from it all” really the cure-all we want it to be?

Research shows that the benefits of a vacation fade within 48 hours of returning to work. You come back to a crapshow of an office. You’ve got 10 days of accumulated work. It is just a mess. After two days of that you’re like ‘Where was I? Hawaii? What’s that? I’ve never heard of that.’

But vacations are useful as something to look forward to. So if you plan two months in advance to be in the mountains or wherever, every day you’re like, ‘OK, only 30 more days to go.’ ‘Only 15 more days to go.’ That’s where it is helpful: you can give yourself a little bit of a carrot to chase.

What about long-term stress management? Where do you start?

A lot of it is learning to think differently about what’s stressing you out. A lot of times people tell me they can’t handle this or that. So, I ask them: ‘Well, is there a goal with this?’ And then we can contextualize it in terms of larger meaning and purpose. This is just a brick in the road. And once they see these stressors as one small brick in the road, it starts to have new meaning and helps lower the stress—or at least give it meaning.

What can you do if changing your way of thinking just doesn’t come naturally to you?

Therapy can be a really powerful tool. It is a place to offload your thoughts and say the things you’d never say in mixed company. But therapy is expensive, very expensive, and not accessible to everyone. If it isn’t accessible, it is matter of doing the work yourself to find what works to alleviate your stress.

But it’s also just accepting that it is real. Your stress is real and there’s no reason to be hard on yourself if you are stressed. From there, just do what you can to take care of yourself, even if that just means getting a really good night’s sleep every few nights. That’s going to go far.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

If you or someone you know suffers from depression, substance abuse, or thoughts of suicide, talk about it and know that others care. No matter what you’re facing in life or your income level, there are people who can help. Below are resources for more information and support.

The Center for Disease Control: Provides information and outreach through nationwide programs and activities. The CDC offers help and information covering mental health, sexually-transmitted disease testing, substance abuse, and discrimination. (800-232-4636)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Provides information and support for mental and psychical health. (877-696-6775)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Provides programs and outreach for substance abuse and mental health. Maintains a nationwide database of regional programs. (800-662-HELP)

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Free, anonymous crisis prevention hotline available 24/7.  (800-273-8255)

Trans Lifeline: A free hotline by and for the transgender community. (800-273-TALK)

National Alliance on Mental Illness Hotline: Free hotline connecting callers with local treatment and group resources. (1-800-950-NAMI)