Jonas Kakaroto/Unsplash

Source: Jonas Kakaroto/Unsplash

We all experience things that are stressful and anxiety-provoking. There are lots of aspects to responding optimally when facing stress, but there's one in particular I want to focus on here.

Imagine you're experiencing stress; perhaps unexpectedly, or perhaps you anticipated it. The stress triggers a difficult emotion or several of these, which could be, for example, anxiety, doubt, or anger.

How Do You React?

Do you react to those emotions by enacting your values more or less? For example, if you value fairness or being loving. Do you enact those values more or less when stress and strong, difficult emotions are present for you?

If you're coping optimally, the answer is hopefully more. Difficult emotions can propel us to lean into our most deeply held values. This helps us get through stress in resilient ways, and helps prevent missteps. For example, if you value fairness, it can help you react in a balanced way to anger.

How Can You Do That?

At this point, you might be thinking, "Errr, easier said than done." Here I'll give you 7 practical tips for how to recommit to your values when an unexpected (or expected) stressor throws you for a loop.

1. Be clear on what enacting your values looks like.

For me, enacting my values involves things like:

  • paying mindful attention to my child
  • being human in my interactions with people (e.g., being interested in the people I'm interacting with, not just grinding through emails)
  • doing work that matters and lifts people up

Create your own similar list. There aren't right or wrong answers. Feel it out for yourself. What feels most authentically you?

2. Observe what naturally helps you do the above.

I've observed that when I'm under stress, four things make it naturally feel more possible to still enact my values:

  • Going for a walk
  • Self-compassion
  • Re-reading material related to this. For example, Dr. Susan David's book, Emotional Agility, or books by PT's own Dr. Seth Gillihan. Even though I know the material inside-out and back-to-front, re-reading during these times provides inspiration and support. My book, Stress-Free Productivity, covers this topic too, including how to be braver when you're feeling difficult emotions.
  • A spiral effect—if I enact my values in small ways (like baking with my child), it creates natural momentum

Again, make your own observations. What's true for you? What opens a crack in your pain that allows you to walk your values?

3. Take the other person's perspective.

When we feel threatened, we tend to think most about our own safety and our own perspective. This has an evolutionary and protective basis. The more you take other people's perspectives, the more you'll see opportunities to enact your values—especially values like caring, fairness, and common humanity.

4. Practice enacting your values more in all circumstances.

If consciously enacting your values is a regular thing for you, doing it when you're stressed will be easier. If you're always looking for opportunities to do it, that will help you see a wider array of opportunities when you're in a stressful situation.

5. Notice that some values naturally align with managing stressful situations and encounters.

Values like openness and curiosity have a built-in relevance to handling stress. If you hold values like this, think about how they apply.

6. Include ways of enacting your values that feel like self-care or a treat.

What's the overlap between enacting your valuing and nurturing yourself? When you're under stress, nurturing others and yourself in values-driven ways both have benefits. Lifting others up is a great way to mood your mood, but don't solely focus on being prosocial. For example, maybe you value being diligent but you've been putting off the chiropractic appointment you know would leave you feeling good.

7. Branch out from what you usually do.

I have a confession to make: I suck at practicing physical relaxation strategies like slow breathing. In ordinary life, I just can't be bothered. But when I'm struggling more, sometimes I have more motivation to do it.

Often people feel a lot of pressure to be consistent with healthy practices like slow breathing to relieve stress, but there's value in practicing ad hoc too. Since I'm pregnant at the moment, I'm checking my blood pressure at home a few times a week anyway, and I often take my heart rate on my phone. If it's up, my blood pressure is usually up too. So, I do some slow breathing practice—if I bring my heart rate down, my blood pressure often comes down with it.

Since I like data, this type of biofeedback approach appeals to me. I don't mean to suggest that you need to specifically try this. The principle is that while experiencing difficult emotions, you might be more motivated to do things you usually can't be bothered with, but value nevertheless.


Which of these suggestions appealed to you most? Of course, the first step is getting clear on what your most deeply held values are. If you haven't done that, now's a great time to explore it.

Take care to distinguish between values and outcomes—health, for example, is an outcome and a privilege, not a value. Values you can directly express through actions.

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