Break Up with Stress for a Happier, Healthier Life
Individual Therapy Bethesda, MD
If I asked you to pinpoint your stress level on a continuum between “Life is full of sunshine and rainbows” and “Oh my gosh, I am staggering under the weight of all of my responsibilities and obligations,” what would you say? Go ahead, think about it for a minute.
I’d venture to guess that most people fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum (i.e., “I’m juggling a lot of things but I can still function relatively well”), but there are far too many others who are tottering dangerously close to that overwhelmed and totally burned out feeling. Although stress is undoubtedly par for the course what with school, work, and family demands, it does not, and should not, have to be an omnipresent burden that significantly detracts from your quality of life.
If you’ve found that that is the case for you, I have good news! April is National Stress Awareness Month, and in honor of the occasion, I have put together a list of strategies that you can employ to reduce the oppressive feelings that are often indicative of stress overload. So whether you are contending with health issues, poor diet and exercise habits, lack of sleep, media overload, or demanding work/school obligations, take a gander at the tips below. My hope is that at least a few resonate with you and can quickly make their way into your daily routine.
- When you feel stress starting to creep up on you, take a minute to bring awareness to your body. Slow everything down and focus on what is going on for you. Are you tense anywhere? Are you feeling irritated or anxious? What thoughts are going through your mind? Do they revolve around a particular theme? What seemed to trigger your thoughts and feelings? Determining how your stress symptoms manifest is critically important to learning how to manage them and can facilitate deeper reflection on the roots of those concerns.
- Limit negative self-talk. You have such unique talents to offer the world. Don’t waste time ruminating on your shortcomings or lamenting over how wonderful other people’s lives seem to be. Remember, social media reveals others’ highlight reels, not the behind-the-scenes footage. Become your own biggest supporter and expend your energy becoming the best person you can be.
- When you feel stressed, pause for a moment and take 3 deep, steady breaths. I know, I know, everyone always talks about breathing. But I suggest something called the 4-7-8 technique. All it requires is that you inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Focusing on your breath helps calm the body and also will bring you back to center (pro tip: try this on nights when you can’t seem to fall asleep; I guarantee it will happen after a few rounds of 4-7-8 breathing!).
- Allow yourself space to step back from your work when you need to. Recognize when you are overloaded and build in rest periods to break up the monotony. When you accomplish a task, take a moment to celebrate the victory before jumping headfirst into the next thing. It can also be very helpful to set a timer for 30-45 minutes, work diligently during that time, then take a short 5-minute break before resetting the timer and resuming the task. This method allows your brain to reset and regain focus on the mission at hand.
- Learn how to self-soothe. Figure out what you need in the moment to return your body and mind to equilibrium. Everyone is different, but many people find peace by going for a walk, calling a close friend or family member, reading a book, doing a crossword puzzle, listening to music, playing with a pet, squeezing a stress ball, or watching cat videos on YouTube. There is no right or wrong answer here; just make sure that your activity of choice brings you pleasure, satisfaction, and a sense of calm in the moment.
- Connect with people around you. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed can quickly and easily lead to loneliness and isolation. Combat this by building in intentional quality time with family and friends. Maintain a support network of people with whom you can discuss your ideas, share your concerns, and/or unwind after a long day or week. Incredible clarity can often arise through emotional engagement with others.
- Be intentional about your sleep and exercise regimens. Getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night allows your brain to undergo the restorative processes that keep you alert and well-functioning throughout the day. Also, any sort of exercise that gets your heart rate up is a proven stress-buster. To keep yourself motivated, switch up your routine. Try a yoga or pilates class, strength train, do some kickboxing drills, or go for a run on a trail; do something different each week to maintain a sense of novelty and variety in your workouts. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise 3 – 4 times per week to reap long-term mental and physical rewards.
- Be mindful about what you put inside of your body. One of the most common symptoms of stress is mindless eating and typically, people do not reach for the lettuce wraps or kale chips to satisfy their cravings. One of the easiest ways to stop the stress eating cycle is to refrain from buying junk food during your grocery runs. Aim for healthy, crunchy snacks instead (e.g., apples, granola bars) that you can easily grab on the go. Also try to limit fast food runs and focus more on devoting time one or two nights per week to cooking a meal that will last for a few days. Establish a practice of eating more plant-based foods and less meat to keep your digestive system, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure on the right track.
- Maintain time for hobbies. Regularly tap into those things that bring you joy. Whether that is running, cooking, reading, watching obscure films, trying out new restaurants, knitting, or playing video games, make sure to stay connected to those things that ground you and add fulfillment to your life.
- Laugh often! Laughter decreases stress hormones, soothes tension, and releases endorphins. Embrace humor in your life (by listening to comedy podcasts, talking to goofy friends, and reading funny blogs, for example) and give way to those wholehearted laughs that leave you beaming for minutes at a time.
- Keep a daily gratitude journal. Reflecting for 5 – 10 minutes per day on the things that you are grateful for has been proven to reduce stress and increase happiness.
- Take time to help someone in need. Those feel-good moments that arise from helping others are priceless and can significantly add to your quality of life. Volunteer at a charity, spend some time mentoring a junior colleague, donate old clothing. There are so many ways to contribute to your community and the world; choose a few and make a regular practice of giving back.
- Create an action plan to address the root of the stress in a systematic way. Is too much work piling up? Break it up into chunks and set small goals for each day; just make sure to plan out your schedule far enough in advance so that all of the work is still completed by the deadline. Is your relationship a stressor? Set aside time to sit down with your partner and try to talk things through. Are you uncertain about the next step to take in your life? Spend some time reflecting on what makes you happy and consider options for turning those things into a career. Create a vision board and map out your ideal journey; place it somewhere visible in your home so that motivation is only a glance away.
- Be kind to yourself! Practice compassion meditation, even for just a few minutes per day, to strengthen your connection to yourself and to others.
- Invest in individual therapy. Creating space and time each week to focus solely on personal growth is one of the greatest gifts you can bestow upon yourself. Individual therapy is an excellent opportunity to work through personal and relational issues, gain clarity and insight into your life, and develop greater self-understanding and self-compassion.
Do you have other stress-reducing strategies that you regularly employ? Please share in the comments below!
Shy Porter, MS, LGMFT, provides individual, couple, and family therapy services in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email her today to set up your first appointment, or a complimentary telephone consultation. firstname.lastname@example.org or 240-752-7650, ext. 6