Today I had originally planned to post a yummy chickpea salad recipe that I created recently. Instead, I was attacked by the “S” word. You know, the one that sneaks up on you and leaves you overwhelmed.
Ahh, Stress! My old friend.
The last month of my life has been a bit more stressful than I had anticipated. (More details on some of the “why’s” soon.) As a result, some nights you feel like posting a fun recipe, while other nights call for self care. Instead of a recipe, I thought I would share some of my self care tools that have helped me tackle stress and feeling overwhelmed in the last year. (Most of these are included on my Favorite Things page on the sidebar. Feel free to check out the full list.)
Before I get into some of the methods for stress management, I wanted to shed some light on why it is important to address your stress/anxiety and develop a game plan. Do we need some stress? Absolutely! Stress is a biological response. Think “fight or flight”. When you are experiencing acute stress, your brain responds by releasing transmitters, peptides, and hormones to allow your body to return to a state of balance (1). Cortisol (along with epinephrine) is one of the hormones released when you are experiencing stress. You have the stressful experience. Cortisol is released. Stress ends. Body recovers.
Unfortunately with the fast-paced lives that many of us lead, we often allow ourselves to be constantly under stress with no time for recovery. When your body is repeatedly exposed to chronic stress this is called “allostatic load.” This includes the neurotransmitter response as well as behavioral response, such as poor sleep, lack of exercise, and making less healthy eating decisions (2). Over time, this may lead to chronically high cortisol levels, which in turn can lead to blood sugar imbalances, immune system suppression, inflammation, GI problems, and fertility problems (3).
Alright, alright–we all know stress has its negative consequences. Let’s get into the practical side of things.
Stress Management Tips
I, like many people, love a good sweaty gym session. I love that rush of endorphins you feel after having a great run or reaching a PR at the squat rack. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying those exercises. However, I do think it is important to acknowledge when your body may benefit from lower intensity workouts. When you engage in high intensity exercise, this also releases more cortisol. Therefore, if you are in a season of your life where you are already dealing with chronic stress, you are adding more cortisol to the machine. Sometimes we can handle this well. Sometimes we cannot. Listen to your body.
This is where exercises like yoga and pilates come into play. For me, yoga has been a huge help in managing my stress. Yoga practices are centered around love and listening to your body. Whether you choose to go to a class or practice at home, either is fine. I have done both and enjoy each for different reasons. Due to my current schedule, I have developed an at-home practice. Some people like to free-style, but I prefer to use a video for guidance to avoid injuries. Search on YouTube and you will find plenty of yoga videos that suit your personality. One of my favorites is Yoga with Adriene. More recently, I pay for subscription to One O Eight.
Whenever I mention meditation, I get the feeling that people are thinking “what kind of hippy business have you gotten into now, Amanda?!” For some people, meditation may seem quite foreign and even weird. I used to think the same thing. However, I can tell you from experience how beneficial it has been for me in managing my stress.
I was first introduced to meditation in high school—though I didn’t realize it at the time. Just before a big cross country meet, my coach brought his varsity runners to his office. He had us all spread out and lay on the floor. We were instructed to close our eyes. Meanwhile, he described the details of the race that was coming up, including everything from how the sun would feel on our skin to the adrenaline at the start line. This is a different type of meditation than I use currently, but I remember feeling amazed. I felt more calm for the race ahead—which is a big deal because I struggled with pre-race anxiety my entire running career.
Fast forward to today, I currently try to squeeze in meditation every single day. This may sound like a huge commitment when you are already stressed…but if you have 3 minutes, you can meditate. I primarily use an app called Headspace. Right now, I have just been using the free features, but you can upgrade to the premium option. The app also allows you to set the length of your practice.
When I first started meditating I noticed my mind wandering A LOT. That’s okay! Meditation is not meant to control your thoughts, but rather to notice them and learn to let them go. The deep breathing utilized during meditation is beneficial in and of itself. It allows you to slow your heart rate when you are feeling anxious and think more clearly. I typically meditate in the morning to start my day off with a positive attitude and set my intention for the day ahead. Sometimes I meditate during my lunch break as well.
Even if you are skeptical, just give it a try once!
3. 5-Minute Journal
When I was growing up, I journaled frequently. It felt good to let out whatever I was feeling in the privacy of those pages. These days, I prefer a simplified journal app on my phone—5-minute journal. Each morning, I am prompted to list: 3 things I am grateful for, what I will do today to make today great, and a daily affirmation. At the end of the day, I am again prompted to list: 3 amazing things that happened today and how I could have made today even better. I am not naturally a positive thinker, so this style of journaling helps me focus on the positives in my life. When I start and end my day with gratitude, I feel more calm and thankful for my life. You can also add a picture from the day. I like this feature for when I scroll back through old posts for a memory of that day.
- If experiencing work stress, take a break and go for a walk or try one of the above tips. The act of stepping away and taking deep breaths will allow you to reframe your thoughts and come back to your work with a clear mind.
- Nourish your body well. This may seem like the last thing you want to do when you are stressed. Even if you don’t feel like preparing a ton of food, do your best to make one food decision at each meal that is beneficial to your health. (For example–if you choose to have pizza for lunch, could you add some veggies on the side?)
- Talk to someone. There is nothing wrong with seeking help. I’ve been to a counselor before and I know many people that regularly go to one. While it’s fine to talk to a friend or family member you trust, if your stress is really impacting your life, I encourage you to seek therapy. A trained professional is well-equipped to help you.
While there are many other tips that I didn’t include, I hope this was helpful for you. The takeaway message is to listen to your body. Recognize when you need to slow down and take care of yourself.
1. Schwabe, L., Joels, M., Roozendaal, B., Wolf, O. T., & Olitzl, M. S. (2011). Stress effects on memory: An update and integration. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review, 36(7), 1740-1749. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.07.002.
2. McEwen, B. S., Gianaros, P. J. (2010). Central role of the brain in stress and adaptation: links in socioeconomic status, health, and disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1186, 190-222.. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632. 2009.05331.x.
3. Aronson, D. (2009). Cortisol–Its role in stress, inflammation, and indications for diet therapy. Today’s Dietitian, 11(11), 38. Retrieved from todaysdietitian.com .