Want to Be Less Stressed? Try This One Simple Question

Today I found myself running late for an appointment. I hate hurrying, but it was my own fault. The trains were also running late, and those few minutes were probably going to cost me. As I rushed along in the cold, the times grew tighter and I found myself becoming more and more stressed.

Still, it was a beautiful morning, with the sun poking through the clouds after the bitter rains of the past few days. And in a moment of grace, it occurred to me that either I could spend the entire morning stressed out, or I could try to enjoy it, despite the pressures of time.

This realization felt like a hard-won victory. I’m prone to stress, to wanting to control everything, to having things be just the way I want them to be. But the last few years, it has occurred to me that choosing to be the kind of person who is driven by stress is just that – a choice. At least, in part.

There’s no denying that stress is going to show up more often for someone with my personality tendencies than for a different kind of person. I know myself well enough to know that I can’t magic myself into being totally care-free at the possibility of missing an appointment.

But I can choose some percentage of whether I let the stress hound me constantly: whether I let it shape the entirety of my day, whether I let it form me, day in and day out. I can implement good habits that help me deal with the stress as it continues to appear.

Will I ever erase stress completely from my life? Of course not. This victory is part of an ongoing process – but this one question has been key in the struggle:

What is the worst possible thing that is likely to happen?

Does that sound like an odd question? Let me explain.

Stress flourishes in uncertainty. “What-if”s are the lifeblood of stress. But by naming the outcomes, stress has less to feed on. What’s more, by naming the worst outcomes, I am claiming control. Naming the worst outcome now gives me something I can face, rather than a big, looming, blank.

Here was my thought process today: “I am probably going to be late! Will I miss my appointment? I am so stressed!” (plus a lot more, er, commentary, but I’ll spare you those details ;))

Then: “but what is the worst possible thing that is likely to happen? Today the worst possible thing is that I do miss the appointment.”

What then? I miss the appointment. I have to re-schedule. It’s inconvenient, yes. It will cost me more time and energy. But that is really the worst possible thing that is likely to happen.

And in the grand scheme of things? It’s not that terrible.

The trick is that word, likely – the worst possible thing that is likely to happen. It can be easy to let anxiety take over and think, well, the very worst possible thing is that there is a massive natural disaster and all the trains run into each other and I end up crushed. But that isn’t likely to happen today any more than any other day.

This question demands that we live in the realm of real possibility, not the cloud of drastic doom. (If anxiety about highly unlikely doomsday scenarios is a constant in your life, it might be time to seek professional help, or at least start considering what might be causing such anxiety.)

So that’s it. The one question that has helped me be less stressed.


What about you? How do you manage stress?