I have always been a worrier.
I worry about the future. I worry about what people think of me. I worry about things I need to get done. When I was in college, I would worry so much about tests and deadlines that I would literally make myself sick — coming down with a cold or flu after my exam or presentation. As a perfectionist, I’m great at overthinking and worrying!
Since I am a very health-conscious person, I realize that all of this stress is absolutely not good for a person. Over the last year or so, I have been trying to get my stress and worrying under control. It is definitely a daily task, and something that I continually have to work on.
Today, I want to discuss some things that have helped me feel calmer and more relaxed in my everyday life.
This is the my ultimate tip if you are prone to stress, worrying, or anxiety. Your breath is a pathway to your nervous system, and by controlling the way you are breathing, you send direct messages to the nervous system to calm down. Through deep breathing, you tell your body to switch from the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or flight response that causes increased heart rate and cortisol levels, to your parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and puts your body in a state of healing.
To practice this method of stress management, simply breathe deeply, expanding your belly and engaging your diaphragm on the inhale, and take your sweet time on your exhale (This article from Mind Body Green says that the exhale being longer than the inhale is key to calming the nervous system). Sometimes it can feel really relaxing to breathe deeply in through your nose, and then let your exhale out of your mouth with a sigh. When I do this, I feel tension melting away from my muscles, my anxiety stomachache will start to go away, and I have less attention to focus on whatever I’m worrying about. You can practice this any time anywhere, so it’s a great tool to have at hand. If you want to spend more time focusing on your breath, yoga is a wonderful thing to explore. Each movement in yoga is intended to be fueled by the breath, so you are literally focusing on your breath the entire time. It can be frustrating and tricky at first, but it feels really soothing once you get it down.
2. Keep a decluttered space.
Something I have realized about myself recently is that I am very affected by my environment, and in order to feel at ease, I need to have a clean space. I need to have a made bed, an organized closet, a clean kitchen, and just a decluttered living space in general in order to feel satisfied and be able to relax. If I come home and the bed isn’t made and there are dirty clothes all over the floor, I start to feel anxious and can’t settle down. I especially can’t do yoga until the room is straightened up, because a messy environment is just not relaxing to me. I wouldn’t consider myself a clean-freak or anything like that, I just feel much calmer and happier when my living space is organized.
I think that the key to keeping your space organized is to simplify your belongings, getting rid of anything that is unnecessary or that you don’t love. Two books I would highly recommend reading on this subject are The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and Simple Matters by Erin Boyle. These two books changed the way I look at my belongings and helped me realize that my inclination to have a decluttered, organized home is totally rational and a method of taking care of oneself. So if you think you would feel more relaxed by having a more organized home, start with getting rid of the things you don’t need. Then, find a place for all of the things you do want to keep, and actively make sure you are putting things back in their place. For me, this means not leaving clothes on the floor, not leaving dirty dishes in the sink, and making my bed every single morning. These are small tasks that I know will make me feel so much more at ease when I come home from work in the evening or wake up in the morning.
3. Allow yourself alone time.
I am very much an introvert, which I have just come to acknowledge and accept in the last couple of years. Understanding this about myself has helped me realize why I don’t feel like going out night after night like many other people my age, or why I feel worn out after most social activities. I remember feeling like a loser my freshman year of college when my roommate and friends would invite me to go out to dinner with them, and when we were done with dinner I was ready to go home, while they were all ready to go bowling or to a party or to watch a movie. In my head I was frantically thinking, I thought the deal was just dinner! And trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t go out with them further. For me, the one social activity was enough for me to have fun and spend time with friends, and then I felt depleted and needed some time on my own to unwind, while my many extroverted friends thrived on that social interaction and never wanted it to end. I now know that extroverts are energized when being around lots of people and social interaction, while introverts are energized by spending time alone. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy spending time with friends! It simply means that I enjoy time with friends, preferably in smaller groups, and then need to spend a little time alone to re-energize and regroup before feeling ready to go do something else social.
If you are like me at all, you will probably find reprieve in allowing yourself a little alone time. This can be difficult to come by, especially if you have a family, roommates, a live-in significant other, etc. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy amount of time; it can be something as simple as doing a 30 minute yoga video alone in your room. Or going grocery shopping alone. Or going to a coffee shop in the morning by yourself and reading a book for a few minutes. If alone time is extremely hard to come by, you may consider getting up a little earlier in the morning than those you live with, brewing yourself some coffee, and enjoying the quiet before anyone else gets up. Allowing yourself alone time will help you tune into your own feelings and thoughts, and help you relax.
4. Tackle a nagging task.
Often stress comes from the feeling of being overwhelmed with everything we need to get done. Instead of shutting down and allowing yourself to be overcome with stress, focus on tackling one nagging item that has keeps appearing on your to-do list or has been on your mind for a while. Crossing something off of your list that you have been meaning to do will help you to feel productive and ease a bit of your stress. Examples might be clearing your inbox, returning a phone call, making a dentist appointment, taking your car for an oil change, repairing something around the house, or organizing that closet/shelf/drawer/room you’ve been meaning to tackle. Accomplishing a simple chore around the house, such as tidying up your room, doing laundry, or doing the dishes, can also have this effect.
