I have dreams of living a stress-free life, where my children are always happy, my house is always clean and I have plenty of free time to do whatever I'd like. In reality, I'm just like anyone else who has a lot of responsibilities on their plate and gets easily overwhelmed with the daily to-do list.
Stress isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some stress is normal and can even be used to your advantage. It's important to recognize that there are dangers associated with too much stress, though, including long-term effects on your physical and mental health. Headaches, insomnia, constant worrying—these are the kinds of things I'm trying to avoid.
Yet, when I read about how to reduce stress, so much focus is on things that require amounts of time I don't have available in the first place. I'd love to do a yoga class, but finding time for it would create even more stress. A massage would be great, but squeezing in an appointment between martial arts practices and work isn't going to happen. If you're like me, you're looking for simple things you can do right now that will make daily life a little more relaxed. Many of these options take just a few minutes, but the benefits can last a lifetime.
Whether you choose to adopt one of these or several, finding positive, productive ways to react to stress will mean the difference between pulling your hair out and facing your to-do list head on with grace and determination.
- Simplify your schedule. Take a look at your calendar for the upcoming week. Is there any appointment or activity you can remove or at least scale back? Could you use that as an opportunity to take some time for yourself? For instance, do your kids really need three playdates this week? Can the laundry or other housework wait a few days? Sometimes it takes sacrifices and tough choices to make time for yourself, but the benefit can be better health and a less frantic brain.
- Declutter. Stacks of papers on my desk or shoes piled in the corner of the family room drive me crazy. Getting rid of things I don't need provides a calming effect in my life. You might not have time to tackle the entire garage today, but even spending 10 minutes getting rid of the expired coupons in your kitchen drawer can give you a feeling of accomplishment while taking your mind off of daily life for a few precious minutes.
- Color. In case you hadn't heard, coloring isn't just for kids anymore. According to an interview with Mayo Clinic clinical psychologist Craig Sawchuk in The Washington Post, coloring has a calming effect because it "can help slow down the heart rate and respiration, loosen muscles and stimulate the brain." The folks at Colorit sent us a coloring book to try. I was initially skeptical that a coloring page would make my day less stressful, but it was surprisingly therapeutic. It was nice to try something outside of my daily routine where I could spend as little or as much time as I had available.
- Unwind with the Calm app. I have trouble shutting my brain off at the end of the day, which means falling asleep is usually a challenge. About six months ago I found Calm, a meditation app that I use every night. Calm offers a free, 30-day trial, which gives you plenty of time to see what it's all about. The "Daily Calm" is a guided, 10-minute meditation on a different topic each day, such as focus, sleep or gratitude. There are other guided meditation series about happiness, communicating, anxiety and more that vary in length. When I'm having trouble sleeping or just having a rough afternoon, it's worth spending 10 minutes to help me relax.
- Pep Up. Pep is a fun, free app from SparkPeople. Members share pictures of their meals, exercise, inspirational quotes and other uplifting images. When you're having a stressful moment, logging into Pep for just a few minutes can easily bring a smile to your face.
- Stop, Breathe & Think. This Webby Award-winning app offers guided meditation, customized specifically for your mood. It asks how you're doing in that moment, giving you a multiple-choice list of mental, emotional and physical emotions. Based on your responses, you're given a selection of meditations, each of which includes oral prompts to guide you through your few minutes of calm. There are both free and paid programs available. Plus, a portion of the site's proceeds go to Tools for Peace, a non-profit that promotes developing kindness and compassion in everyday life.
- Scale back the multi-tasking. I'll be honest: Multi-taking is how I live 90 percent of my day, and with four small children, it makes life pretty chaotic. While it may seem like tackling several tasks at once is the key to accomplishing more of your task list, the reality is that multi-tasking can be stressful and ineffective. Research shows multi-taskers do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one task to another as effectively as someone who does one thing at a time. Instead of making dinner while answering emails and helping the kids with homework, slow down. Most of the time, the emails can wait and dinner can be a little late if it means taking a breath and giving your child a few minutes of undivided attention.
- Ask yourself: Will this matter a month or even a week from now? It can be stressful when your day doesn't go as planned, you're running late for an appointment or you forget to pack school lunches. Although it raises you blood pressure in the moment, will these small things matter by tomorrow? Take a moment to consider that no one is perfect, we all make mistakes and the best thing you can do is learn from them and move forward.
