Getting married, moving between cities, and applying for a new job are all events that will affect your life in a profound way. Closing of an old chapter of your life or starting a new one can be exciting, but it can take a lot of work to successfully navigate. It is therefore no surprise that such big events bring forth a lot of emotions and expectations, both positive and negative. Not knowing how to handle such events can give us a lot of stress. Especially when you suffer from psychosomatic pain like headaches, back aches, or digestive issues, this stress can catalyze physical discomfort too.
So if we want to reduce stress and psychosomatic pain, it is best we prepare well. And how can we prepare ourselves better than taking a page from the people who prepare themselves for one of toughest events to exist: the Olympics.
Specifically, for this post we will look at preparation from the perspective of three different fields of psychology: organizational psychology, sports psychology, and clinical psychology. We will look at tips and tricks that you can implement to better prepare yourself and reduce stress in the build-up towards an important event.
As always, this post is based on over 30 papers on emotion regulation, core self-evaluations, job performance, and preparation for sports events, pulled from the fields of Clinical, Organizational, and Sports Psychology.
Road to the Olympics
A great way to take control is to prepare for the future event as if you were preparing to compete in the Olympics. Specifically we will boil this down to three distinct tactics:
- Develop an optimal training schedule
- Prepare mentally
- Create a plan and stick to it
Develop an optimal training schedule by boosting your locus of control and self-efficacy
For the first step in our route to the Olympics, we are going to envision ourselves as an athlete whose job it is to be successful. The first question is: what helps you be successful in your job?
Industrial & Organizational (IO) psychology tells us that one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of positive job outcomes such as job performance and job satisfaction is the concept of core self-evaluations.
In short, core self-evaluations represent our subconscious, fundamental evaluations about ourselves, our abilities, and our level of control. It consists of four main components: Locus of control, Neuroticism, Self-efficacy, and Self-esteem.
It might come as no surprise that being successful in your job is strongly linked to your own perception of yourself. So a good place to start to reduce stress is to focus on these components, especially on locus of control and self-efficacy.
Locus of control literally means the location of control, and it represents the feeling of whether or not you are in control over your situation. If you have read our previous blog on self-determination theory, this may sound familiar. But to quickly recap, having a feeling of control is one of the main drivers of our intrinsic (self driven) motivation. It gives us the willpower to tackle a situation, because we know that, in one way or another, we can positively affect the outcome.
Self efficacy, on the other hand, is the feeling of whether you feel confident that you can successfully complete a given task. So how can we both increase the feeling that we are in control of the situation, as well as increase our feeling that we can successfully complete what is needed to be successful?
The optimal training schedule — step by (tiny) step. It might be daunting to know that a major life event will be happening, but don’t forget that this also is your strongest advantage. There is no uncertainty; you know that it is going to happen. So in order to be successful, you need to take control. And the best way to take control is to chop up the major life event into smaller manageable parts.
For big projects. Chopping up a difficult task will not only reduce the complexity of the overall task, it will also give you the opportunity to achieve multiple small successes. Each success will make you feel more confident, and more in control of your situation, which in turn will increase your feelings of self efficacy and self esteem.
Let’s say you are going to move to a new city in three months, and you feel like you are being swept along. There is still so much to do, and you feel overwhelmed, because you feel there is no way that you can do it on your own.
First, take a deep breath, and pick up pen and paper, or open up a new excel sheet.
- Start by mapping out everything that needs to be done. Especially in times of stress, it can be easy to lose track of the bigger picture. Regain control by writing down everything that needs to be done. This may seem overwhelming at first, but it will give you an overview of what is important now, and what will be important later, so you can direct your attention to what is needed.
- Break down big tasks into manageable chunks. Break apart difficult tasks until you feel like you’ve got something that you feel you can confidently succeed at. Let’s say for instance that you need to pack up your entire home to move. You may feel like you have no idea on how to successfully manage this. Start with packing a small room, maybe even a closet, and build up some experience on what the best way is to order and pack your stuff. Then move on to some bigger rooms, until you feel like you can successfully tackle the whole home.
- Focus on what you can do. When a task is too overwhelming, it can be difficult to “just start”. A good tip is to look for the thing that is easiest to accomplish. Again drawing from building confidence, having an early win can help you give momentum to help finish the next easiest task to accomplish. If you feel like everything is too difficult, you can either try to break down the task to even smaller chunks, or ask for help.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is a recurring theme, but it bears repeating. Not only does asking for help allow you to share part of your burden and feel social support, it will also allow you to free up mental space to focus on what is most important. Once you feel that you’ve got a grasp on the situation, you can become more independent.
For big, skill-based events. For more skill-based events it can be helpful to specifically target the desired skills that you are going to need during the event.
For example say that you are going to have to give an important speech at your best friend’s wedding. You feel that this is an important moment and you don’t want to screw up, but you are feeling stressed because you do not feel confident in your presentation skills.
While we cannot foresee all possible requirements of the future event, we can reduce stress by preparing what we do know. We know, for instance, that we will have to be speaking in public, you will have to prepare a speech, and have to deliver the speech. Our goal will be to find tactics to improve each aspect.
An approach can be to go online and seek out tips and advice, and actively set goals that will help you get better at a desired skill. Be it public speaking, writing speeches, or telling jokes. Please take a look at our previous post on kick starting personal growth, if you want some advice on improving your skills
Moreover, athletes are rarely preparing on their own. A good tip will be to look for help in your immediate environment. Ask your friends and family for inspiration, or nice stories that you can use for writing your speech. Ask them to proofread your final product. Give a mock speech in front of them to get used to speaking in front of a group.
