Sometimes it seems like people are living their lives at breakneck speed. Perhaps it’s because we’re trying to match paces with technological advancements that require us to be in communication and “on top of things” 24/7. Maybe it’s the tightening grip of economic pressure (or fear of said…). For some it’s as simple as having learned that “life is suffering” and working hard is the only way to live an honest life. Whatever your situation, you probably are dealing with a bit more stress than necessary. I hope this checklist can provide some helpful tools for deflating the stress-bubble next time it starts ballooning out of control!
Picture this. You’re in an argument with someone. Your tone is curt, the volume is slowly rising, about to reach a crescendo when…all of a sudden..you both pause for a second, look at each other, and burst out laughing! The tension dissolves within seconds and you’re most likely able to finish the discussion in a much less antagonistic fashion. There is no end to the healing powers of laughter! When you feel the hamster in your head spinning in circles, when you feel yourself getting frustrated with the task at hand, when your shoulders are moving closer to your ears every second..find something to laugh about! Even if it means forcing the first few, you can probably get yourself going from the sheer ridiculousness of making fake laughing noises. Trust me, as someone who finds it incredibly embarrassing to force myself to laugh, it works. If all else fails, look for “laughter yoga” on YouTube. Though I have never resorted to them, I know a lot of people who find it helpful when in dire straits ;).
As with many of these suggestions, it’s all a matter of your specific situation and context. Your access to wild spaces will of course vary depending on where you live. Some people may just step our their doors and be in the woods, others may have to settle for a walk in the local park. The most important thing is not to let feeling like you “have” to spend time in nature become yet another stressful chore in your life! Keep it simple. Taking time to connect with the non-human world can be as simple as finding a nice spot to sit where you can watch the sun rise or listen to the birds or watch a squirrel do its thing for 15 minutes. The point is really more about slowing yourself down and connecting with whats outside your overactive brain! When we put ourselves back in touch with the rest of the world, when we take the time to observe something beyond ourselves, it’s allows us to get some perspective and also to recognize if we are in a cycle that could use some shifting. Maybe there’s something you can adjust about your daily rhythm that will allow you to avoid finding yourself in super stressed out states altogether. It’s definitely worth giving yourself space and time to think/feel about!
Say Goodbye to Rush Hour
Again, all a matter of context, but for those of you who drive a lot…consider cutting it down to an absolute minimum!I know sometimes we just can’t avoid driving…maybe your job is not accessible by public transport and you commute from the outskirts of a town. Or you live in the countryside and everything is at least a 20 minute drive away. Having briefly owned a car, I quickly became aware that I was using it a lot more than I actually reeeally needed to. In the city it became far too easy to schedule my life in a completely unrealistic fashion because I thought I could get from point A to point B in time if I drove. In the country, rather than waiting to coordinate with neighbors and ride share in to town for errands I would just go whenever I felt like it. And hey, if I forgot something, I could always go back! I eventually realized that by relying on my vehicle I was putting a lot more stress on myself to be on the go, to be “more” productive, when actually my quality of life and health was going down. I was getting less exercise, I was rushing from place to place because I scheduled things way too close together, and driving instead of walking or biking meant I spent way less time outside and hardly had any spontaneous encounters in my day. I also had to deal with the angst of other drivers on the road. All that to say, just take the time to check in with your habits around travel and transportation and see if there’s any extra use of motorized vehicles you could cut out to give yourself a bit more space and time to not be rushing around, or worrying about parking or dealing with unpredictable drivers.
Scale Down, Calm Down
On that note, you may want to ask yourself whether you are constantly biting off more than you can chew! If you are in a state of extreme stress on the regular there’s probably something you need to readjust. Of course there are situations that you might not be in control of. But if you have the option, try and work out a way that you can function within your actual range of abilities rather than trying to be a superhuman! There may be other people around you who have different rhythms or who are living their lives at breakneck speed. That doesn’t mean you have to. You also need to figure out what your natural sleep cycle is! Some people really love working at night. Others, like me, thrive on daytime hours! I have come to accept that I can’t do any kind of seriously focused work at night, and that I need to wake up early even if the rest of the city is asleep and I can’t get anything done involving other people til at least 9am. If you know you are way less functional at night, even if you have tons of work to catch up on it might be worth it to start waking up super early and getting things done when you are fully functional. It’ll take you half the time and allow you to get a good night’s sleep! Basically, give yourself the option of cutting back on activities when and if you need to. Respect your rhythm when you can. When it comes to being efficient and reducing stress, less is more!
Choose Your Stimulation Wisely
I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montreal there is a biiig coffee and cafe culture! Coffee is an integral part of a lot of peoples lives. While I have been known to appreciate a good coffee, I have also become aware of it’s effects on my stress levels, among other aspects of my bodies functions. It’s possible that if you drink coffee all the time you may not be aware of the ways in which it’s effecting you. However, you might want to consider avoiding it in moments of intense stress. Sure you may think to yourself you need to get this big chunk of work done and coffee will help you focus and stay awake. This may be the case sometimes! Caffeine does unfortunately also increase the levels of cortisol in the body, which is one of our natural stress hormones. If you want to read more in depth on the topic you could start with this short article: Health Effects of Coffee and Caffeine on Stress. What many studies show is that high caffeine intake plus a relatively sedentary lifestyle can cause much higher rates of stress hormones within the body. As we all know, constant stress on the nervous system is sure fire way to burn out. So! Consider lowering your coffee intake. Try replacing it with things that contain less caffeine such as black tea, green tea ( a great anti-oxidant) or kombucha (which has the added benefit of being a pro-biotic). If you really love the taste of coffee and don’t care about the caffeine, try switching to decaf! It could make a huge difference.