5. Exercise mindfully.
Exercise is a tried and true method for stress relief because it releases endorphins and it can almost be meditative as you focus on the movement of your body and quiet your thoughts. It can feel very rewarding to get a great workout in, and leave you feeling empowered to tackle whatever else you need to get done that day. My caution with this tip is to be careful not to engage in workouts that make you feel stressed out when you are already anxious — if your nervous system is already on overdrive, I don’t think an intense workout that leaves you gasping for breath is always the best option (unless this type of workout is calming to you). For me, running is a bit stressful because I am constantly thinking “When will I be done? How fast I’m going? How far have I gone? Only half of a mile?!” and I can’t settle into it. So if I feel anxious and stressed, I usually choose a different exercise that I personally find calming and enjoyable. If I feel totally depleted, I often turn to yoga. If I feel like I need to get some energy and aggression out, I do weight-lifting circuits at the gym. Putting in headphones and focusing on cranking out rep after rep with good form leaves little room for stressful thoughts, in my opinion. I think the key is to do whatever exercise you enjoy and can get lost in, without stressing out your already-stressed body.
6. Get outside.
It’s difficult to be stressed when you are outside in nature, birds are chirping, the sun is beating down on you, and the fresh air is filling your lungs. I am one of those people who is greatly affected by light, or lack thereof, and feel almost an immediate boost in mood when I get out of the house and outside into the light and fresh air. It can also make your stresses and worries seem very trivial when you are out among the vast landscapes of nature.
7. Eat the right foods.
Often, you feel the overwhelming urge to consume vast amounts of carbs and sugar when you are stressed out. This is probably because you are craving the pleasurable sensations that feel-good chemicals such as dopamine cause in your brain after eating junk food. Cortisol, the stress hormone, also increases your appetite and reduces the hormones in your body that help you feel full. So, you are not a loser for feeling like eating a pint of ice cream or a bag of potato chips when you’re stressed out — it’s a natural tendency. However, that doesn’t mean that you should. Rather, recognize when you are feeling these urges and instead feed your body foods that are healthy and can actually help you de-stress, such as healthy fats like salmon or avocado, tea (especially chamomile), turmeric, green leafy vegetables, complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, or — I saved the best for last — dark chocolate! This study shows that consuming dark chocolate has resulted in lower levels of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) in subjects after a stressful experiment, such as a mock interview or attempting to solve a math problem in front of a crowd. Managing these two hormones in the body are key in lowering heart rate and blood pressure associated with stress.
8. Get away from electronics.
Our electronic devices are often a huge cause of stress in our lives, and they are almost always an arm’s length away. A full inbox, phone calls to return, a constant beeping and vibrating of reminders and text messages can all be extremely stressful and hard to get away from. When you feel overwhelmed, make it a point to get away from all of your electronics for a period of time (a great stress management practice would be to do this every day!). Shut off your phone and computer for an hour or more and do something calming like exercising, reading a book, or getting outside. It is unreasonable for people in your life to expect you to be available at all times, so respect your own time and sanity and make yourself unavailable for certain periods of time during your day.
9. Slooooow the heck down.
When I’m feeling anxious or stressed, I start going a million miles an hour, which usually ends up with me spilling things, knocking stuff over, stubbing my toe, and eventually getting even more aggravated. When you notice that you are feeling anxious, sit down for a second and practice your deep breathing. Then, when you’ve returned to a state of calm, proceed with whatever you need to do at a slow, relaxed pace. I find that this works much better than going full speed ahead and winding up hurting myself or someone else in the process!
10. Strive for an inner state of calm.
If I’m not careful, I can easily let little things cause me anxiety and stress in my daily life (ahem, grumpy customers at the coffee shop, I’m looking at you!). In attempt to prevent small disturbances from wreaking havoc on my stress levels, I strive to live with an “inner state of calm.” To me, this means that I am confident in myself, my knowledge, and my capabilities as I go about my day. I am at peace and relaxed, and can let little annoyances roll off of me. I accept the fact that all is not going to be perfect, but intend to do the best I can in any given situation. Of course, this does not always come easily, and I often have to use methods like deep breathing or yoga to return myself to my inner state of calm. I would recommend that anyone suffering from worry or stress regularly to picture yourself as a person who faces each day with this inner state of calm. You are balanced, relaxed, and calm, and can handle any situation that presents itself in your day. Try to return to this state as best you can when you feel yourself overcome with worry or anxiety by taking some deep breaths or taking a little break for some alone time.
Hopefully you can utilize some of these tips in your own life to combat stress and its detrimental health effects. The best thing to do is to find what works for you — whatever it is that gets you out of your head and puts you at ease — and practice that regularly. Comment below if you have other stress-relieving tips that work for you!