It’s time to stop stressing about your stress level and take action
For months now I’ve been stressing and complaining a lot over… stress. Deadlines to meet, people to serve, negative tweets I can’t not read, all the political noise and the Covid fears… and, you know, the politics of Covid fears. I know I’m not alone, and I recognize that a lot of you have it way worse than me. But who hasn’t felt some of the telltale symptoms of stress lately, the overwhelming sense of dread, emotional numbness, or utter exhaustion under the weight of it all?
I’m so stressed that I forgot I wrote about the science of stress and some common and uncommon stressbusters back in April. I found that article while searching the topic in researching this article, and it includes what I consider, frankly, to be some really hard things like “laugh a little” and “think positively.” Good advice, me, but… hard to follow, sometimes.
The thing is, we all know the most obvious, helpful, and doable things we should or could do to temper our anxiety. We just don’t do them. Sure, some of the stressors are out of our hands (or, more accurately, dropped into our laps): kids at home learning remotely, sick selves or dying loved ones, unpaid bills, Zoom calls, so, so, so many Zoom calls.
But there are ways we can exert control right now.
Ignore some stuff
You know what I mean. We all take in way too much negative stuff each day, particularly via social media with all the news — real or not — in our phones.
Back before the invention of the beloved and dastardly interwebs, the end of the workday meant a half-hour of the evening news, tearing open a bit of junk snail mail, dinner around the table with real live humans, then perhaps a sitcom or a game of Yahtzee. Someone might call, and the entire household could totally ignore the ringing of the lone phone in the kitchen, or let the eager kids answer it.
We called it “unwinding.”
Now to unwind in the evening we stare into the same shiny slab of endless possibilities we’ve been working on all day.
Personally, I’m taking charge, not only of the incoming stressors but the outpouring of my own frustrations, which only serves to further boil my blood. A month ago, I quit Facebook. Following good advice from others, I simply logged out and then deleted the app from my phone. Instantly, a huge source of stress simply evaporated.
I took a cue from that success and made another important decision regarding Twitter, which is important for my work — frequently informative, yet also annoying as hell sometimes. Naturally, I tweeted out my new strategy:
To reduce stress, I hereby vow to…
Unfollow people who frequently complain without suggestions or solutions.
Follow people who lean into positive/constructive if frank musings.
Embrace the latter myself, steer away from vacuous rants. You’ll probably hear a bit less from me.
I’m not going to ignore the news or the problems in the world, nor totally disengage from work or from people in general, but there’s no benefit in absorbing a steady stream of tiny tirades about everyone’s daily aggravations. I feel better already just saying so.
Drink less (or not at all)
I’ve written before about how baby boomers are binge drinking more these days and how that’s really unhealthy, the fact that the pandemic has only encouraged more drinking, and even how science has shown that just one drink a day isn’t good for any of us. Oh, and drinking totally ruins sleep.
I quit drinking earlier this year, and almost immediately started sleeping straight through for seven or eight hours and waking up clear-headed, free of the anxiety that comes with a black hole of memories from the night before and concern over the work ahead that could’ve been done already.
I’ve been amazed at how liberating and life-changing it is, how much less stressed I am. Here’s my “method”: On day one, with an embarrassingly legit hangover for someone three decades removed from college, I told my wife I was quitting, then I told our three grown children. And now I’m telling you about it, which is harder, like being naked in front of strangers. Yet it’s also motivating. Temptation remains, but sobriety feels fantastic, and I don’t want to fail you, either. For now, I’m going through cases upon cases of naturally flavored, unsweetened seltzer, and dark chocolate is my new best friend.
(We all have different relationships with alcohol, socially, psychologically, and chemically, and it’s important to acknowledge that it can be a Herculean task for some people to stop drinking. If you try and find you can’t quit, consider giving the confidential SAMHSA hotline a call 800–662–4357 or otherwise lean on a loved one and get some support suggestions.)
Take a deep breath
We’ve all been told many times before to take deep breaths, but how many of us actually remember to do it? I’ve tested deep controlled breathing, and found you can approach it either of two ways.
Here’s the quick version:
- Take a really deep breath through your nose. Fill your belly first, then chest, then feel your collarbones rise.
- Hold for a few seconds.
- Blow it all out through your mouth, finishing by pulling in your stomach to squeeze out the last of the air. Hold for a few seconds.
- Repeat a couple of times.
Here’s the more intensive version:
Do the above in a quiet place, perhaps with soft elevator music, the blinds drawn, and your eyes closed (I employ dark glasses, too). After each set of three or so, lengthen the hold times. You can count in your head to, say, five or 10, but don’t stress if your one-thousand-ones are accurate or not. Keep extending the hold times with each set of three reps and you’ll soon be taking just one breath every minute or less. If at any point you feel out of breath, taking a few breaths or deep ones without any hold times between, then resume the exercise. Keep all that up for a few cycles and I promise you will forget about things and feel less angst.
Warning: Side effects include serious naps.
Get off your behind
Go ahead, kill the messenger. But take it from me, a 58-year-old workaholic who is forced to sit a lot to write; even I find time and creative ways to stay in shape. Truly there is no single thing you can do to reduce stress more effectively than to increase physical activity.
Notice I did not say “exercise.”
Beneficial physical activity doesn’t have to be so hard nor regimented. Go plant a garden. Sweep the floor more often. Take a brisk walk. Any of these activities will get your heart pumping a little and are virtually guaranteed, from a biological perspective, to improve your mood and reduce stress.
Kiss work off
Recently I asked a former colleague, a workaholic like me who now works for a big, important organization, whether she was getting any time away from work.
“Oh my God,” she said, “They give us too much time. I don’t know what to do with it!”
Yeah, I wouldn’t either.
As a writer always worrying about the next paycheck, I haven’t taken more than one or two days off in a row in four years.
That’s just stupid. We all know we need time totally away from work to rejuvenate.
Yet many of us are scared to death that if we miss out on the flow of work, the continuity of engagement, we’ll become replaceable. Study after study confirms that the benefits of time off far outweigh any risks, but my younger self would never have listened to me. I hope you will. And I’m starting to listen, too. I’m determined to take the rest of this week off, once this story is filed. Wish me luck.