Words Matter: Change What You Say to Squash Stress

You’ve got a lot on your plate. It feels like every time you get your arms wrapped around your responsibilities, something new gets added. “I’m overwhelmed” you hear yourself saying. As the words leave your lips, the weight of them settles on your shoulders. It’s true, you think. You are the living, breathing embodiment of stress. “I just can’t fathom how I’m going to handle another thing,” you confess. Another weight presses down on you.

Take a deep breath and a good, hard look at your word choice.  The language you use and the tone in which you use it have the power to shape your attitude and behavior. When you label your experience using the term “overwhelm,” it literally becomes overwhelming. This can stop you in your tracks.  Here’s the good news: When you decide to describe your experience differently, you take a bit of the severity out of your experience. While this is not going to make your responsibilities disappear, it will help you handle the problem more effectively. Need a hand reframing your thoughts? Try swapping in these more positive alternatives for common negative self-talk phrases:

“I have many things I want to do today.”

If you catch yourself saying “I am overwhelmed” or “I’m so swamped!” take a step back. Yes, you have a lot you want to do. In fact, why not just say that. “I have many things I want to do today.” Take the drama out of your schedule. Yes, you may be busy. Yes, you may have more to accomplish than any human being could address in one day. Guess what? You have more than one day. The shift in word choice here gets you in a “ready to tackle the mountain of work” mindset, as opposed to “I’m being buried alive under it all!”

“That’s not my priority right now.”

The dishes are piling up in the sink. The email in your inbox reminds you it’s time to make dinner reservations for your upcoming family trip to Disney. A vendor wants to set up an appointment to show you their new product – one they promise will make your life 10x easier! The requests, the unfinished tasks, the new opportunities are flashing before your eyes. “I don’t have the time for this!” you lament. The tension starts to creep into that space between your eyes at the bridge of your nose.

Wait. Let’s back up a moment. The truth is we always have time for what’s most important to us. It’s not that you don’t have time, it’s that at this moment, these things are not your priority. They may need to be addressed at some point, but right now, something else is more important. Saying “That’s not my priority right now,” on the other hand, recognizes that how you spend your time is a choice. Further, clearly identifying your priorities puts you back in the driver’s seat and not at the mercy of your to-do list. That clear validation that you are doing what you need to do, what you want to do, is going to soothe the stress you feel building. I promise.

“I need to look at this from a new angle.”

Ernő Rubik’s infamous cube hit the world stage in 1980. Nearly 40 years later, there are still people who have yet to solve the 3-D puzzle. On the other hand, there are others who have turned speed-cubing into a sport. Their ability to solve the cube in seconds (as opposed to decades and counting!) is rooted in the way they look at the puzzle. They break down the process of maneuvering mismatched squares back into solid color-block sides using a series of infallible algorithmic patterns. The point? When you find yourself saying “It’s too hard” or “I can’t even imagine how I’m going to get this done,” remember the cubers. Take a step back and look at the problem from a different angle. Can you break this down into smaller chunks? Is what seems like a logistical nightmare fixable if you tweak your process? Can you delegate some or all the components of the task? Are you focusing so much on the whole that you’re missing the easy solution? Saying “I need to look at this from a new angle” empowers you to seek that solution. Try it.

“I have the opportunity to learn something new!”

There’s nothing more overwhelming than feeling you are in over your head. Maybe you’ve been hired for a new job that comes with responsibilities you’ve never had to juggle before. Perhaps your new client has an issue more complex than you’ve faced in the past. You’re blazing a new trail and the first words from your lips sound a lot like “I can’t!” or “I’ve never done this before. I don’t even know where to begin.” Insecurity and fear quickly have you doubting yourself. Wait. Step back and start over. Try saying this: “I have the opportunity to learn something new.” There. That’s kind of exhilarating, right? Now that you’ve said it, make a plan to grow yourself some new skills. Find a mentor to guide you. Take a course. Do some online digging. Roll-up your sleeves and give it a go.

Are you ready to give this strategy a try this week? Use positive language to describe your feelings and watch your productivity soar. Don’t forget to join the conversation on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear how changing what you say took a load off your shoulders.