How is your stress level today?
April is Stress Awareness Month: a national, cooperative effort to inform people about the dangers of stress, successful coping strategies, and harmful misconceptions that are prevalent in society. In hopes of lightening your load, we polled a diverse group of thought leaders, including a clinical psychologist, a pastor, a licensed clinical social worker, a poet, a retired teacher, a dysfunctional relationships expert, and a child development specialist to share their tips for dealing with stress in both personal and professional situations. Here’s what they said:
WALK and WRITE. I find that taking walks and writing about my problems helps to decrease my anxiety and stress. When I hike around my neighborhood or in a park, I take a moment to slow down and simply watch: children playing, animals sneaking food, trees in bloom, and other natural phenomena that cheer me up. Also, I listen: I hear birdsong and people playing guitars, flutes, oboes, etc. Allowing sound and music to wash over you is very calming. Writing about my concerns also decreases anxiety and stress. When I write, I gain self-knowledge and feel more in control of my life. Creating sentences relieves tension and allows me to pour my emotions onto the page. —Janet Ruth Heller, Poet, and Author of Nature’s Olympics
YIELD and BUILD BOUNDARIES. When a hammer hits a nail, the surrounding wood has no choice but to yield to the force of the hammer. Ironically, the stressed wood then holds the nail solidly in place. Stress is a part of life that often gives us no choice but to yield yet also provides us with much-needed boundaries. How much are you willing to yield? Do you want to be a part of this particular construction? Where are your boundaries? Stress will follow wherever you go, but you get to decide what you build. —Lyn Barrett, Retired Teacher and Author of Crazy: Reclaiming Life From the Shadow of Traumatic Memory
SHARE THE LOAD. One of the greatest sources of exhaustion is the feeling that we are alone here: that no one else cares about what we care about or is fighting for what we’re fighting for. This is almost never true, but the more time we spend by ourselves, the easier it is to believe that. Community is medicinal. When we share our life and work with like-hearted people in meaningful, interdependent relationships, we are far less likely to burn out quickly, which is the goal. This isn’t about you expiring early. It’s about a lifestyle of sustainable compassion that will allow you not only to care deeply but to be here a long time while you do. Finding your tribe will make this far easier. Don’t go it alone. —John Pavlovitz, Pastor and Author of If God is Love, Don’t be a Jerk
CREATE A SENSORY FIRST AID KIT. Use the five senses to plan for an upcoming stressful event, soothe yourself in a stressed-out moment, or bring yourself into the present in the aftermath of a difficult experience.
- Sight: A treasured object that brings you feelings of positivity or calm. A beloved painting on the wall. The view from your bedroom window.
- Hearing: Music can change stress into calm or a sense of well-being. This might be classical, punk, metal, nature sounds, white noise. It could be the sound of your own voice singing. The rustle of the trees in your yard.
- Smell: The most emotionally powerful sense for many, as olfactory memories can go back to our earliest moments. Choose smells that bring you feelings of bliss, like chocolate or flowers. Research essential oils and experiment. My favorite is Clary Sage.
- Taste: If you love the smell of chocolate, you probably love the taste, too. Brew your favorite non-alcoholic beverage, and revel in its depth. Hold flavors on your tongue and notice what happens in your body. *If food is a trigger for you to binge, restrict or otherwise contribute to your stress, avoid this sense.
- Touch: The first sensation we were ever aware of—breath entering our lungs, the softness of skin, the adventure of encountering all our nerve endings. Identify your coziest, favorite blanket and wrap yourself up in front of a fire or heater. Purchase sensory tools with different textures to hold in your hands, grip, run your fingers over. Pet or snuggle an animal companion. Jump in a pool.
Reduce stress and acknowledge it, cultivate compassion for yourself and surround yourself with a safe, positive, peaceful sensory experience of your own creation. —Caitlin Billings, Psychotherapist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Author of In Our Blood (coming July 2022)
EQUIP AND BE AVAILABLE FOR YOUR LOVED ONES. As parents, we can help our kids deal with stress by providing accurate, age-appropriate information while reminding them that they are safe and loved. Recently, my 8-year-old and I spent a chunk of time talking about the invasion of Ukraine. He understood more—contextually and empathetically—than I expected. I told him we’d keep talking about it and that he can ask me questions anytime. We need to be mindful of the coverage our kids see and hear on TV and the radio as well as what they listen to over phone calls with friends and family. Images can be scary and overwhelming. But I believe in starting to mindfully build kids’ knowledge of the world at a young age and doing it in a way that fosters their empathy and compassion. —Deborah Farmer Kris, Child Development Specialist and Author of the Children’s Picture Book Series, All the Time
SET BOUNDARIES AND TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Limit what you put on your plate. Letting go of extraneous activities or people-pleasing is important in order to protect your energy. That may look like saying no to commitments that are not essential or that do not bring you joy. Make sure that you get enough sleep so that your body can better cope. Eat well. Indulge yourself by eating healthy fruits, vegetables, and other soul-enhancing foods. Exercise is essential to fight stress and release feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin. Also, be kind to yourself and spend time with loving friends and family. Talk to a therapist so that you have another resource to provide you support during a difficult time. —Alyson Nerenberg, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusion of Flawless Relationships (coming May 2022)
STAY AWAY FROM SENIOR SOCIOPATHS (really all sociopaths, for that matter). Senior sociopaths have spent their entire lives intentionally causing stress, and they never stop. These people have serious personality disorders—antisocial, narcissistic, psychopathic—in which they exploit and manipulate others. I’ve worked with survivors who have unbelievable stories of financial, physical, and material harm. But the most suffering, by far, was psychological: 76% of survivors said the stress of the involvement made them ill, and 70% said they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors need to understand that a senior sociopath will always cause stress and they need to get that person out of their life. —Donna Andersen, Author of Senior Sociopaths: How to Recognize and Escape Lifelong Abusers (coming May 2022)
It doesn’t have to be Stress Awareness Month for us to learn to identify and avoid our stress triggers or find positive ways to deal with people or situations that stress us out. Try the tips above to help your stress level go down a notch or two.