We’ve all likely complained of feeling busy and stressed out. And yet, the concept of stress can feel amorphous. It’s a bit like the air we breath, it is all around us and yet it is difficult to grasp. Paradoxically, our primary stressors can also be the things we love the most -- our families, work, and relationships. So getting rid of our stressors is usually not a desirable or feasible option.
Additionally, stress management can often be focused on time-consuming and expensive activities such as massages, spa days and yoga classes. To an extremely stressed-out (and/or a financially strapped person) these suggestions can feel frivolous and like yet another thing to add to their to-do list.
Keeping this in mind, I sought out stress management tips from true experts beyond the baths, deep breathing, and yoga ( all valid strategies by the way!). In my search, I read two books on stress (Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski and Stress Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body -- and Be More Resilient Every Day by Mithu Storoni, MD ).
Here are the most useful and novel stress management concepts I found.
Complete the stress cycle, don’t worry too much about controlling the stressors. What completes the stress cycle? Physical activity.
Health educator, Emily Nagoski, discusses the stress response as a cycle. The stress cycle has to be completed in order to be resolved physiologically. Since every day will likely include some stressors, we would be wise to complete the stress cycle daily. She posits that we don’t have that much control over our stressors - the myriad things in our daily life that initiate a stress response -- but we can choose to regularly complete the stress response cycle.
She draws on our ancient past to explain why this works. Throughout evolutionary history, our stress response was leveraged in survival moments -- we either fought, or ran from the threat or died. This physical act of fighting and running is what completed the stress response cycle and brought our body back down to baseline.
In modern times, we often have the stress response activated but then don’t pair it with the physical movement that helps us resolve it. This is why exercise is so effective for stress management. This is also explains why sometimes sitting on the meditation cushion and deep breathing can feel futile. When you are in a highly aroused, stressed-out state being active and moving your body may be more appropriate and efficacious. Any physical activity, like walking, counts.
Try at home:
For those times when getting in a full workout seem unlikely, here are some work-arounds:
Simply shake and wiggle your body for a few minutes - Most mammals shake and move their bodies following a stressful event. Shaking is an excellent way to release excess tension and stuck patterning in the body, transforms stress. This practice is particularly useful when you're in an elevated emotional state that makes it difficult to go directly into a more calm practice, like seated meditation or breathwork.
Progressive muscle relaxation - in progressive muscle relaxation you consciously tense your muscles (which mimics exercise) and then consciously relax your muscles. This helps resolve the stress response. You can do the full routine with a guided script like this. Or for an even simpler version, simply tense your whole body for 10 seconds and then fully relax your body.
Regular exercise in any form!
Gaming for Stress- When Distraction is Not Escapism.
You know those moments where something stressful just occurred and you can’t stop thinking about it? You try to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and your mind just races faster. We are often told that mindfulness and other modalities that require focused attention should be the go-to techniques after stressful moments.
But in some cases the opposite - intentional distraction - may be more useful. Particularly, playing games (like Tetris and Candy Crush) that challenge either your visual-spatial parts of your brain and/or your working memory. The instructions are to play until you lose yourself in the game and momentarily forget about the stressful thing that just occurred. This has been shown to reduce emotional reactivity and is being researched as a way to prevent PTSD in the case of larger traumas. Basically, by occupying your visual centers, it prevents you from focusing on the stressful event, which can diminish how much it is encoded in your memory as a traumatic event to be ruminated on. For more information, see all the results that come up when you search PTSD + tetris in pubmed.
Try at home:
The next time something stressful occurs and you notice you are ruminating on the issue, take a break and play a game like Tetris on your smartphone. Play long enough that you are able to momentarily forget about the stressful thing that just happened.
Establish a Strong Circadian Rhythm and Routine To Calm Your Body.
We evolved to have our daily rhythms align with the light and dark cycles of the sun. By following a circadian-informed routine each day, our body can begin to predict when we will eat, sleep, and move our bodies and prepare accordingly. For example, if our bedtime is constantly changing or eating times are erratic, this can register in your body as a stressor.
One consistent way to combat stress is to establish a rhythm to your life with your circadian biology in mind.
Try at home:
Keep your bedtime and wake time as consistent as possible, even on the weekend.
Try to eat all of your food in a 12 hour window, and stop eating 3 hours before you go to sleep.
Eat meals at roughly the same time each day.
During the day, expose yourself to lots of bright blue light (ideally outdoors), and at night reduce exposure to blue light (via electronics) and dim the lights. Sleep in total darkness.
Exercise earlier in the day. Morning exercise was shown to increase parasympathetic activity (the relaxation response) and contribute to higher quality sleep at night. Exercising in the evening increased sympathetic tone during sleep and decreased the amount of REM sleep that occurred (aim to stop exercising at least 3 hours before bed). (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26333783)
I’ve written about this extensively here and here, but the basic takeaway is to eat, move, and expose yourself to bright light during the day, and dim the lights, rest, and fast once the sun goes down.