The Importance of De-Stressing:
Taking care of yourself throughout the day
Today, I’m putting a spin on the 1990s Salt-n-Pepa classic to say: let’s talk about stress, baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. Let’s talk about stress.
These lyrics ring more true than you’d guess at first glance. Stress is not picky: it happens to you, to me, to almost everybody at some point in their lives! And while healthy doses of it can be a good motivator for getting important tasks done, extreme or chronic stress — and the feelings of anxiety that often come hand in hand — can also have lasting negative effects on your physical and mental health. Everyone’s experience with stress is personal and subjective, but it’s important to talk about it so we can learn how to deal with stress in as healthy of a way as possible.
Unless you’re an unbelievably — and I really mean unbelievably — zen human being, you’ve been stressed out before. Think about the tense muscles that have you rolling your neck from side to side, or the headache that forms as you stare at your laptop screen for too long, or even the occasional snappy response at a well-meaning friend before you apologize for your short temper. Stress affects us on both a physical and mental level. While muscle tension and headaches are perhaps the most common physical symptoms, stress can also cause fatigue, chest pains, digestive problems, rapid heart rate, and dizziness. On a mental level, you might find yourself overcome with feelings of worry and anxiety, more prone to forgetfulness, and having a hard time quieting your mind or concentrating. Ask any sleep-deprived college student or overworked parent — it’s not a fun experience.
Stress vs. Anxiety
Now here’s the tricky part: I often hear the terms “stress” and “anxiety” used interchangeably, but they don’t always describe the same thing. So what exactly is the difference between the two? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, stress is the more short-term bodily response triggered by a difficult or threatening situation, while anxiety is a sustained mental disorder triggered by the stress itself — that is, the anxiety doesn’t necessarily go away once the immediate threat has been taken care of, and it can affect one’s ability to function normally. And while feeling stressed/anxious describes how you react in the moment, having anxiety describes how you navigate an anxiety disorder in the long term. I strongly encourage anyone who may have an anxiety disorder to seek a professional opinion — as mine is not! But for those of you looking for advice on dealing with stress on a day-to-day basis, here are some long-term habits and immediate techniques that I’ve found helpful throughout the years.
For the Mind:
Take a time out: When I’m in the middle of a tense situation my natural instinct is to keep pushing through until the issue is resolved. But what usually happens is the more stressful the situation, the more flustered I become, and no amount of determination is going to change the fact that I’m just not at full problem-solving capacity. Reminding myself to step back helps me to calm down — even just 5 minutes spent doing something relaxing (can I recommend an “Unlikely Animal Friends” Youtube video or snack raid?) gives me a chance to clear my head and return to the problem with a fresh eye. A word of caution: this is not to be confused with its tricky cousin, procrastination.
Talk to someone: Vocalizing my problems is useful in many ways, as long as I trust whoever I’m talking to. Depending on the situation, a conversation with a mentor, boss, or professor can provide useful insight or a new perspective that I hadn’t considered before. Sometimes, I just need to talk things through or vent with a friend so I can let any pent-up emotions loose before I explode. There are even times when talking to MYSELF helps — never underestimate the power of thinking out loud! I would recommend doing this in private, but if you’re frustrated enough and willing to power through some weird looks, that’s okay too.
Learn your triggers: This is so important for recognizing and preventing stress! Identifying specific actions, people, or situations that make me feel anxious or overwhelmed is crucial, so that I can do my best to both NOT expose myself to those things and put together an action plan for if it does happen. While this process can be challenging — it requires self-reflection, setting boundaries, thinking ahead, exercising discipline — identifying the problem is always the first step to solving it.
For the Body:
Physical Activity: I’m gonna be honest with you, as somebody who spends more time on the couch than in the gym, this one is hard for me. But the science is there: exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood, energy, cognitive ability, while also working to reduce stress levels. If you’re already hitting the gym on the regular — keep those endorphins flowing! Otherwise, I recommend starting in small, achievable doses: instead of planning out an hour-long exercise regimen, aim for a daily 10-minute run or doing 50 crunches a day, and then work your way up from there. I also like to find ways to incorporate exercise into fun hobbies or activities, like going hiking or going dancing.
Eating and sleeping well: This is another set of habits backed by that pesky thing called science — studies show that our food and sleep patterns are directly linked to stress. Ever heard of stress eating? Nothing can ever replace my Flaming Hot Cheetos, but I also try to cut down on junk food and snack on fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, sweet potato chips, etc. I also enjoy cooking for myself so I know exactly what goes into my food. When it comes to sleep, I recommend regulating caffeine intake, cutting down on screen time before bed, and trying to stick to a regular bedtime. It’s not always easy but it’s important to get enough rest!
I need to de-stress — ASAP!
Many of the solutions above are useful but require a more long-term approach. What can you do if you’re on a time crunch or when you feel like you might explode and you need to calm down RIGHT NOW?
Take deep breaths (in your nose, out your mouth) — not just one or two, but focus on drowning out everything except for your breathing for five minutes. If you want some guidance, check out a meditation app — I love Headspace’s free 10-minute sessions. Get up right now and do some stretches or jumping jacks. If that seems uncalled for in the middle of your office or classroom, take a short walk and get some fresh air when you can. Want to vent but don’t have someone on hand to talk to? Try journaling — sometimes, I just type out all of my frustrations in a Word Doc that goes straight to the trash bin once I’ve gotten all my thoughts out. If you’re full of nervous energy, try chewing gum, doodling, or finding something else to do with your hands (as annoying as the fidget spinner trend was, there’s a reason they were so popular!)
Remember, stress is a natural and normal part of our lives, which is why it’s important to have strategies in place to deal with it. And just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s easy. When I’m feeling defeated, I try to remind myself that there’s no shame in feeling anxious or overwhelmed and reach for these tools to get through the difficult situation. They don’t always work — there’s never a guaranteed solution — but most of the fight is constantly building my toolbox, being kind to myself, and knowing that I’m doing the best that I can.
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