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One of the greatest battles of my life is the one I continue to wage every day against stress.
By nature, I’m a perfectionist. But life is anything but perfect. It’s messy and incomplete and ongoing. Sometimes all you can muster is “good enough.” And reconciling myself with that has never been an easy thing.
While stress might not land you in a hospital with numbness in half your body or hidden in a dark room with a four-day migraine, you’ve likely experienced and the physical and mental manifestations of stress in your own life. We all have multiple important demands on our time and energy that sometimes feel like too much.
So today, I wanted to share my absolute favorite strategies for fighting back against stress.
1. Establish a Bedtime Routine
We set them for our babies and toddlers. Why not for ourselves?
Sleep deprivation is a plague of the modern era. We sleep for fewer hours and our hours of sleep are less restful. We view sleep as an inconvenience, something necessary but frustratingly unproductive. In Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution, she put it like this:
For me, lack of sleep manifests in stress. And stress causes nightmares. Horrible nightmares that I can’t even bring myself to commit to text.
In my senior year of high school, I met with the school psychologist. She recommended calming exercises before bed. Starting at my toes, I would flex each muscle in my body, holding it for a few seconds before releasing the tension. This became the base to a bedtime routine I’ve spent the last decade building and tweaking.
Here is what I do now:
- Phones, tablets, and laptops off.
- 5 minutes of journaling about the day.
- 5 to 30 minutes of reading a real, paper book.
- My husband turns on a Harry Potter audiobook with a 15-minute sleep timer. I’m not joking, we literally listen to them on loop. Just calming music lets my mind wander too much and I know the story so well it isn’t distracting. It’s lucky he’s a Potterhead too.
- The muscle relaxation strategy I learned back in high school.
This takes some time. If I’m exhausted, I’ll just skip to the last two steps and that is usually enough. But before you decide that you don’t have time for your own routine, try it for two weeks. I’m willing to bet your increase in productivity more than makes up from the time spent – gasp! – relaxing.
2. Fit in Exercise – Even For Just 5 Minutes
Legally Blonde quotes aside, exercise does actually help reduce stress. Those endorphins reduce pain, improve sleep, and contribute to a greater feeling of calm and happiness. Over the years, I’ve found that my worst periods of stress came at times when I neglected to incorporate regular exercise into my routine.
Some days, I’m just not feeling a whole workout. I’m busy or tired. Fuss has decided that bouncing a beach ball of his baby brother’s head is the funniest thing in the world. You know, #life. When that happens, I pull up YouTube and force myself through just a five-minute HIIT workout or yoga routine.
According to the ADAA, “Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.” And we can all push through 5 minutes.
Here are a few of my favorite 5 Minute YouTube workouts:
- 5 Minutes to Slim HIIT Cardio Workout – FitnessBlender
- 5 Minute Fat Attack! – Blogilates
- 5-Minute Morning Yoga – Yoga With Adriene ? Great for a stretch and clearing the mind!
3. Get Outside
Recently, I was telling Jeremiah how the summer months at the work used to throw me off.
You see, I used to arrive at the office as the sun rose. Then, as the sun set, I knew it was almost time to go home. But in the summer, the sun didn’t set until 8 o’clock. So, I either stayed later or felt like I was sneaking out if left before dark. I often waited for the elevator wondering if someone would scold me for leaving early.
“Well,” he said, “that’s just sad.” And he’s right.
Most of us are sunshine and nature deprived. According to the EPA, Americans spend 93% of their lives indoors. Studies have shown that this lack of time in nature is resulting in higher stress, cholesterol, blood pressure, and immune system issues.
A fascinating Japanese study found that men and women who once a month took a weekend trip to the forest, including short walks each day, had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and a higher level of cells that prevent cancer generation.
From the research I’ve encountered, the best thing is extended time in the woods. Hike, observe and chill. And leave your phone behind. My times of greatest calm are hiking with Jeremiah, the boys, and Stitches (our pup).
If you can’t connect with your inner John Muir, any time outside is valuable. Gardening, a walk around your neighborhood, sunning in your backyard. It all helps.
When Stress Happens, Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
A solid bedtime routine with a good night’s sleep, exercise, and a little time outside are usually enough for me to keep stress at bay. However, there are still times when I’m overwhelmed and need a way out.
When that happens to you, fight the urge to get pulled into the black hole. Embrace the power of “no” and lean on others in your life. Order takeout instead of cooking dinner, take a quiet bath, do something you love and erase items from your to-do list that aren’t life or death. Give yourself permission to prioritize your well-being.