It seems like every day we hear news about the growing danger of stress in our lives. Click-bait headlines, news articles, and blog posts tell us stress causes physical, mental, and emotional illness. Experts tell us work stress can lead to addiction. They tell us financial stress can lead to relationship stress, which, in turn, can lead to divorce – another major stress. External pressure from society can lead to stress about whether we’re successful enough, good looking enough, fit enough, or happy enough.
And then when we check our social media feeds, it looks like everyone else is handling their stress just fine. The ups and downs of life do not seem to be driving them up a wall. Which brings us to the next thing we read, see, and hear about all the time in the media: stress management. Judging by social media, it looks to us like all our friends, new and old, must have some great stress-management techniques at their disposal.
Otherwise, how could they look so happy?
They go to yoga, meditate, and do Pilates. They get massages on vacation. They’re on hikes, taking amazing pictures. They post insights derived from the ancient wisdom of the Eastern Mystics, the Stoics, and contemporary self-help books.
Sometimes it looks like all they do all day long is manage their stress. It’s self-care on overdrive. From where we sit, it sure looks like it takes a lot of energy.
Don’t worry, though. We have two insights for you – one of which we hope is not news:
- Everyone is happy and healthy on social media.
- There’s nothing mysterious or secret about stress management.
You should know the first one already.
As for the second, it’s just a matter of reminding yourself what you need to do.
Return to Calm
There are a thousand and one ways to manage stress.
And believe it or not, almost all the new approaches you hear about actually do work. Meaning things like yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other mindfulness practices such as guided relaxation or visualization – with proper instruction and reasonable expectations, they’re remarkably effective. We don’t need peer-reviewed journal articles to confirm this: it’s easy to take a yoga (or meditation or tai chi) class and find out for ourselves.
If you’re curious whether they work for you, you should go take a class.
Exercise works – more on that below.
Traditional pharmaceutical approaches work, too. Medications such as anxiolytics and anti-depressants help millions of people around the world manage difficult emotions related to stress every day. Their detractors say they treat the symptoms, not the underlying causes, and they’re not entirely wrong. However, medications that help people manage symptoms, participate fully in day-to-day life, and enter treatment in a positive state of mind are a gift: while we search for alternatives to pharmaceuticals, we should not lose sight of their amazing potency and well-documented efficacy.
Add to this list the endless stream of alternative supplements, therapies, and strategies to manage stress and it can all seem overwhelming: you can get stressed trying to figure out which way you’re going to choose to manage your stress.
That’s what this post is really all about: we want to remind you that inside all of these stress management techniques – well, actually, before all these techniques, there’s a short list of simple things you can do to set yourself up for success.
And the truth is, without these simple things, all the stress management techniques in the world are doomed to fail.
Call this a list of stress-management prerequisites.
The Foundation of Stress Management
Stress management is not rocket science.
You choose what works for you – probably something we mentioned above – and stick with it. Medication, meditation, recreation – the choices are unique to the individual. But before you choose your stress management techniques, you’ll want to make sure the following five elements of your life are in place.
The Five Essential Elements of Stress Management
- Healthy food. As the computer science saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” This may seem too obvious to even say, but food is our fuel, and the quality of the food we eat has a direct effect on our mind, body, and spirit. The best diet for managing stress is virtually identical to the best diets for managing everything from chronic disease like diabetes to developmental disorders like ADHD. Most of us know it by heart by now: we need to eat whole grains as often as possible, cut back on the sugar, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoid packaged or processed foods when we can. There are two non-scientific rules of thumb for making health choices in the grocery store. First, the less the packaging, the better it is for you. For example: one yam comes in its own package and is a healthy food choice. In contrast, a dozen cookies surrounded by layers of plastic and cardboard are not a healthy food choice. Second, if you do buy something in a package, the longer the list of ingredients, the less healthy it is. For example, if you buy canned tomatoes and the ingredients are “Tomatoes, basil, salt” then you’re good. If there’s a long list of multisyllabic words from chemistry class on the label, move on: you can choose better.
- Regular sleep. After food, sleep is the second most important element of keeping a balanced, stress-free mind. Regular sleep – and a regular sleep schedule – recharges your body and brain more effectively than anything else. The optimal amount of sleep varies for each person, but sleep experts agree adults need between 7 and 8 ½ hours of sleep a night. Sleep deprivation – i.e. consecutive days or weeks with less than 7 or 8 ½ hours of sleep – leads to a host of physical, mental, and emotional problems. Physically speaking, chronic sleep loss can lead to higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and hormonal abnormalities. Mentally speaking, chronic sleep loss leads to decreased focus, decreased cognitive ability, and poor decision-making. Emotionally speaking, chronic sleep loss can lead to anger, irritability, and is often a leading indicator of depression. We should also mention that chronic sleep loss is associated with decreased libido and less interest in sex.
- Daily exercise. How much can we say about the importance of regular exercise or movement? The doctors at the Mayo Clinic indicate 2-3 hours of aerobic exercise and 1-1 ½ hours of weightlifting-type exercise per week is best for healthy adults. That amounts to about half an hour a day, which is doable for most of us – if we commit. It’s well worth it, because a regular exercise routine improves all areas of your health: it strengthens your heart, decreases your risk of coronary disease, strengthens your muscular system, your skeletal system, decreases your risk of cancer, decreases your risk of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, and improves your overall mental health by decreasing both depression and anxiety.
- Interests. Call them hobbies, pastimes, or diversions. Call it entertainment or call it recreation. It can be music, gardening, or stamp collecting. They can take up as much time as a second job, or they can take only minutes a day. It really doesn’t matter what it is or they are – within the healthy boundaries of reason, of course – but you need things in your life outside of work and family that hold your attention. In an ideal world, we’d each have a passion that drives us. That’s what you’re looking for: something you’re excited about that takes your time, energy, and focus. Something that keeps you learning and engaged in life in a proactive way – and hopefully something you can keep doing your whole life. If you don’t find anything that sticks, keep searching: the search itself will keep your mind sharp and spirits up.
- Community. Human beings are social creatures. We live in family units. For generations, we lived in extended- and multi-family units. This trend of everyone holing up in separate spaces with fences and lawns with loads of private space between us is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history, and we would do well to remember that. What that means for each of us as individuals is that as we grow and change through the phases of life, we need to remember to seek out social interaction and find ways to be among our fellow humans, even if – especially if – we don’t want to. Study after study shows that people who live the longest, happiest lives – i.e. people who managed their stress well – are connected to a vibrant community of other people. Often the community is spiritual, but it does not have to be. What matters is that we have people to talk to, people to listen to, people to laugh with, people to cry with, people to hug, people to help, and people to help us when we need it most.
Old Wisdom for the Digital Age
The theme here is keep it simple.
As we mentioned above, you can do all the stress management in the world, but if you’re not eating right, sleeping well, and exercising regularly, your health will likely suffer – and your stress will increase because of it. And if you don’t have something to keep you engaged in life – a passion or at least an interest – and a group of people to share your joys and sorrows with, then the statistics say you’re more likely to be unhappy. They also say you’ll die younger, but that’s another conversation.
What we want you to take away from this article is nothing new. In fact, all five points on our list are something you might have heard your grandmother say before you knew enough to listen to everything she said. Where stress management is concerned, we want you to try everything: all the yoga, all the meditation – give it a shot. See what resonates with you. And while you search for your go-to stress techniques, make sure your foundation is strong, based on the fundamentals you first heard decades ago: eat right, sleep well, be active, be interested, and find your people.
If you can do that, then we actually think the stress might take care of itself.
Note: If you’d like to pursue treatment for stress management, a few of the evidence based approaches include Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
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