9 Essential Tools to Overcome Stress and Be Happier
Gain resilience and grit to achieve lasting success and freedom from anxiety
“If we want to overcome our anxiety and feel good about ourselves, it’s not enough to invest in outer things. We have to make investments in our inner life as well. . . It’s never too late to open that door.” — Lawrence Levy
If you are anything like I used to be, you probably put mornings right up there with death on the scale of things you most dread. I used to wake up in a fog, feeling just as tired as when I went to bed. Immediately, the inevitable feeling in my stomach and throat would creep in.
Here it is again, I would think to myself as I pulled the covers over my head. I believed this is how every single morning for the rest of my life would be. My sense of dread would be full blown as I finally threw the blankets aside.
At the time, I gave myself no agency to heal myself. I followed the path that most do. First the psychologist, then the psychiatrist who would prescribe medicine for “my condition.” When putting a band-aid on a gaping hole didn’t work, I believed it was terminal and marked myself as a victim.
“Today is a new day…Let today be the day you stop being a victim of your circumstances and start taking action towards the life you want.” — Steve Maraboli
Thinking you’re a victim is a dangerous place to be if you want to get better. I was in the throes of victimhood for a long time, and it kept me from healing.
Now, I’m not sure what you are going through or have gone through in the past. You may have experienced enormous tragedy that needs proper grieving and recovery. But I believe that making yourself a victim in your mind is counterintuitive to growth and healing.
Labels are excellent inhibitors. Ones like “anxious person,” “generalized anxiety disorder,” or, worse, “depressed,” enable people to hide behind their disorder and not take control of their situation. Sure, there are times when people have no control over the outcome, but in my case, as well as the hundreds of people I have talked to about the matter, we have more power than we realize.
The Definitive Toolbox
In Stephen King’s On Writing, he opens up the second section with a story about his Uncle’s toolbox — a metaphor for what all writers should have handy during formative periods. This visual also applies to building mental resilience as well.
King lists three things that every writer must have in his/her toolbox to perform well. No matter what else you have, if you don’t have these three things, he says, you will fail as a writer. The same goes for healing stress and anxiety. Before we go into the nuts and bolts, we must first talk about the basics.
Toolbox Drawer #1: Go The F to Bed
Sleep is a natural drug that cleans out your brain and refreshes your mind. It’s astonishing how many people get poor and inconsistent sleep and then complain about being stressed and anxious. A lack of sleep is the culprit. It will increase inflammation in the body causing your blood pressure to rise, depressive thoughts to increase, and a whole host of other negative symptoms.
The most optimal sleeping length is eight to nine hours per night. You may be saying to yourself, “Not me. I can get by in four hours.” You are wrong.
I have talked at length about my bedtime routine, but in short, turn all screens off one hour before you want to be asleep and keep a consistent bedtime that you stick to seven days a week — yes, even on weekends. If you struggle with this, ask yourself how much longer you’re willing to put up with your stress and anxiety? If the answer is “not a day more,” then be prepared to sacrifice a couple of nights out for your long term health.
Toolbox Drawer #2: Body Mastery
The second drawer in your toolbox is exercise. You don’t need to join a gym, do CrossFit, or kill yourself to receive the healing benefits of exercise. You just need to move your body every day, preferably to the point of sweating.
Are there exercises that are more effective? Sure. But just get your ass off your couch and start moving. Sorry, it’s as simple as that.
Toolbox Drawer #3: Laugh and Play
The third drawer in the toolbox is laughter and play. I distinctly remember the night my mindfulness teacher (who has a Ph.D. in Psychology) asked me, “When was the last time you laughed?” It wasn’t until that night that I realized I was taking life too seriously — and it had come at an enormous cost.
Play and laughter are two of the best ways to eliminate cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress. Plus, they’re fun. Get out there and be a kid again. It’s great therapy.
9 Essential Tools to Overcome Stress and Be Happier
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” — Henry David Thoreau
1. Wake up one hour before you leave home
According to Hannah Hepworth, an expert on natural anxiety relief, “When you wake up early you can have plenty of time to get where you need to go. Instead of rushing and yelling…you can work calmly.”
Mornings can be hell, especially if you’re stressed out. Chronically hitting snooze, rushing out the door, and beating yourself up for your lack of discipline can be a brutal way to start your day. Since cortisol levels are the highest in the morning, it’s important to start the day off calm so you don’t create even more stress.
