Entrepreneurs

Want to Dramatically Lower Your Feelings of Anxiety and Stress? Science (and Jeff Bezos) Say Stop Clumping

Feel stressed? You’re not alone.

Studies show approximately four in five people say they experience stress at work. Half say stress negatively affects their behavior. And over 75 percent say stress results in headaches, fatigue, and problems sleeping. Clearly, stress is a problem.

So is how we tend to think about stress. Ask someone why they feel stressed and they’ll often provide a list: Issues with their job, problems in their personal life, concerns about their health…. 

Most people don’t “stress” over just one thing, because most people can deal with one thing. They can deal with feeling afraid about a specific version of the future. Or worrying about a certain decision they think may come back to haunt them. Or feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation, or an uncomfortable conversation with an underperforming employee.

Those “one things” are what psychologists call “granular” emotions. Instead of “stressed,” a granular emotion is a specific feeling like fear, worry, or anxiety. (On the flip side, instead of “happy,” a granular emotion might be pleased, delighted, or excited.) 

Pile them all up, though — pile up all your worries and frustrations and fears — and granular emotions tend to feel more global. Instead of feeling concerned, or uncertain, or hesitant… you start to feel “stressed.” 

That’s what psychologists call clumping: Perceiving emotions broadly rather than specifically.

And that’s a huge problem, because research shows that the more specifically you identify an emotion — the more granular you make it — the better.  

Participants who were deemed granular were better able to differentiate their emotional experiences. Subjects who were low in granularity — called clumpers — were less skilled at differentiating emotions (e.g., angry, worried, frustrated).

When the two groups were compared … granular individuals were less likely to freak out … when under stress and more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences. They also were better at emotion regulation — moderating their responses in order to achieve desired outcomes.

The clumpers, on the other hand, scored worse on those counts, tending to be physically and psychologically ill at a higher rate than the granular crowd.

While it might sound odd — especially since we’re often told not to dwell on our emotions — taking the time to think about the reasons why you feel the way you feel helps you better deal with that emotion. 

The same is of course true where others are concerned: Helping a person who feels “upset” or “stressed” or “anxious” identify the specific source of the underlying emotions helps them better manage their feelings.

Try it. The next time you feel stressed, go granular.

1. Identify the specific emotion.

Never settle for “I feel stressed.”

Instead, be specific. You’re worried about completing a project on time. Concerned about a relationship. Hesitant to speak up about a problem. Unsettled by a recent conversation. 

List the reasons you feel stressed. Then describe the resulting emotion in a granular way. Take the time to think about the reasons you feel the way you do. 

2. Decide how you will tackle each. 

As David Allen of Getting Things Done fame once told me:

Most people try to use their psyche as their systemic process, which means issues gain importance based on your emotions. I’ve never met anyone who said they didn’t feel a little better if they sat down and made a list. Nothing changes when you write things down except how you engage with your issues: You can be objective and also be creative and intuitive.

Your head is for having ideas, not holding ideas, and it’s certainly not for filing things away. Without exception, you will feel better if you get stuff out of your head.

But don’t stop there. Then decide what you will do. 

As Bezos says, “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. I find that as soon as I can identify it, and make the first phone call, or send off the first email, it dramatically reduces the stress I feel.”

Step one, identify. Step two, take action.

Because over time that will help you…

3. Reframe negative emotions as positive.

Say you feel nervous about an important sales demo. While “nervous” is negative, the fact you have a chance to win a major account is definitely a positive.

Or say you’re concerned you won’t be able to deliver on a tight timetable. While “concerned” is a negative, the fact your company can be a hero for your customer is definitely a positive. 

“Pressure” is an emotion you sometimes want to feel, because it means you’re in a position to do something meaningful. Something important. Something where the outcome truly matters to you.

When you feel anxious, or nervous, or afraid… reframe that emotion. See that “stress” for what it is: An opportunity to step in. Step up. Eliminate a problem. Overcome a challenge.

Make your life — or someone else’s life — better. 

Because you’ll never totally control your emotions.

But you can better control how you manage them. 

And, in the process, feel a whole lot less “stressed.”

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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