Life can be pretty stress filled anymore. Schedules are packed. The news is terrible much of the time. More and more the workplace seems to demand doing what used to be two people’s workload. Even social calendars can be a source of stress. Are the kids getting enough play dates? Are the adults keeping up with the Joneses socially? Having enough parties, attending enough social gatherings? Seems like most people feel the need for more than 24 hours in a day and more than 7 days in a week to keep up. What to do??
Although it’s not a popular one, my first response is to ask if all of it MUST happen. Are there places to slow down? What would actually happen if you said NO? Cultural shifts happen when enough people stop participating or start doing something else but it starts one person at a time. So, first, check what is in your immediate power to limit to take out some stress.
Back when I worked in corporate America, I taught MANY many stress management classes and the basics still hold true. These include: relaxation and breathing practices, exercise, diet, sleep, the way you think about things, perceptions, and time management. Here goes:
Relaxation and breathing practices:
Take a moment and a deep breath. What do you notice? Now put one hand on your chest and another on your belly, do it again. Which hand is moving first and/or the most? For many of us it’s the chest hand but that tells me that the breath is likely constricted or shallow. Did you know that if you continually breathe in such a way that you can create panic symptoms eventually? Did you know that when psychologists look at the 6 months before a first panic attack, almost always there is chronic high stress? Ideally, we want breath to come from the belly (or diaphragm) and to be fully exhaled again. One way to improve is to imagine that your pants will fall down if your belly doesn’t go out enough with your breathing. I also recommend the Breathing Zone app which you can set to a variety of speeds, time durations and it’s got a calming visual as well.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a great practice. Often we just hold our bodies very tight when we are stressed. Sometimes it’s necessary to intentionally tighten the muscle even a little bit more for it to let go and relax. One of the easiest progressive muscle relaxation exercises for beginners is to work a small group at a time, tightening the muscle for the count of 10 and then letting go. You may not even really know what a relaxed muscle feels like. When you let go, there is often a warm feeling of release. Imagine the muscle smoothing out the way butter melts in a pan. Other great relaxation practices for stress include meditation and guided imagery. Although tai chi and breath focused yoga are exercise practices, they also fit into the relaxation and centering group too. Yoga cards for kids can be an easy way to start a home practice. You might even get your kids into a healthy habit too!
Since tai chi and yoga are both relaxation and exercise practices, it seemed logical this would be the next category. For many people, stress means feeling more anxious or depressed. Research is clear that exercise helps both. Cardiovascular exercise helps the body reduce stress hormones and also helps the muscles relax more afterward. While even small amounts of exercise can reduce anxiety, research shows doing aerobic exercise for 20 minutes at a time at least 3 times a week can reduce symptoms of depression by as much as 50- 70%. The best exercise plan is whatever activity you will do consistently, without hurting your body, and that you enjoy. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime so you sleep well.
Americans generally under-appreciate the importance of sleep for their health and well being. The fact that we have a saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” shows just how much. Getting enough, quality sleep is important to stress management, to weight, to general physical health and to more optimal functioning in life. Most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. The deep sleep is important for our physical restoration and the dream sleep is important for our psychological well being. In an NPR interview with the neuroscientist author of “Why We Sleep“, we learned that cutting off 2 hours of the required amount of sleep can reduce the dream portion by 80%! Although it can be harder to sleep when you are stressed, it’s all the more important to get enough sleep.
Back in my statistics classes, we were often told “garbage in, garbage out”. Well, that goes for diet and stress or health as well. When we are stressed we often want comfort foods or we rely upon fast foods for time. Not having a healthy balance in your diet will only create more health problems, even if just weight gain, that isn’t going to reduce your stress! Because stress puts the body into fight or flight mode, people are more at risk of immune system suppression with chronic stress. What we eat and when we eat it can help. Fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and certain kinds of proteins are all beneficial in managing stress. For example, magnesium at bedtime helps you sleep and creates more calm. The glycinate variety will be easier on your GI system. Read more about it here and here. Within diet, it’s also important to curb too much caffeine or alcohol, both of which will wreck your sleep and aren’t good for your body.
Ways of Thinking:
How we talk to our selves (think) has a lot to do with our stress level. There are 3 basic ways we can do this that can increase our stress: predictions, evaluations and expectations. For expectations, it’s helpful to consider whether you are demanding vs preferring something. Some of the red flag words that can alert you to demanding are: must, should, need, have to, can’t. Psychiatrist Albert Ellis used to say “Stop shoulding on yourself”.
