Mental Matters: ABC’s of Managing Stress, Please?

If you’re a human being with a pulse, the chances are pretty good that you’ve been overwhelmed by sadness, anger, or anxiety at some point. And while it’s not possible to just avoid negative emotions, there is a lot you can do proactively to reduce your chances of being overwhelmed by them. 

Lucky for us, a woman named Marsha Linehan even came up with two awesome acronyms to remember how to do it: ABC and PLEASE.

A stands for Accumulating Positive Emotions. Accumulating positive emotions just means doing something pleasant every day. Research shows that people who regularly engage in pleasant activities are less vulnerable to being overwhelmed by negative thoughts or emotions.

So what’s a pleasant activity? It could be walking, stargazing, swimming, reading a book, or finding an occasion to bust out your favourite “Goal Digger” tank top and matching headband. It’s something that’s just plain enjoyable and doesn’t feel like work, and it’s probably the kind of thing you usually tell yourself you don’t have time for.

B stands for Building Mastery. This means having something on the go that gives you a sense of competence, something that’s challenging and has room for growth. This boosts self- esteem and also brings a sense of achievement and purpose.

Maybe it’s learning the guitar, taking a cooking class, training for a run, or painting along to The Joy of Painting on Netflix while you contemplate what a badass Bob Ross is.

C stands for Coping Ahead. This just means that if you’ve got something stressful coming up, you take the time to formulate a plan of how you’re going to deal with it, then visualize yourself running through it. Whether it’s a court case, a first date, or putting up a boundary with your mom, coping ahead really helps. It also happens to be a great way to reduce worry.

The PL in PLEASE stands for taking care of your PhysicaL health. Being sick or in pain wreaks havoc on your mental health, so if you’ve got something like that going on, go see your doctor and/or check out one of the awesome physiotherapy clinics in the Region. (But avoid crappy ones where they just put you on a machine while they tend to eight other clients.)

E stands for Exercise. There’s a staggering amount of research showing the positive effects of exercise on mental health, from depression and anxiety to PTSD. It also improves your sleep, which just makes everything better.

A stands for Avoid Mood Altering Drugs. This is a tough sell for a lot of people. One important thing to remember is that it’s a not a moral judgment. It’s just that there’s no such thing as a high without the low that eventually comes on its heels, and being in that low tends to leave us more susceptible to dark moods and thoughts.

S stands for Sleep. If you’re only sleeping 5 or 6 hours a night, this will brutalize you. I’ve lived as a monk, meditated for eleven years, and logged countless hours of my own therapy. Even after all that, if I get three bad sleeps in a row, shit in my mind gets real nasty.

E stands for Eating a Balanced Diet. No need to do an intense paleo/keto/intermittent fasting thing here. The important thing is to make sure you’re eating regularly and getting a good mix of nutrients in you. If not, you’re way more likely to feel overwhelmed.

With the ABC PLEASE skills, you’ve got an awesome little checklist to make sure you’re doing everything you can to avoid being pushed over the edge by a minor stressor. It’s where I start with almost everyone in therapy, so save yourself some money by getting this stuff straightened out before you end up on a therapist’s couch!

John Roche is a therapist in Kitchener Waterloo.