The WHY and HOW of Making Stress Management a Regular Part of Your Routine
One major life lesson for me over the last few years has been that consistency and diligence with smaller things is way more effective than major, lengthy actions that we take less frequently. The universe has given me tons of examples and nudges to prove this, but one very obvious series of examples for me are all related to stress management. If I am not ACTIVELY managing stress, then stress is ACTIVELY managing me!
Here are some ways to think about it: working out for 5 hours on a Saturday will not cause you to lose weight and keep it off; Meditating once for an hour does not create enlightenment (or if it does, you are TRULY blessed!); Gassing up the car once isn’t going to get you across the country. Same goes with stress – one beautiful vacation doesn’t “cure” us of the ongoing stressors of everyday life.
Stress will manifest in different ways. The body is always listening to our thoughts, and it reacts physically to stressful and negative thoughts, even subconscious ones. For many, the same physical condition will present itself time and time again, and for others, different physical reactions may occur at different times. The amazing thing about the body is that it is constantly speaking to us. It truly knows best, we just usually aren’t listening. When something doesn’t feel well, your body is literally telling you something’s wrong! It will start with little whispers, and if we continue to ignore it, it will eventually scream. Here is my experience with this:
The first time I truly realized my stress had gotten out of control, I had gone to see an alternative practitioner in the Boston area. I had been experiencing major digestive distress and I couldn’t wait to be diagnosed with something. I wanted there to be an excuse! I had already seen other doctors, who didn’t have answers, so I was hoping that this alternative practitioner would come up with something new. I even rattled off some names of digestive illnesses hoping it would trigger her to land on one of them. To my disappointment, she declined my suggestions and told me that I “had a stressed gut”. UM, WHAT? She gave me some suggestions on how to eat a little better (cut out deli meats and include veggies in every meal, to name a few), and sent me home with some herbs to try. But the main things she prescribed revolved around lifestyle changes and creating an ongoing plan that would help me manage stress. This included 30 minutes of exercise a day, even if it was just a walk, prayer and meditation (practicing mindfulness and staying connected with my higher power of choice), taking regular breaks at work, lugging less crap around on my commute to and from work, getting regular monthly massages (bless her freaking heart, am I right?), doing types of yoga that increased relaxation (we’ll get to this in a later post!) - basically general lifestyle changes to be more mindful and actively reduce stress. While I was a little bit pissed that she wouldn’t let me be a victim of a diagnosis, she gave me the gift of having to seriously face myself and my lifestyle. There was no pill to take. But there were small, simple shifts to make myself feel better. And I was grateful for my “stressed gut” for shining a light on the fact that my entire being was stressed. So I made a bunch of very small changes and helped myself.
Fast forward four years. I find myself super stressed from a fast-paced job, some impending major life changes, a series of taxing travel days, not getting enough sleep, in addition to probably a bunch of other stuff. Suddenly my right arm and the right side of my face went numb. Very different manifestation than my stress from my earlier twenties, but same idea. I had slacked on my stress management, let my demanding schedule get the best of me, and my body spoke up. Luckily, this time around I had even more tools at hand, including everything I remembered from my previous experience. I committed to practicing VERY gentle yoga, using mantras and resolves to live and move with ease, practicing some breathing exercises to help me relax, eating really well, sleeping way more, carrying around way less, and prioritizing exercise – basically all things that got pushed to the wayside when my schedule got more “exciting”. I was also lucky enough to have personal access to physical therapists AND yoga therapists, so I pulled out all the stops!
To sum up my personal trend, here’s the pattern:
I go about life normally, and pay no attention to small stressors
They add up, and it becomes an enormous problem (physically, emotionally, however it manifests)
I bust through it and get overconfident that I am off the hook once I feel completely better; my stress management activities gradually taper off
Back to step 1
So what’s the lesson here? Intensive episodes of stress reduction do not sustain freedom from stress for long periods of time. Heck yes are they super helpful, but in my experience, when I’m slacking on the smaller, consistent mindful lifestyle choices that aid in stress reduction, it is easy to forget that I’m not a superhero and that small amounts of stress continue to add up and eventually become an injury or some form of disease.
Do you also notice some kind of pattern like this?
OK, so what’s the plan? I want to offer you some tools to help get more mindful in your day-to-day, some options to add stress reduction into your regular routine, and a plan for if and when it does get out of hand. And I’ll share with you what I’m doing currently!
Become an observer of yourself (this is actually really cool) – actively watch your trends. Notice what happens to your body when you experience stress. Do you get headaches? Does your breathing pattern change? Does your belly hurt? Do you clench your teeth? Does it happen when work is stressful or when home life is stressful? Does it happen when you haven’t slept enough or when you’ve skipped workouts? Basically start to notice WHAT happens, WHEN it happens, and WHY (for example, “I get headaches at the end of the day every time my boss gives me more tasks than I feel like I can handle”) Maybe you even get the same symptoms for multiple stressors in your life. Noticing these things will make you more aware of what situations may be good ones to add stress management activities!
Figure out a few things that will definitely be manageable for you. For instance, you may not feel like you have time to exercise for 45 minutes every day, but do you have time to run one mile? Or take an 8-minute walk on your lunch break? Even if it’s just 3 times a week? (listing a ton of ideas below!)