Prepare mentally by regulating your emotions
To be successful, an Olympic athlete also needs to prepare mentally. Even the fastest runner will struggle if stress causes his psychosomatic stomach pain to flare up, and the most skilled player will freeze if she gets too anxious.
Preparation doesn’t only mean completing the task or preparing your skills, but also controlling your nerves and emotions. During the event, and beforehand. Our episodic memory enables us to recall past events, with all the emotions and feelings that are connected to them, as well as to imagine possible future events based on past experiences and knowledge.
Stress about future events. Thinking of an important event (real or imagined) can make you experience the emotions related to that event. This can be stressful–especially if you imagine the event being negative or overwhelming. But it can also be helpful if you use it to prepare our body to respond to said event. We previously discussed how to use this ability to our benefit when it comes to positive emotions. In this post we’ll turn to how we can use it to reduce stress about future events.
Specifically, if we want to change our emotion towards an event–current or future–we can employ several tactics, including:
- Situation modification – modifying those situations once we are in them
- Attentional deployment – directing our attention to specific features of the situation
- Cognitive change – changing the meaning we attach to those features
Situation modification. So how can we reduce stress caused by our imagined events? First, we can modify the situation. Let’s say for instance, you’ve got an important job interview in a couple of weeks. And thinking about it gives you anxiety, because you are thinking about all the times you hear that people failed their job interviews. You think that you may not be good enough, and that failing means that you will have to repeat the process of finding a job all over again.
But what if you didn’t fail? What would it mean if you would succeed? You would have the job that you really like, and you would no longer have to look for a new job. Instead of engaging in negative mental time travel, focus on the positive outcomes that are related to successfully completing the future event.
Attentional deployment. If this may feel too foreign, you could also try to redirect your attention in the situation towards something more favorable. Let’s say for instance that part of the interview consists of talking about your skills and experiences, and part consists of giving a prepared presentation. Let’s say that you are dreading the talking about skills and experiences part, but you know that you are good at presenting. Instead of focusing on fumbling the interview part, focus on how you can blow their socks off with the presentation.
Cognitive change. Lastly, maybe the most effective way to reduce stress, is to engage in cognitive change. Instead of thinking about the job interview as all or nothing, you can focus on the benefits of the experience regardless of the outcome. For instance, consider the experience you will gain from the interview, if it will give you an idea of what a company that is looking for, or whether you can use this interview as a stepping stone for trying to get a position at a better company.
While negative emotions may be more prominent in the build up to these events, it does not mean you can’t experience any positive emotions. It may therefore be very helpful to look at tactics to promote these positive emotions to help buffer against the negative emotions. And to help learn these skills even better, PsychologyCompass has recently brought out an app that will give you access to a cognition coach in your pocket. Within the app you will find all of our lessons and quick fixes on a variety of different topics, such as increasing your emotional intelligence.
Stress during the event. Now that we have talked about tips to regulate your emotion beforehand, we will look at how to handle emotions during the event. The approach remains the same, but it can be a lot more difficult to successfully regulate your emotions when the stakes are high, versus when they are imagined. And while regulating emotion is a skill you can improve over time, it is beneficial to set up a game plan to prepare for possible bad outcomes.
Looking back at our wedding speech example, it may be a good idea to think about how you would react if you were to forget your lines, or if a drunk uncle heckled your speech. Thinking about these things beforehand will give you more control over the future event.
Create a plan and stick to it – with social support and rewards
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, a successful athlete is diligent. She does not deviate from her plans and preparation. Once you make a plan, it is important to make it a practicing habit. If the goal is important to you, do not let yourself get distracted. This means both in the run up to the event, as well as during the event.
If you feel that you could use some help sticking to the plan, it can be a good idea to involve a friend or family member in your end-goal. They can help motivate you or remind you to keep practicing/preparing in times when you feel unmotivated to do so. Not only can this help to reduce stress by having somebody who pushes you in times of need, it will also help you to know that you are not alone in your cause.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate regular, small rewards for meeting your subgoals. Maybe a fancy coffee or night out to celebrate staying on track. These help build your sense of control and efficacy and remind you of the progress you are making.
Recap on reduce stress by preparing for major life events like an athlete
Major life events can be stressful and a strong catalyst for a lot of psychosomatic pain. It is therefore important to ensure that you prepare well, so that you can reduce stress, and prevent, or at least mitigate any pain you may experience.
To do this, we are going to prepare like the pros by:
- Creating an optimal training schedule:
- Identify and train skills that are important to successfully navigate through the life event.
- Identify complex tasks, and break them down into manageable tasks
- Build your confidence through small achievements
- Ask for help where needed
- Prepare mentally
- Engage in situation modification, attention deployment, and cognitive change to reduce negative emotions that occur in the build up to the event, and promote positive emotions.
- Train emotional awareness skills to deal with negative emotions during the event
- Make a game plan for potential negative situations that may occur during the event so that you feel less off-guard when they may occur
- Create a plan and stick to it
- Be diligent, and stick to your training schedule
- Involve a valued other in your end-goal, and incorporate small rewards that will keep you motivated
Following these steps will definitely help you to reduce stress, and may even let you enjoy the positive side of your major life event.