Help someone else.
I remember being both appalled and fascinated by the human condition when I took a class in rhetoric and was apprised that neuroscience has apparently determined, by looking at what parts of the brain activate in certain situations, that people change their minds based not on logic but on how they want to see themselves; they change their minds in order to construct more desirable identities for themselves or to preserve a long-held identity. I don’t know if this is always true, but it certainly does seem to explain a great deal of human behavior (and irrational beliefs about Obama’s birth certificate).
There is a good chance that whatever you are stressed about is so stressful because it threatens your identity. For instance, if someone you were dating took you to a Latin dance class — something you’d never thought about before at all — and you turned out to be terrible at it, would you stress out? Not so much, right? Because that doesn’t threaten the way you want to see yourself.
In any case, if you are stressed because you are failing at something pretty central to how you view yourself, helping someone else gives you an alternate way to construct a positive identity; it takes the pressure off the need to preserve your identity as a successful employee, or a person in a stable relationship, etc. If you are the person who cleans out dog crates at the local animal shelter, then you’re a pretty great person regardless of what else happens.
Exercise your theory of mind.
I am fascinated by the idea of theory of mind — according to Wikipedia, “the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own” — and the amazing fact that some people lack it. Very small children and many pets lack theory of mind, and accordingly are not at all clear on the fact that you can still see them when they close their eyes.
People with certain cognitive deficits can have a poor theory of mind. For instance, such a person might note, “I am not good at schoolwork today and everything is boring and stupid,” and would also know factually that “Dad died yesterday.” Yet such a person, incredibly, would fail to make a connection between the death of a loved one and performing poorly in school; instead, he might conclude that he was “stupid” or a bad student.
I may be stretching the idea of theory of mind a bit here, but this capability can be exercised. TMI alert, but I get really angry for about six hours a few days before my period. Certainly, hormones can make a person extremely but temporarily enraged. So it’s pretty easy, after years of practice, for me to say to myself, “I am having some irrational fury right now.” (And then, ideally, “I will not show outward signs of anger, because neither the FreshDirect delivery man nor the person who designed this electric toothbrush really deserve them.”)
So, just as you would say, “I am having a backache,” how about “I am having some stress”? And then examine it from the outside, just as if had you said, “I am suffering from influenza,” you could easily imagine the flu as an outside invader, and your actual self as being one that does not have influenza.
Also very helpful in viewing stress as a foreign presence that can be examined is keeping a simple journal of what ails you. Nothing fancy, just a little Google doc or something — “2pm, considered tearing out own hair. Wish X would do his fucking job. Possibly going to cry. Hid in bathroom 5 min.” Try this for a week. Are you always stressed at the same time of day, or around the same person, or when you’re hungry?
Either you’ll find a pattern and be able to make some changes, or you’ll be better able to compartmentalize stress and view it from the perspective of an outside observer who peers quizzically but, quite frankly, has better things to do.
Note that nowhere here am I recommending massages, bubble baths, or languorous walks on the beach — at least not as a sole solution. I’ve had the experience of escaping my stress for an hour to get a massage, and then spending the entire time continuing to obsess and wondering when the hour would finally be over so I could go try to actually fix the problem. What a terrible way to blow $100 and end up with a bruised trapezius.
Relaxing your body doesn’t work very well when your mind won’t play along. You can’t paste relaxation on top of stress. You have to address your stress head on: acknowledge it, define and analyze it, and ultimately put it in its place.