In 2020, it seems like the #1 factor we all have in common is stress. Especially as women, we’re always doing it all (whatever “it all” means): making time for loved ones, working full-time jobs, creating side hustles, and helping those in need while we’re at it. Throw in a terrifying election, global pandemic, and the upcoming holiday season, and chronic stress feels more like normalcy.
Even though mandatory isolation might have made you feel otherwise, you are not alone. Whether it’s scheduling an appointment with a therapist or utilizing online resources (some of our favorites are Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Therapy for Black Girls), you can take action to lower stress levels. In the meantime, here are 10 simple ways you can feel OK right now, even if nothing else does.
1. Be mindful about your mornings
Waking up in itself is a stressful experience. Even if you don’t have the snooze-twice-while-getting-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn routine and actually wake up well-rested, our minds go straight to all the things we need to accomplish that day. Put off the mental to-do lists with a stress-relieving morning routine as a non-negotiable way to start your day. Don’t check your phone or email until you’ve gone through a skincare routine, meditation, gratitude journaling, or at least brewing a cup of coffee, and fill the 30 minutes after you wake up with rituals and routines that you’ll look forward to.
If you don’t have the time or luxury to fit in 30 minutes of you-time (because of an early start-time or kids that wake you up), even just spending one minute lying in bed and telling yourself it’s going to be a good day can help. Bottom line: be mindful about your mornings, and the rest of the day will feel more manageable as well.
2. Schedule multiple one-minute breaks in your day
Even if you feel energized, calm, and motivated until that afternoon slump, we often don’t realize the stress that accumulates starting first thing the morning. To keep stress from building up, schedule one-minute breaks throughout the day. Whether it’s on the hour, every 20 minutes, or after each important task you complete on your to-do list, just taking 60 seconds to close your eyes and take deep breaths can be enough to let go of the stress and tension that piles up throughout your day. Better yet, visualize the stress leaving your body, relax your shoulders (and other tension areas), or repeat a mantra while taking your one-minute break.
3. Light a candle
That’s right: your stock of pumpkin spice candles is not only good for girls’ nights in. Diffusing essential oils or burning a candle will invigorate your senses, and anything that sparks your senses can help keep your mind more grounded and connected to your body. Plus, according to aromatherapy, scents like rosemary, lavender, peppermint, ylang-ylang, and lemon can help with stress relief, so look for one of these scents in essential oil form to diffuse or smell from the bottle for instant relaxation, or find candles with notes of lavender or peppermint to light throughout the day.
4. Make a list of the top 10 sources of stress
Many people avoid facing their stress, or sweep it under the rug until it comes out in moments that wouldn’t typically cause high-stress, like your roommate leaving dishes in the sink or your boss scheduling an extra meeting. Spend a few minutes identifying and writing down the top 10 sources of stress in your life. Once you know where your stress is coming from, you’ll be able to find solutions. You can even go so far as to take your #1 stressor and come up with five things you can do right now that can minimize it (and then do them). If you find that some of your stressors aren’t solvable, you can begin to accept what cannot be changed. Even accepting life circumstances as they are can help ease stress, even if you cannot necessarily fix them.
5. Take a walk
Being active and exercising has been shown to significantly reduce stress, and the easiest way to be more active throughout the day is to go on more walks. Looks like your Fitbit was onto something: getting in your steps has many physical and mental health benefits. Plus, it’s not only good for your stress levels, but it’s enjoyable and easy to fit into a busy schedule (so another thing on your to-do list won’t cause you more stress). Whether you schedule a walk on your lunch break or walk around the block whenever you start to feel stress levels rise, cue up a podcast, grab a warm jacket, and get outside for an instant stress-reliever.
6. Drink less coffee (or switch to decaf)
Your morning cup of coffee might be a non-negotiable for feeling like a normal human before 9am, or an afternoon latte might help you push through that slump, but bad news: it might also be affecting your stress. Everyone has varying thresholds for how much caffeine they can tolerate, so while coffee is beneficial for some people, it can increase stress and anxiety for others by stimulating the fight-or-flight hormone associated with increased energy. If you notice that caffeine makes you jittery or anxious, consider cutting back or sticking with decaf. If you’re not sure because coffee is such a daily ritual, try going a day or two without any caffeine to see if you notice any difference in stress levels.
I feel like the word “meditation” is so overused in the wellness space that it has become the all-encompassing go-to for any ailment or wellness woe. But just because you may hear about it everywhere doesn’t mean you should disregard it. Deepak Chopra, MD often talks about “equanimity,” or the ability to stay calm in chaos. It’s basically a fancy way of saying stress levels stay low, even when the exterior factors are stressful (like a busy work week, terrifying election, or a global pandemic).
The goal of meditation is, in fact, to find peace, even in stressful situations. Just because a lot is going on externally does not mean it has to affect our internal state. Meditation gives us the tools to do this because it helps us act with intention, rather than impulse. Whether it’s in the morning, at night, or during the day, start up a meditation practice so stressful situations don’t affect your personal stress.
8. Say “no” when you mean “no”
Sure, not all stressors are under your control, but many are. Reassess where you’re dealing with avoidable stressors. For example, have you helped a coworker finish their project and are therefore pushed on time to complete your to-do list? Good for you for being a selfless employee, but you’re not helping the company if you’re spreading yourself too thin. Tell the coworker what time works best for you, rather than dropping everything for the time that works for them, or say you’re pressed for time and suggest another coworker or intern that would have more time. That also goes for babysitting your neighbor’s cat while they’re away or making plans with friends when you really want a night at home. Learn to say “no” when you mean “no,” and cut out unnecessary tasks from your to-do list.
9. At bedtime, think of all the things that went right that day
Our minds are good at focusing on what we didn’t accomplish, what went wrong during the day, or what we have to get done tomorrow. While that’s great for keeping your work schedule organized, it’s awful for stress and anxiety (and often prevents us from getting a good night’s sleep). Counteract the thought process that most of us have before bed by making a mental list of all the things that went right that day. Maybe you accomplished a difficult task, finally finished the project that’s been taking you forever, or got a compliment from your boss. Or maybe you just got through the day, and that’s an accomplishment enough. Bottom line, take time before you fall asleep to make a mental list of all the things that went right that day, rather than focusing on what went wrong or what you have to do tomorrow.
10. Take physical action
We’re about to get technical here: the “Cognitive-Behavioral Triangle” is a very easy-to-understand diagram, with thoughts, emotions, and behavior at each of the points. The diagram demonstrates that each point of the triangle connects to all the other points (you took elementary geometry, right?). How we think affects how we feel and what we do, but this pattern can work in reverse too. That means that certain actions will affect thoughts and feelings.
Breathing techniques or relaxing the shoulders are physical actions that signal to the brain that everything is fine. Sometimes, the mind can be hard to control (when I’m really stressed, I cannot always reason myself out of it), but one point of the triangle will affect the others. If you find your stress is hard to control or reason out of, start with physical actions. Try breathing techniques, improving your posture, exercise, or yoga poses.
What simple things do you go-to when you’re stressed?