Write it Out
As someone with a somewhat over-active mind, I have found it incredibly helpful to have a journal. The reason I find this so helpful is that it allows me to step outside of my own vortex of thought and actually observe the patterns that are going on, which in turn usually allows me to change them. Similar to taking time to slow down and observe the rest of nature (suggestion number two), this practice can offer a huge amount of very helpful perspective! At the very least, it provides a space where you can rant to your hearts content, get everything off your chest and possibly say things you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to any of your friends or family members, for whatever reason. I find that very often I will reread what I’ve just written and find myself chuckling at my own ability to get carried away and worked up over nothing (in the grand scheme of things…). Aside from writing out our various complaints and stress-factors, writing can also be a great way of coming back to gratitude! Remember to take the time to write about what you are grateful for in your life, be it something small or big!
Talk it Through
If you’re lucky enough to have some close friends or family members who you feel comfortable calling on in times of need, go for it! Don’t be shy, reach out! If you find yourself in a downward spiral of stressful thinking sometimes having someone to help snap you out of it is just the ticket!People who’ve known you for a while can be especially helpful in helping you identify your patterns and reminding you of how best to take care of yourself. If you find that you have become distant from some of those people in your life, now might be a good time to start cultivating closeness again! Making time for important relationships is a great way to start realigning ourselves with some of our basic needs and values. It’s far too easy to take those special people for granted when really even the most solid of connections could benefit from regular nourishment. Both for your sake and for theirs!
Some people may claim to not like baths, but I have a very hard time believing them. If you are one of those people, feel free to ignore this next bit ;). Otherwise, I, and many other people I know, find hot baths to be super helpful in de-stressing. First off there’s the simple fact that heat helps relax our muscles, so it releases a fair amount of the pent up tension we accumulate in our bodies. Add some low lighting (candles?) and you get the added benefit of relaxing your eyes which may have been being bombarded with artificial lighting on a regular basis or simply being overused. If you want to up the anti you can add some sea of Epsom salt to your bath. This apparently allows your body to release a variety of toxins that are probably clogging up parts of your system. Considering the fact that we spend the first 9 months of our lives in a bubble of warm liquid it makes sense to me that recreating that environment to some degree would allow us to sink in to a certain level of relaxation and safety. It’s just a thought!
Spend Time With the Little People
You may be envisioning leprechauns and faeries right now, but for those of us without the gift of sight, I’m talking more about children, plants and animals ;). Spending time around non-adults can be incredibly liberating. It reminds us to pay attention to the simple things in life. It brings us back to a very basic level of interaction and often to very straight forward communication (not always the case with adults…). Plants, animals and young children are all pretty basic needs focused. For me, this can help me remember that everything I’m doing in my life is actually motivated by some kind of basic need. Identifying the actual need behind our daily activities can be incredibly enlightening as it can also allow us to shift any habits that are coming purely from an unmet need that could be fulfilled some other way. For example, maybe we are constantly putting pressure on ourselves to be the best at everything we do. This might be a question of wanting to give ones all. On the other hand, it might be driven by a deep feeling of inadequacy nourished by a fear of not being good enough and that people won’t like us if we don’t excel at something. I mean who on earth is going to just love and accept us for who we are! So yeah. It might be worth hanging out with kids and critters more directly connected to their real needs so you can get in touch with yours! It might not be fun acknowledging some of this stuff to ourselves, but in the long run it can help us set up well-balanced and harmonious lives.
I am admittedly biased on this one. Well, I kind of feel like people are in some way biased about anything they write. That debate put aside, being a songwriter and musician, there is pretty obvious connection here. Music makes me feel good and helps me process emotions, including stress. This can mean playing music, but often it just means listening to it! Finding “that song” that expresses exactly what you’re feeling, or that channels the whole bundle of things happening inside of you at once, be it through the music or the lyrics…it’s a magical thing. It feels like being completely understood!And that my friends can take a huge weight off ones shoulders.
Limit Your Electro’s
Okay, so it’s always a bit ironic to be writing about limiting ones exposure to electronics on a computer. Nevertheless, I hope you will see past the contradiction and take me seriously when I say that less screen time is one of the number one things that could help most people I know with stress issues. We spend way to much time in cramped positions, staring a screens. Be it a computer, a cell phone or a tv, the more often you can replace it with some fresh air and physical activity, the better!