In the category of evaluations, we might fall into the trap of exaggerating in a negative way either they way we see ourselves, others or situations. Psychologists call this “catastrophizing”. Red flag words here include: awful, horrible, worst, disaster and any variety of negative name calling (e.g., jerk, etc).
Finally, we tend to increase our stress when we make predictions, because often we predict bad things WILL happen as opposed to could occur. This is more common than most people realize. The red flag words/phrases here include: what if, always, never, suppose. Think about how good this question would make you feel: “What if this never changes?!” Right. First you have to catch yourself in these thought patterns and then you have to basically argue yourself out of them.
Among the ways to argue yourself out of the stress increasing self talk is to ask yourself these questions:
Is it always true? (Basically the answer is going to be no since “always” rarely actually is true)
What is the evidence that it is true? What about the evidence that it’s NOT true?
What are some concrete things I can do about when that is true? How can I let it go when I can’t control it?
Have you ever taken one of those “quizzes” that asks you to identify how many “f”s are in a paragraph? Usually we will miss all the “f”s that go along with words like “of” because we perceive them as “v”s instead, especially if we are reading aloud. Humans fall into all sorts of perceptual habits that may not make them aware of actual reality. The most common perceptual biases people use, typically without awareness, if what’s called the “fundamental attribution error” and the “self serving bias“.
Basically, when something is happening that’s bad, we give ourselves situational reasons why we can’t control it and when something good happens it’s because of how awesome we are (self serving bias). When we are looking at other people, we just over estimate how much is because of who the person is, good or bad (fundamental attribution error). That can be stressful for a couple reasons. First if we are perceiving a lot of people around us engaging in frustrating behaviors, the bias can lead us to believe that humanity is kind of negative which can stress some people. Second, if we have a blind spot to our own negative behavior and we continually attribute it to things outside of our control, then we will keep doing it which causes stress.
How people manage their time can create or reduce stress. Procrastination is probably the time management issue most likely to lead to stress. Usually people will claim that they “work best under pressure” as the rationalization for procrastinating. However, unless it’s a pretty simple task, that’s likely not true. Social psychology research shows performance under “pressure” follows an upside down U shape with the top of the hump signalling optimal performance. For more complex tasks (which is what people often procrastinate), performance declines pretty quickly which causes more stress as the deadline approaches. In addition, many people underestimate the amount of time something while take while over-estimating their future motivation to do it (which is also how procrastination happens). That can really leave people in a crunch which causes more stress.
In addition to procrastination, multi-tasking vs staying focused on one task contributes to stress. The best way to manage this stress inducer is to turn off distractions whenever possible. That might mean taking the notification sound off your email or text. It could also mean creating blocks for yourself on computer or phone that won’t allow you to access social media or news during work or homework hours.
Another time management tool to decrease stress is to create a mental filing cabinet for tasks or projects. Not everything that is urgent is important and not everything important is urgent. It can be helpful to classify your “to do” list into the following categories to manage your time most effectively: urgent and important, urgent and not important, important and not urgent, not important and not urgent. Guess where social media fits? Sometimes you might have to check with a boss or partner to determine which drawer in your mental filing cabinet any given task or project might fall. Let’s be honest, failing to properly categorize to the satisfaction of someone very important to you can also increase stress if it changes when things get done. Having a good ability to prioritize and then follow through can help manage stress to a great degree.
Support and fun:
Having time for fun, especially to include laughter, is important for stress management. Remember at the beginning when we were talking about tight muscles vs relaxed muscles? Try to pick up something heavy while you are really laughing. You can’t do it very well if at all. Laughter helps with muscle relaxation and improved mood. Generally it happens with other people too. Social support is a very important part of stress management. Everyone needs people they can count on to laugh with, to help them with a variety of things or to talk to about what’s happening in life. Make sure you have people who can fit in all of those categories.
Finally, many people find current events and the news to be a significant source of stress for them. With all that goes on in the world, it’s not uncommon for people to need a “news diet”. For some that will mean no news at all. For others it might mean really scaling back and only at certain times. In addition to a news diet, deliberately seeking good news can help reduce stress. For certain stressful news items, it can be a positive thing to do some small thing to make a difference or take action.
Make a donation to the disaster relief. Participate in a phone bank or volunteer if that better suits you. Write a letter to the editor. While it may not change whatever current event is stressing you, it can help you to feel like you are not completely helpless. In the end, taking action should not actually increase your stress. If it does, remove it from the list. Sometimes stress is really hard to manage without professional help. If these various tools are not taking away stress enough for life to be pleasurable or to have some ease, make an appointment.