- Plan your meals. I get easily stressed out when my evening is busy, the kids are hungry and I don't know what to make for dinner. By planning ahead, I have the necessary ingredients on hand, saving time and frustration. Consider planning for the week, looking at the calendar to determine which days are more hectic than others. On nights where I have a little more time, I'll cook dinner with enough for leftovers. Then, when we have a busy night, I don't have to squeeze cooking in on top of everything else; I just pull out the leftovers, reheat and go. I'll also freeze leftovers if I know I can't use them right away. It's cheaper, healthier and more convenient than takeout.
- Exercise daily. Exercise is known to boost endorphins (those "feel good" hormones in your brain) and improve mood, both of which reduce stress. It might seem counterintuitive to recommend finding time in your day to exercise when you're already overwhelmed, but even ten minutes of activity can be enough to reap the stress-reducing benefits. There are simple ways to squeeze short bursts of activity into your day, and by taking a closer look at how you spend your time, you might find that you actually have more time than you thought. Taking time to take care of yourself will pay off both physically and mentally in the long run.
- Ask for help. A few years ago, I was at the pool one afternoon with my four children, having a hard time managing them all. A friend from school asked if she could hold the baby for a few minutes while I dealt with my other kids, who were crying and fighting. I told her I felt bad that I needed help, when she responded, "It really does take a village." That has always stuck with me, because I try to do so much on my own. When you need help, don't be afraid to ask. Others are usually more than willing to lend a hand when they know you could use an assist.
- Reduce how much time you spend checking social media sites. You don't have to give up your favorite social media app completely, but consider putting limits on how much time you spend scrolling because the minutes can add up. You might only check your Facebook feed for five minutes, but if you do that 10 times, it adds up to almost an hour a day! If that number sounds crazy, consider that the average American checks their social media accounts 17 times daily. If lack of time is a stressor in your life, cutting back on social media is one simple way to add time to your day. If political posts or complaining statuses stress you out, limiting your social media consumption and using that time for something more productive or relaxing might just be the most cathartic thing you do for yourself.
- Be prepared. What would you do if you locked yourself out of your house or lost your car keys? Do you have someone nearby who could come to your rescue? Give someone you trust—a family member, friend or neighbor—an extra set of keys just in case. What if your car broke down? Do you have an emergency kit in your car, know how to change a tire or have an AAA membership? Preparing in advance for emergencies can turn a terrible situation into a minor blip in the day.
- Journal. Despite the rise of social media, traditional journaling is still a popular way to reduce stress and anxiety. Organizing your thoughts and getting them out on paper can provide an emotional release and serve as a time to reflect on situations and problem solve. Find a spare notebook in your desk drawer and spend a few minutes writing about how you're feeling or what's going on in your day—you might find it makes you feel better to get it out on paper.
- Don't be afraid to say no. You can't be everything for everyone all the time, and if you try to be, you might find there's not much left for yourself. Saying "no" doesn't have to be a negative thing; it might just mean you know your limits. Prioritize what's important so that you're saying "yes" to the things that bring you the most joy and allow you to make the greatest impact. I was asked to serve board of a local organization in a position that was not something that used my skills. Recognizing that it would have been a struggle for me to contribute, I knew I was better off saying "no" this time so that when another opportunity came a long that was a good fit I would have the time available to say "yes."
- Stop apologizing. I started counting the number of times I say "sorry" in a day, and it was unbelievable. I apologize for having to wake up my kids for school, for not making a dinner that everyone enjoyed, for throwing a bad punch in my kickboxing class, for taking an hour to respond to an email—the list goes on and on. I care so much about the experience of others that it stresses me out when I feel like I don't meet expectations. I've started reminding myself more often that no one is perfect, and that I only need to apologize when I've done something insensitive or wronged someone.
- Listen to music. Have you ever been late for work, stuck in traffic and starting to panic that you won't make your morning meeting? With the stress level rising, your favorite song comes on the radio. Even if it's just for a few minutes, your mood lifts as you go to that happy place in your head we all love. Research has investigated the therapeutic benefits of music, and found that it can reduce anxieties and promote relaxation. Isn't it nice how music can make a bad day a little better?
Do you use any of these things to reduce stress in your life? What other stress-relieving techniques have you tried with success?
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