My attitude toward problems is usually “ignore them and they’ll go away.” This works with pimples, loudmouths on the bus, and inconvenient downpours, but not with stress. If you ignore stress, it won’t go away—it’ll get bigger, louder, and more inconvenient. It’ll affect your mental health (think anxiety, mood swings, depression), your physical health (think weakened immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, memory loss), your relationships, your sleep, your ability to function, and indeed your ability to deal with anything. When stress becomes unbearable, you might want to run into the woods and away from it all, but I tried that, and I’m sorry to report that there are stressors there, too (bugs, poisonous berries, and no toilet paper!).
A better plan of action might be to recognize your stress, acknowledge your stress, and then use a few quick and easy techniques to diffuse it.
1. Say Cheese!
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, just stop, take a deep breath, and smile … a big cheesy grin. Smiling releases feel-good hormones that reduce your blood pressure and your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that causes weight gain. Chances are, you feel more like crying than smiling—especially when you’re late for a meeting that you’re not prepared for and your boss just left you a nasty message—but a smile will work wonders for your meeting, your day, and everyone else’s day, too.
When you’ve become a dab hand at smiling under pressure, take it a step further and laugh. It feels a little wicked-witch to laugh in trying times, but try to remind yourself that the less you feel like laughing, the more you probably need to. Force yourself to chuckle, then relax, and laugh—really laugh. Try to rope a few friends into a regularly scheduled laugh break so that you can spread the joy and relieve the stress. Bobbi McFerrin knew what he was prescribing when he sang, “Don’t worry—be happy!”
2. No, Say Spa-aaah!
Ever notice that less people compliment you on your glowing appearance when you’re under pressure? Well, that’s because you look like … well, not your best. No matter how much SPF, antioxidants, retinol, or peptides you’re piling on, a stressful spell can age you ten years almost overnight. Funny how we are so aware of environmental aggressors like sun, smoking, and pollution, and how they age our skin, and yet we disregard internal stressors, and the havoc they wreak on our skin. With all our errands, appointments, and squeaky wheels, it can seem impossible to pencil in time for personal pampering. Thing is, you don’t need to schedule a whole week at a health farm to relieve your stress (though it would be nice)—you just need to treat yourself once in a while. Indulge in a spa treatment, a new night cream, a pedicure, some DIY spa treatments, or just have someone rub your feet or back. Personal pampering has many stress-relieving benefits, the least not being that when you feel good, you look good—and when you look good, you feel even better!
3. Eat Smart
Stress messes with your immune and digestive system, so good nutrition is very important. Even if you have no appetite or you’re too busy to eat, force yourself to make good choices:
- Go easy on the coffee. It might seem like it’s the only thing keeping you going, but more than three cups a day will disrupt your sleep, aggravate your digestive system, and increase irritability.
- Eat fruit and veggies. When the going gets tough, the tough get chocolate. The smart, however, know better than to reach for short-lived sugar highs (followed by brutal lows). They stock up on healthy fruit and veggies and stash them everywhere to ensure that they eat smart. Be smart.
- Avoid saturated fats. Stress increases blood pressure, so you need to pay extra attention to your heart’s health. Eat fats from good sources like nuts, avocados, and olive oil, as well as Omega-3 fats from salmon and tuna.
4. Get Physical
It’s no secret that regular exercise reduces stress by releasing tension—physically and psychologically—and getting your endorphins going. It’s also not exactly news that making time to work out can feel stressful in itself (and that not using that pricey gym membership makes you feel guilty, which is even more stressful—argh!). The key is to take the work out of your workout—literally! Don’t commit to working out every day, commit to getting physical in some way every single day; be it taking the stairs at work, speed walking on your lunch break, dancing for fifteen minutes when you get home, power washing your windows, or actually hitting the gym. Just move, and the stress will move too.
5. Get to Bed
No matter how busy and stressed out you are, you need your sleep. Staying up late or getting up super early to try and cram more into your day is okay once in a while, but not for a prolonged period of time. Know how much sleep you personally need, then stick with a consistent sleep and wake schedule. Not getting enough sleep means your mood, work, and thinking will suffer; you’ll be more inclined to skip exercise, eat unhealthily, and feel even more stressed. However, sleep clears your head and recharges your batteries so that you’ll be better equipped to deal with the stresses and challenges that present themselves in your day. Fight off stress, not sleep.
6. Take Twenty
Give yourself a break! Go on, take twenty minutes and read, listen to music, shop online, write in your diary, or just chill. You deserve a lot more than just twenty minutes, but we all know how hard it is to find any time for ourselves in our overscheduled schedules. Do yourself a favor and promise yourself at least twenty minutes a day to spend with yourself. Resist the urge to call someone or pay your bills—take twenty for something you enjoy doing alone, and relax. Me time = stress-free time.
It’s so true that the easiest answer is often right in front of our noses. Who knew that the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to lower your stress actually involved your nose? Controlling your breathing is the most immediate and effective way to control your stress. Just stop, sit, and breathe. Inhale through your nose while counting to five in your head, and exhale through your mouth while counting to ten in your head. Repeat as often as it takes to slow your breathing down. (It always takes me a while to get from hyperventilation to true relaxed breathing.) Add in some yoga tricks and try to imagine your tensions and stresses leaving your body with every exhale. Also try to imagine yourself in a calm, peaceful place that is not your crazy, peaceless life. Easier said than done, I know.
I waited for a rash to break out all over my body (and then creep up my neck!) before realizing that I was feeling a tad stressed. When my dermatologist asked me if I was under duress, I kind of screamed at her that waiting forty-five minutes to see her didn’t help. Then she pointed out that my body was screaming at me. The rash went away; the sources of stress haven’t, but now at least I’m aware that my body is trying to talk to me (and I don’t wait for it to scream). Stress—like that other “s” word—happens; the trick is to know how to wipe it away and move on!