Why saying ‘no’ is a vital tool in tackling stress

Want to drastically reduce your stress levels? Learning that ‘no’ is a full sentence should be your first step, says Dr Elissa Epel. 

Type A squad, overachievers and people-pleasers, brace yourselves. I’m about to say something that’s going to hurt. 

Ready? Here it is: you can’t actually do absolutely everything. It’s impossible. And attempting that, whether it’s in the form of being overly ambitious with your to-do list or saying ‘yes’ to any request that comes your way, is doing your mental health harm. 

To accept this simple fact, we need to say ‘no’ sometimes. More often than you think, in fact. This is a vital tool in tackling stress and caring for your mental health, according to Dr Elissa Epel, psychologist and author ofThe Seven-Day Stress Prescription

“It’s too easy to have too much to do – to rush, to fill up our day, to feel overwhelmed,” Dr Epel tells Stylist. “That is, in fact, the most common way people in cities live. But we don’t have to live that way. It’s not written in stone that we need to fill up our daily schedule.

“If we are saying yes to everyone, we are not prioritising ourselves and the vital deep rest we need.

“When we say yes, we are ruling out time for something else. When we say no, we are protecting our time and creating the possibility to have more spaciousness in our day, time for ease and joy, breaks, and maybe even some deep rest.”

Saying no, then, is an act of self-care. It’s a means of prioritising what matters most, whether that’s saying ‘no’ to a pointless meeting so you can do work that brings you joy (work-y work versus happy work, in other words) or declining a social invite because, really, working on your wellbeing is more important this weekend. 

Saying no to certain things because you recognise that you simply don’t have the time, energy or ability to do absolutely everything, is one way of creating the life that you want – one in which unnecessary stress is reduced and fulfilment is increased. 

In her book, Dr Epel recommends creating a stress inventory, in which you write down absolutely everything you can think of that brings up stress, pressure or uncertainty. Once you have that list, you can work out which items you can say ‘no’ to, or delete. 

“We feel out of control when we have too many balls in the air,” writes Epel. “Sometimes, the right thing to do is to let some of those balls drop. The reality is, you simply can’t do it all. You have to find something to give up. Take stock of what you’re carrying: Is there anything you can put down, at least for a while? Is there anything you can completely let go of? 

“Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your wellbeing, your relationships and your capacity to handle the stress in your life is to say no.”

How do you decide what to say no to, though? The answer lies in getting in touch with your values: what really matters to you? What do you want your life to look like? Does this fit into that vision?

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Epel recommends reminding yourself: “I have limited attention and time,” and then asking: “Is this where I want to place it?”

If you’re a chronic yes-er, the idea of saying no, of letting go, of dropping some balls, might feel terrifying. That’s OK (and very common). How do we make it a little more comfortable? Practice, practice, practice. 

“Practice saying no in a way you are comfortable with,” recommends Dr Epel. At first, that might look like saying no to things that are easy to say no to – test it out with things that don’t feel too pressured. 

You might also want to dip your toe in the no pool with a ‘yes, if…’ stopgap. For example, saying sure, you can take on this work project – if your manager will tell you which other task can be dropped. 

Dr Epel notes: “Can you always tell your boss no? Probably not. But you can ask for help prioritising activities (because you need sleep and balance). What should come off of your plate if you take on this extra task. You can ask for more time to complete a project or to do part of the project instead of the full thing. The key is to value your rest as much as you value your productivity and find a way for both to coexist with balance.”

Ultimately, the more you say no, the more empowered and in control you will feel. It can help to explain to people what you’re doing; that you’re being more strategic with what you say ‘yes’ to in order to improve your mental wellbeing, not only so you explain your own decision-making, but so you can encourage others to join the movement. 

Remember, however, that you don’t need to justify your ‘no’ to anyone if you don’t want to. “Remember when firmness is needed,” Dr Epel urges. “‘No’ alone is a full sentence.”

At the end of the day, your ‘no’ holds power and using it wisely has the ability to improve your life, reduce stress and boost your happiness. Take a proper, honest audit of what you can say ‘no’ to and remind yourself why you’re doing this: to make room for the things that really deserve a ‘yes’. 

The Seven-Day Stress Prescription by Dr Elissa Epel is available now (Penguin Life, £9.99)

Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.

Main image: Getty, Stylist

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