2. Make your bed.
Making your bed is powerful. It allows you to complete a task first thing in the morning, which then builds confidence to continue for the rest of the day.
Making your bed will teach you that how you do anything will be how you do everything. No matter how bad or stressful your day becomes, you can always make your bed. If that’s all that you complete in the day, it’s still a success.
3. Meditate or pray.
Like some of you, I used to be very skeptical of meditation. Just the word itself has an aura of incense and omming. I didn’t want to lose my edge, or God forbid, not keep the same level of insatiable ambition.
Over time, I’ve found that mindfulness meditation (devoid of religious ties) can have massive, positive effects on your brain and substantially decrease anxiety and depression.
According to the Harvard Medical School, “Mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.” Well, if Harvard said so, you have to try it, right?
4. Take a cold shower.
After almost a year of talking myself out of it, I finally started taking a cold shower every morning, and I’ve been doing it for the last 176 days. The benefits have been nothing short of amazing.
I talk in depth about the science and process of cold showers, but for brevity, know this: it will suck. You will not like it, but do it anyway. Not only will you feel energized, but it also helps decrease anxiety and depression, improves circulation and tones skin.
5. Stream of consciousness journaling
Are they crazy? How am I supposed to find the time to write out my thoughts every morning? I am not a writer. How could writing down my anxious ruminations help me overcome anxiety?
That was my initial barrage of fears when I first heard about the power of journaling. If you don’t already journal for growth, my guess is that your reaction will be the same.
But I am happy to say that I was dead wrong.
Over the past 12 months, journaling has been vital to my healing. It’s the simple habit that changed my life.
6. Practice gratitude.
Every morning, write out three things that you’re grateful for. Focus on the things that you would otherwise miss. What if your loved one was no longer around? What if breathing was difficult? What if you couldn’t walk?
Gratitude is a powerful practice that has been utilized by stoics, billionaires, monks and more to help them appreciate life. Dr. Emmons, a gratitude researcher, confirms that practicing gratitude daily can help decrease stress, anxiety and depression.
The three topics I find easiest to channel are:
- Person . It could be anyone. I try to remember someone from my past that I may have not properly appreciated.
- Small object close by . For example, the wind blowing on your face, the warmth of the coffee mug, the silence of your bedroom.
- Something I would miss if it were gone . This includes things like running water, heat, the ability to run, etc.
7. Go for a walk.
In Henry David Thoreau’s personal essay “Walking,” he expounds upon the treasure of taking long walks. Thoreau frequently took four hour long walks through the fields and forest near his home. “It was sort of a crusade,” he said, “to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”
You don’t need to go for walks that long to get the benefits, but you do need to be completely unplugged. Science shows the effects of prolonged sitting, and it’s not looking pretty.
So, go for a walk, leave your phone at home, and experience the world around you.
8. Write a gratitude letter
A buddy of mine was going through a dark period awhile back. He had tried everything: Therapy, medicine, and every holistic treatment. None of it seemed to work.
In desperation, his therapist told him to write down a list of people he loved and note why he loved them. Then he asked him to read this letter of gratitude to the individual, face-to-face. He didn’t live in the same city as anyone on his list, so he placed the calls via Skype.
Months later, he is happier than ever and attributes this transformation to the gratitude letters. It can be a very powerful practice.
9. Single focus.
Even a basic plan of attack for your day can drastically reduce your anxiety by decreasing the cognitive load that comes with increased decision making. Each morning, we wake up with a finite amount of brainpower and every decision we make detracts from it. Make it easier on your brain by selecting the most important thing you want to get done and do it first, before checking email or social media.
Questions to help you decide what is most important:
- What task, if completed successfully, will make all of the others obsolete?
- What task do I have the most anxiety about?
- What task will move me closest to accomplishing my number 1 goal?
This list should serve as a roadmap to help you reduce stress by giving yourself agency over it. However, even all of these tips will not correct a poor mindset.
Secure your toolbox first, then start adding the nuts and bolts. Too often, we do the reverse, making our results unsustainable. By building the toolkit, you will gain resilience and grit, the most critical components to lasting success.
Are you ready to wake up, get more focused, and find more happiness in your life?
If so, sign up for my free 21 Day Mindfulness Email Course. I’ll be sending you an email every day that will help you reduce stress, increase focus, and find more happiness!
If you are ready to take back control of your life and start living above stress and overwhelm…
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Originally published at observer.com on March 15, 2017.