Sometimes the world is just too much. You feel like you’re just keeping it together, your commitments and deadlines are hanging by a thread, and your mental health is falling by the wayside. You feel like your brain has holes in it; you’ve got headaches, nausea, and tight shoulders you can’t ease; and breathing deeply makes you feel like you’re on the verge of tears.
This is normal, but it shouldn’t have to be. Stress is an important part of our lives--in healthy doses it can be a good motivator, and keep us reaching for our goals. Past a certain threshold, however, chronic stress ages us, makes us more prone to falling ill, increases our chances of gaining unhealthy weight, and, of course, simply makes us feel like we’re falling apart. So, what steps can we all take to gain control over the stuff that’s stressing us out?
1. Get Enough Sleep
This is the simplest but also the most important piece of the anti-stress puzzle. Everybody has a different optimum amount of sleep per night--for some people it’s 9 hours, for some it’s 6--but whatever your needs, if you’re not meeting them you’re putting yourself at risk of impairment.
In the short term, lack of sleep reduces alertness and memory, and causes moodiness and irritability. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation increases the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in your body, which messes you up in all kinds of ways. And just for kicks, it breaks down collagen, making your skin less elastic and making you look older. Thanks, cortisol!
By getting enough sleep, you keep your physical health, your lovely skin, and your mental health feeling bouncy and healthy.
2. Fuel Your Body Properly
Eating enough of the right kinds of food is essential to feeling well. Eating too much sugar in particular can actually raise your cortisol levels over the long term, and can cause mood swings, nausea, and irritability. Excess caffeine from coffee, tea, or energy drinks can also raise anxiety levels, artificially increase your heart rate, and throw your body’s sympathetic nervous system--and its response to stress--off balance.
Fueling your body with a balanced diet of protein, fiber, lots of veggies, and good fats will help keep you energized and focused so you can tackle whatever’s stressing you out without the crash, and keep your hormones balanced to avoid inducing even more stress due to lack of nutrients or excess sugar.
We’ve all heard this before, but it really is true: Exercise makes us happy. When you go for a run, do a dance workout, or take a yoga class, your brain produces endorphins such as serotonin and norepinephrine, neurochemicals that act as natural painkillers in our brains and induce a ‘happy’ feeling. In the short term, this calms us down and helps us stabilize our mood; but in the long term, it also make you less susceptible to becoming stressed in the first place.
In other words, exercise can act as a natural preventative medicine to ward off chronic stress, as well as an acute solution to a stressful situation. As one scientific study puts it, “The beneficial effects of regular physical activity on health are indisputable in the field of modern medicine.”
So put on those running shoes or hop on the mat--for 10 minutes or for an hour and half--and feel an immediate change in your mood. Practice medicinal exercise regularly for best results.
4. Listen to Your Inner Voice
Sometimes we feel off because of something a little more subtle or pervasive. Take a few minutes out of your day to breathe deeply and take a look inward--is this really what you want to be doing (whatever this may be)? Are you doing this for you, or for someone else? Is what you’re doing making you intrinsically happy?
One of the biggest variables in the equation for essential happiness is purpose. Often we can get so caught up in simply getting by that we forget to nourish the parts of our lives that truly make us happy, whether that’s simply picking up a hobby that’s laid neglected for too long or making a big change like applying for a new job. We need things to look forward to and work towards that really mean something to us.
Take a listen to what your inner voice is telling you that you love and try to chase that, in big or small ways--good stress may follow, but negative stress will start to fall away.
5. Strategically Manage Your Time
Stress can often result from feeling like we don’t have enough time to complete a task or meet a deadline, or from feeling guilty for relaxing when we feel like we should be working instead. Invest time in making a schedule, on your phone or your computer, or--my personal favorite--a pen-and-paper planner.
Schedule your time in as deep a level of detail as you’d like, writing down deadlines for projects and making lists of all the minute tasks you need to complete to get you there. This will help you visualize how much work there is between you and the finish line, and let you allot the appropriate amount of time for it. Schedule relaxation time too. This is just as important, and if it’s in the schedule then it’s allowed--no need to feel any guilt, you’ve scheduled it in!
6. Create Sacred Spaces for Yourself
Having a space that’s just for you, where you can relax and decompress, is essential. As mentioned, schedule time to spend in your sacred space. Meditate on the yoga mat, read a book, take a bath, or simply lie on the bed in a room that’s all your own. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you make time for yourself where you can turn off outside stimuli (especially social media!) and just center and focus inward on yourself.
Make the spaces that you spend the most time in, such as your bedroom and your office at work, more comfortable and relaxing. Maybe add soft lighting, potted plants, or textural depth with textiles and rugs. This eases the mental burden that we carry every day without even realizing, the unconscious work we have to do to self-soothe in stressful situations. If we can make our environments do even a little bit of that work for us, we ease the burden on our overall mental health.
These are just a few basic building blocks to get started with when trying to tackle the stress monster in your life. Maybe try easing into these one at a time, or take little steps towards just a few of these to start out.
Are you trying to incorporate any of these strategies into your daily routine? Are you running into any roadblocks, or are you having success? Message me and let me know. Ask me any questions you may have about these tips, and let us know how you’re doing in the comments below!
I am wishing you all the best, as are many others out there. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you are loved, that you are enough, and ground yourself in the moment. You exist, you are alive, right here, right now, and that is enough.
Image credit: Andrea Taylor