Implement and make it a pattern. Do it with friends. Set reminders for yourself on your phone. Commit. Pick things that are not time-consuming for you so you will actually do them.
Have an emergency plan. Let’s be honest, we aren’t perfect! But at least when it gets out of hand, you will have your go-tos.
My current lifestyle is so different than when I worked a corporate job, but there are new stressors! Here are the things I currently do to keep my stress down:
I get enough sleep (this was crucial this time around)
I prioritize my yoga practice, and being active every day (as I mentioned before, even if I just do a few minutes of yoga daily or go on a small walk, this is more effective than skipping most of the week and doing 2 hours on the weekend)
I food prep and eat well during the week (food prepping actually saves time, and if you have a ton of healthy food ready on hand you will actually eat it!)
I practice gratitude regularly (when Dave and I go to sleep at night, we say 3 things we are grateful for from the day, this keeps me in check and reminds me there are wonderful things even during a bad day)
When I start to feel minimally stressed throughout the day or week, I do some on-the-spot deep breathing and/or give myself reiki for just a few minutes.
I take time away from my phone. (this one has been harder, but I make a huge point to not be on my phone during meals and while I’m relaxing at night – this makes a big difference)
I diffuse essential oils when I go to bed
When stress becomes more major, I add in the following:
A VERY BRIEF yoga practice that includes asana (a few VERY simple postures), mantra and commitment statements, usually a little bit of pranayama (breathing) that will calm my nervous system, and some Sanskrit chanting (I pick one that specifically relates to my issue – normally one related to health or “light”)
I take a break from alcohol (I notice that it exacerbates stress and anxiety in my own body)
I read short excerpts from books that inspire me (current go-to’s are “May Cause Miracles” and “His Princess”)
I say no to plans if I’m feeling overwhelmed by time
So I hope this gives you some ideas of things to do daily (or most days) and consistently to keep your stress in check! They generally are not time-consuming! Here are a ton of other options that I have used in the past:
***In my opinion, exercise and healthy eating are non-negotiable, pick and choose from everything else!***
Prioritize exercise – just do it – it reduces stress, aids in digestion, helps you sleep better.
If you seriously feel like you don’t have time to exercise, sneak it somehow into part of your regular day (I used to walk to work when it was nice out and count it as my 30 mins of exercise – I always felt great after and it didn’t take me any extra time to get to work; this is a great plan if you have the opportunity for it!)
Mini yoga sessions are great for during the week – I have some videos HERE
Eat your meals away from your phone or computer as much as humanly possible.
Sit quietly for one minute a day (when you wake up, when you go to bed, anytime that works for you) – or better yet, if you can get yourself to do a short meditation practice, do that!
Journal regularly (I personally am not someone who journals, but writing every day or most days can help keep you in check and let go of some things)
Do mindful reading (there are SO many options out there – this could even be one of those little rip off calendars with sayings on it – short and sweet!)
Find longer things you love that you can do less often and schedule them in as part of your week or month (massages, a meditation class, periodic mental health days from work…)
Practice gratitude every day. When you think of things you are grateful for, the overwhelming feelings of stress are lessened. Focus on what IS going right for you. Set up a specific time to do this so it becomes habit.
Try using essential oils at bedtime. I use Doterra here.
Take baths – this seriously relaxes your muscles!
With regards to the work day:
Schedule breaks throughout your work day (I used to set calendar alerts on my outlook to go take a lap around the office once an hour.)
Stay as active as possible during your work day: go to someone’s office for a quick meeting rather than calling them; go to the bathroom on the farther side of the office; take the stairs instead of the elevator – your body will thank you for all these extra steps.
Stretch while you are at the copy machine or waiting for your k-cups to brew! Even the smallest thing, like raising your arms over your head or clasping your hands behind your back for a few breaths will help you feel instantly better and less tight and adds no extra time
Take regular tea breaks in the afternoon at work (even 2 minutes helps!)
Go outside (fresh air seriously helps during the workday – I used to offer to run errands for people that needed it so I could have an excuse to walk outside for a few minutes)
Plan a mindfulness activity with your work buddies! When I worked a corporate job, me and a few friends scheduled in weekly recurring meditation meet-ups in the office. We’d go into a private room and do any combination of gentle yoga poses, a few minutes of sitting in silence, or whatever we felt like. Even if we had to cancel or adjust if work was too busy, we’d show up for it the week after. We had fun!
Your emergency plan:
When shit really hits the fan, have your go-tos! A yoga class that always makes you relaxed and joyful, a book that always brings you back to gratitude, a youtube video that gets you inspired, a friend you can always go to for advice that will help you get grounded again, a guided meditation app – do these things consistently and over time (a week or two, or more) until you feel better. Be gentle with yourself.
What I’ve learned is that stress management needs to be an active priority, not just something we do when things get rough. By making tiny changes to incorporate some of these stress-reducing activities into your regular lifestyle, you’ll become more mindful of when you ARE letting it get the best of you, and you’ll be more likely to keep yourself in check. Consistency is more effective than the amount of time you spend daily.
I’d love to hear your questions or comments! Create a plan for yourself and let me know how it goes!