I hinted at this a bit earlier in the checklist, but let me re-emphasize the importance of shifting focus from the things preoccupying and stressing us out to the things we are truly grateful for. What a difference it can make in your day if you take 5 minutes to think about all the little (or big) things that make you feel thankful to be alive. Often these are extremely simple things, or things in our daily lives that can become all too easy to overlook when we are rushing around. I highly recommend you make a little ritual with yourself in the morning and in the evening where you focus on something, or things, you are grateful for. This kind of practice can also really help with sleeping problems because it puts your mind in a positive space before you go to bed.
I often find that when I’m getting unreasonably worked up about something simply changing spaces will allow me to snap out of it. Go to another room, go for a short walk, go to a cafe or the library or a park if you usually do work at home. Sometimes it can help to go somewhere full of people so you get completely distracted from your thoughts by having too much going on around you to get stuck in your mind.
Another situation I sometimes find myself in is where I have spoken to everyone close to me about something that is stressing me out or bothering me and so every time I see them they ask me either “how are you?” (in a concerned tone) or “how is X going?” What happens then is that IF I have been able to get myself to FINALLY stop thinking about the thing I’ve been obsessing over I am immediately thrown back in to it. So! When this happens I have taken to making a point of taking a little break from my regular people. Hang out with a friend you haven’t seen in a while or try getting to know a new acquaintance a bit better. Go to a party where you know you won’t know anyone. What this gives us is the space to tell whatever story we want to about ourselves. By talking up the points of our lives that we really like or that people find interesting we are a) reminded that our lives aren’t actually so bad b)get out of distress-concern dynamic that we’ve gotten stuck in with the people closest to us. While I definitely don’t encourage regular suppression of ones actual emotional state, sometimes we need to be around people who just accept that we’re fine when we say so. No back story, no insight into our personal lives. It can be a great opportunity to shift our personal narratives. Try it out.
This may be one of those “duh!” moments, but many of us do not listen to ourselves when we know we need to take more breaks. So I’m telling you now, “take more breaks!” If you’re worried about not getting enough done, think about how efficient and productive you are when you are feeling fresh and rested versus how you work when you are sleep deprived and cranky. Some people claim to work better in those types of states, and you know yourself best, so do what works for you. But I highly recommend a bit more stretching, a bit more hydration, a few more ambles around the block when you’re in need of stress relief.
Pen It In!
If you haven’t already been doing this and are struggling finding time for yourself for some much needed R and R, try penning it in to your schedule. If you know you’re not going to respect your commitment to yourself, tell someone, or a few people, about your great plan to do X, Y and Z for fun on said day. You can even create an accountability or check-in system with a buddy of yours so that they hold you to your word and make sure you actually DO take some time for yourself. I know it may sound ridiculous, but it really works! We are the easiest people for ourselves not to listen to and not to take care of ;). Your friends and family will likely take your mental health and well being way more seriously than you do. They may even leap and the chance to nag you about taking time for yourself. Might as well be the one who orchestrates the situation!
Kindness Gives Back
Another great way to “forget about your worries and your strife” is to take care of someone else! Maybe you have an elderly friend or someone with limited mobility or people in desperate need of childcare in your circle. Maybe there’s a community center nearby where you can volunteer. Helping others people makes us feel good about ourselves because it makes us feel useful and needed and allows to accomplish something tangible. This is especially useful if you are doing “bread-winning” work that you feel a bit less inspired by. At those times it can be very good to reinvigorate our lives with some other meaningful contribution to the world.
Get Some Perspective
Reminding ourselves of the relativity of our situation can be a useful thing to keep mopey woe-is-me feelings in check, but it’s probably not going to solve your stress without some other elements thrown in. The classic guilt-oriented approach ( “Finish your food…There are children starving in X country or continent) is definitely not what I’m talking about. It’s possible to take a “big picture” view without falling in to those types of stereotypes of making yourself feel even worse by telling yourself you’re a bad person for not just being happy all the time with exactly the life you have. That type of ouroboros complex (from the greek “biting it’s own tail”…) isn’t going to help anyone. Just calmly step back and take stock of the situation. When your nose isn’t stuck in the nitty gritty details, what do you see? Take an eagle’s-eye view. How does the whole thing look from above?
This is probably the most common advice anyone will give you when you are stressed out. That probably means it holds some water, right? Sure you may be tired of hearing it. But have you been breathing deeply, and often? If not, do so. It will do you a world of good. There are a gazillion breathing exercises out there if you’re looking for something more structured. Otherwise you can always start with counting a certain number of beats in and certain number of beats out.
Be Kind to Yourself
Above all it’s important to be kind with yourself. Beating yourself up about anything is definitely not going to make you less stressed. Even beating yourself up about beating yourself up is not going to make you less stressed! If you are someone who has some negative self-talk going on, don’t jump down your own throat! Breathe (deeply and often;), observe whatever the habit is, and accept it. The more you fight against it , the more it will most likely repeat itself, kind of like saying “don’t think about a purple elephant” to someone. By disliking something we give it energy. Try not to feed whatever it is you’d like to see shift by focusing all your energy on it. Just observe it and let it go. Sure it may sound flaky. But having tried both approaches, I can definitely say that being generous, kind, patient an compassionate with myself always produces faster results than anything else.