The 3 Most Common Mistakes You Make When You’re Stressed—and What to Do Instead

Photo: Getty Images/Azman Jaka
Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion states "what goes up must come down." But stress is not bound by the constraints of physics—it just goes up and up and up. Psychotherapist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW, of Manhattan Wellness says that many of us wind up amplifying the mental health harms already placed upon us by our jobs and relationships—even when it's the last thing we want.

Since the signs of stress don't always hide in plain sight,  Silvershein tells me she usually sees her patients contributing to their own mental strife in three ways. Below, she shares what they are so you can stop, take a minute, and do a little introspection to ask if you're stressing yourself out even more than necessary.

A psychologist names the 3 mistakes you're making when you're already super-stressed

1. You're labeling everything as 'good' or 'bad' to avoid the complexity of a given situation

"When individuals are stressed out they want a simple clean answer. They want to put a label on something as good or bad because if it's unclear, it's going to take more mental energy, and when we're extremely stressed we're already at capacity," says Silvershein. "When we begin seeing things as all or nothing, or black or white, it leaves no room for flexibility, curiosity, and typically makes us feel trapped and extremely rigid in our choices." In the long run, this type of binary thinking will actually harm you more than it helps assuage your stress.

2. You're multitasking

When you feel like there's way too much on your plate, your first instinct will probably tell you to knock out more than one task at once. But that, my friends, is an urge to ignore. "While multitasking may feel as though it makes us high-achieving, it actually makes us prone to mistakes and increasing our feelings of being overwhelmed," says Silvershein. Even though answering emails and writing up a project at work may make you feel productive for, like, 10 minutes, it pays to give each task (and yourself!) some room to breathe.

3. You're setting goals that are too big

"Often, people begin feeling extremely overwhelmed when they are under a great deal of stress and look at the entire mountain instead of the next step in front of them. Taking a large stressor and focusing on small elements or pieces you can control or fix will make the individual feel more in control, and allow them to see their smaller achievements," says Silvershein. Stress gets swept aside little by little—not in one fell swoop.

What to do instead of stressing yourself out further

The moment you realize you're stressed out, Silvershein says you have a choice. You can speed up and let your mental well-being slide even more, or you can take one moment to reconvene with yourself. "When we're feeling stressed, the world can become blurry and 10 minutes can feel like a second. The greatest practice of self-love in this moment would be to slow down and give yourself the time and space you need and deserve in order to function at your highest potential," she says. Stop. Make a list of teeny-tiny items to check off throughout the day. And watch as your stress, as Newton posited, really does go down.

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