How to reduce stress: The lost art of comforting yourself

How to reduce stress: The lost art of comforting yourself

You don’t see anyone comforting anyone else much anymore, anywhere, unless you are addicted to watching videos where someone super nice rescues a terribly neglected animal, or those videos where animals are snuggling up to people. And every so often, something like this pops up. But overall, it seems that so many are too rushed, too stressed, and too distracted by glowing screens to comfort others. There just aren’t very many good examples. That’s a shame, because the best answer to “how to reduce stress” is learning how to comfort yourself.

I think this is especially important now that we have so much bad news hanging over us. There is strife all around, and many of us are isolated in ways we never were before. If you learn how to comfort yourself, those “terrible” things become minor inconveniences that we know we will overcome. No matter what happens, we will have a friend at hand, ready to help us feel better and carry on. The peace you feel, once you have mastered this skill, will change your life. 

If you’re going to succeed in this method of stress management, first we need to define what comfort is. It is the feeling that we are safe; that we can handle whatever comes our way; that we are not buffeted about by others, no matter how crazy they’re acting or eager they are to involve us in their dysfunction. (One of my own favorite reminders is “don’t internalize their dysfunction.”) It is knowing that we are loved and loving; that we are capable; that this, too, shall pass, whatever it is. 

Physically, it is a long hug from someone who truly loves us, and accepts us for who we are. It’s being held and stroked, for as long as is needed. What if there is no one who can do that for you? Do it for yourself. Find a way to do something physical that you find soothing; it will be unique to you. Perhaps it’s a long hot bath; a nap in a safe place; dancing alone to your favorite music. One of my personal heroes, autistic author Temple Grandin, created a “squeeze machine.” Physically comforting yourself is ok, and should be an important part of your day.

“I don’t have time,” you might be thinking. Or, “I am not worthy.” But you are worthy—you have just as much right to comfort as anyone else in the world. And if you don’t have time for comfort, then everything you do while stressed out will suffer. You can’t perform at your best if you are anxious and fretting. 

Now let’s look at how you talk to yourself. I’ve seen so many people who speak nicely to others but whose self-talk is judgemental, rude, sarcastic, and demeaning. “I can’t believe I just did that. What an idiot!” “What if this doesn’t work? I am so terrible at this! I never get this right!”

Once you realize you are doing this, you can change it. It’s a switch, and you can flip it. When you find yourself mentally or verbally beating yourself up, you can stop, take a deep breath, and find something comforting to say. It could be as simple as, “It’s ok. It’s all going to be ok. I can handle this.” Go back to that video of the mom comforting the little girl. “You are strong. You are worthy. You are loved.” Watch what happens to that little girl’s face when her mother says “You are loved.” Hope springs up in her eyes, and she shifts from trauma to tenderness. 

That’s really what this is all about: making that shift from trauma to tenderness. A life well-lived is not meant to be spent in trauma. Tenderness is the key to finding that calm place where you can gather your strength and try again. It is the secret of any successful romantic relationship, too. 

Somewhere along the way it became cool to be tough. It’s true, there are times in life where being tough—in a calm, composed way—is entirely appropriate. (Those times when you find yourself dealing with a jerk, for example.) But we spend most of our time with people we want to be with or need to interact with. Tenderness in all its various forms is entirely appropriate, at home and at work. 

You really don’t need to be stressed out. You don’t need to keep wondering how to deal with stress at work or at home. Once you start walking away from trauma and toward tenderness, everything gets easier, smoother, more successful, and more satisfying. Special moments become special hours, days, weeks, months, and years. The result is a special life.

Be the mother or father or friend you never had, for yourself. 

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