We can’t eliminate stress but we can learn to manage it by building stress busters into our schedule. The trick is to place stress-reducing activities such as walking and getting enough sleep at the top of your list. Then learn to weave others into the course of your day and week.
Replace painful pursuits with healthy alternatives
Reducing stress can be something to look forward to. It’s building room for relaxation and replacing pain with pleasure. We are creatures of habit—our brains develop and change to meet our habits. Don’t be so addicted to your stress that you shut out the good things in life. See stress reduction as a reward and not another diet plan.
Sometimes the switches are easy. For example, I used to drink my morning coffee while returning work e-mails. Now I wake up to a more pleasurable activity—coffee and reading a novel. Likewise, if watching news reports of crimes and disasters causes you anxiety, then stop watching.
It’s like the old joke: A man goes to a doctor and says, “I hit my head with a hammer, and it hurts.” The doctor replies, “Well, quit hitting your head with a hammer.” The same goes for nerve-wracking and depressing news, movies and books. If they cause stress, avoid them. Replace them with lighter material that makes you laugh or feel inspired.
Replace negative thoughts
If you’re a constant worrier, you’ll need to notice this pattern so you can stop the flow and counter negative thinking with common sense and positive imagery.
- Take up a hobby such as crafting or gardening to divert your mind.
- Avoid turning to drugs and alcohol to “get your mind off things” as this only creates worse problems.
- Set aside a scheduled time to worry to avoid being swamped by anxiety 24/7.
- Treat yourself like your own best friend—if your friend couldn’t get off the hamster wheel of worrying, what advice would you give him?
- Do your best and then let it go. There is no such thing as perfection. There will always be laundry in the hamper and to-do-lists in the inbox.
- Learn to meditate. This is like turning off the spigot on stress hormones that pour through your body when you get yourself into a fight-or-flight mode.
Something’s got to give
Too many choices and long things-to-do lists cause stress. By limiting choices and lists, you can not only cut down on stress but also build more time into your life for pleasurable, stress-reducing pursuits. It’s a win-win. Here are some easy cut-outs:
- Unless you love shopping, limit the number of stores you visit and shop at stores with smaller selections.
- Get rid of excess clutter and build more space and simplicity into your life.
- Pace yourself. You can’t do everything at once.
- Get enough sleep by cutting down on time killers such as mindless Web surfing and TV watching. Keep a notebook by your bed to write down thoughts and ideas that might otherwise keep you awake.
- Avoid too much caffeine. When people cut down on caffeine, their anxiety levels tend to go down accordingly.
- Give up people-pleasing habits. Here’s good advice: “Practice disappointing people.” This doesn’t mean don’t do your best or stop caring. This means get over your addiction to pleasing difficult people. There are some people you just can’t please, so stop trying. Stop hitting your head with that hammer.
Build stress-reducers into your schedule
Once you’ve prioritized your schedule to add stress-reduction to the top of your list and created more time by eliminating unnecessary and draining things, people and activities, build these stress-reducers into your day or week:
- Take slow deep breaths when you wake up and before going to sleep. Several times during the day, stop and check your breathing. Make sure you’re not holding your breath. Take 5 to 10 deep breaths and feel the instant relaxation.
- Practice muscle relaxation. Periodically, take a quick inventory of your body. Are you holding your shoulders or jaw tight? Take 30 seconds to relax those muscles.
- Start moving. Find a physical activity you like or can at least tolerate—dancing, cycling, stretching, walking, etc., and do it for at least 30 minutes a day. You can break it up—10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. Just do it!
- Don’t eat at your desk or in front of a pile of bills. Make eating meals and snacks a pleasant, healthy event.
- Make time for social visits with people you like and who cheer you up.
- Enjoy the little things in life. A long time ago my aunt gave me a plaque that really struck a chord: “Simple pleasures—life’s treasures.”
American Heart Association
National Sleep Foundation
Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania
“Stand Up While You Read This!” by Olivia Judson, New York Times, February 23, 2010.
The Transcendental Meditation Program