2020 was a stressful year and the first few months of 2021 haven’t been much better. April is Stress Awareness Month: a national, cooperative effort to inform people about the dangers of stress, successful coping strategies, and harmful misconceptions about stress that are prevalent in our society. In hopes of lightening your (stressful) load, we polled a diverse group of thought leaders, including a cardiovascular surgeon, an IT security specialist, a life coach/spiritual medium, a second degree black belt in taekwondo, and a political junkie/college student to share their tips for reducing stress in both personal and professional situations. Here’s what they said:
Control your mind.
As a cardiovascular surgeon, I have performed countless, highly technical, high risk surgical procedures. Such operations would be intensely stress provoking for any individual who had not spent many years training for such experiences. However, in the same operating room, an observer – a medical student for example – feels no stress during cardiac surgery because they bear no responsibility.
So we see that stress as an actual entity doesn’t really exist. Stress is only experienced in the mind of the individual. Stress is a feeling. It’s a perception of a situation; it’s not the situation itself. Once one masters one’s mind, stress begins to gradually dissipate and be replaced with self-confidence, self-control, and tranquility. It is essential that we understand the workings of our mind in order to take control of how we will respond to the challenging situations life has to offer. This is perhaps the most empowering skill one can acquire, develop, and perfect – the ability to control one’s mind.
Dr. John Chuback – cardiovascular surgeon, personal development & success training expert, and author of The Straight A Handbook: The 50 Most Powerful Secrets For Ultimate Success In And Out Of The Classroom
Tune in when you tune out.
Make sure your free time isn’t causing you additional stress. A family friend of ours put it well: The root of “vacation” is ‘vacate.’ If you’re coming to work Monday worn out, try spending your weekends differently.
Plan some fun.
Create something small to look forward to every few days. I have always found the “light at the end of the tunnel” to help me manage my stress, whether it was a night out with friends, a movie, a ballgame, or a meal (masked and socially distanced, of course).
Look for the root cause.
Don’t be frustrated with your stress; be fascinated. When you are feeling stressed, pause to figure out why. Sitting with the discomfort of anxiety can feel uncomfortable, but you are building the skill of finding the root cause of your distress and taking action to address it. Journaling is a great way to build self-awareness of your emotions. You’ll see patterns, triggers, habits, and choices that you didn’t notice before.
Distractions get a bad rap. They can also be the best medicine for stress. A distraction pulls our attention away from the cause of our stress and can help give us a different perspective or lighten our mood. Take a walk, listen to music, watch a funny video, work on a puzzle, do a sport—do anything to take your mind off the cause of your stress, even if it’s just for a few minutes. This gives you a chance to relax, regroup, and refocus.
Melanie Gibson – black belt in taekwondo and author of Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts
Take a walk.
Alone (if safe) with no input – no music, no podcast, no phone, no calls, etc. Just you and the pavement and your thoughts. It’s a great way to clear your head and exercise your body. Just breathe and walk. It’s taken me some time but I have now forced myself into the habit of walking a mile in the morning before I start, a mile after lunch to restart my brain, and a mile at the end of the day to wrap things up. My creativity has risen and my stress has lowered considerably. Stop saying you “don’t have the time.” You do and you’ll be better for it in so many ways.
Choose to care for yourself first.
Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. We secret superheroes struggle with this one. We’re the caregivers, the fixers, the ones at work so busy spinning so many plates and, yet, if there’s a project that must be done and done right…? We’re the ones to whom it’s assigned AND we gladly take it on. We are the strong, the powerful, the ones everybody else comes to for help. But what happens when we need a little help?
Everybody has their breaking point. And as admirable as it is to care for everybody else first before tending to our own needs, doing so comes at a hefty price, not only to ourselves, but, ultimately, to others. Overwhelm and stress among the strong often go undetected. No one can see the toll being taken on us. Our confidence and smiles hide the worries and anxieties and fears deep inside. Somewhere along our journeys, we learned that we MUST go it alone and that asking for help or even falling apart is a weakness. But the truth of it is that it takes a great deal of courage and strength to prioritize ourselves and to practice self-care.
By CHOOSING what on our “to-do” is worthy of us, our time and our efforts, we actually end up freeing our minds and our spirits. Letting go of all the things we really can’t control and that aren’t really ours to manage (even if we could) refuels and empowers us in a way that keeps stress at bay.
Take a deep breath.
Immediately focus on your breath. This gives your mind something to do rather than react to the emotional calamity you are currently experiencing. Focusing on your breath also allows your parasympathetic system to drive. This is the part of your amazing vessel, the physical form, that conserves energy. This action of deep inhales and exhales slows the heart rate. It even relaxes your sphincter muscles that have the ability to open and close certain areas of the body. This technique brings you out of the fight or flight mode and may also activate your prefrontal cortex allowing you to ask the right question — what do i need right now to regain control? The one thing you can control is your breath.
Bring up in your mind whatever you need at this moment. Is it the privacy of an empty room? So imagine walls around you. Or is it a person or memory that you need? What would Jesus do? Boom, the power of your mind can do that for you. One visualization technique I use is to imagine a light switch. I see it right in front of me and when my timer dings for me to take a break, I mentally turn off the light switch and I drift away in my mind to wherever I can rejuvenate until it’s time to get back to the priorities I’ve set.
Recite affirmations .
I am grateful, I am powerful, I am abundant. This is my go to affirmation and mantra to re-align and become aware of my present moment. Along with deep inhales and exhales, this technique is an invaluable one to practice. Everything is energy, it’s a matter or what vibrational frequency you are functioning from. Being grateful instantly takes me away from resentment, being powerful holds me accountable, and being in a state of abundance allows me to appreciate life and the opportunities that are presented to me.
I have really bad anxiety that can put me under a lot of stress for absolutely no good reason. I practice mindfulness to help me with my anxiety. For some people, this can be focusing on one thing (like the background beat of a song) or focusing entirely on a task (such as driving). For me, I use either driving or religious rituals to ease my anxiety. I think we absorb a lot of information in the day and are never allowed to process it, which can affect sleep. For example, I usually take an hour to fall asleep because I am thinking during that time. To combat this, I meditate and just sit with my thoughts to let my brain process all the things I’ve encountered throughout the day. It’s like chewing the information rather than forcefully swallowing it.
Identify the source of your stress, approach it, and resolve it.
If it’s from a relationship, I try to talk it out. If it’s from an event, I simply have to DO the event. I do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and have for a long time. I occasionally compete and when I do I have huge amounts of anxiety right before I get to fight. Music or talking usually helps with the anxiety, but what eliminates it is actually going out to fight.
Drink tea and move.
Resist the urge to turn to sugary, high fat, or processed foods as a response to stress. For a calming effect consider instead a cup of chamomile, turmeric or green tea all known to help reduce anxiety. Also any form of body movement – stretching, yoga, or just going for a walk can shift energy and perspective.
Quietly reflect on the positive.
Spend some quiet time and reflect on the positives of the present moment – the love of family, support of friends, your resilience in the face of previous challenges. Remember that about eighty-five percent of what we worry about never actually happens.
Sherra Aguirre – entrepreneur, health enthusiast, environmentalist, food security activist, and author of Joyful Delicious Vegan: Life without Heart Disease
Identify your triggers so you can avoid them.
Our lives are so busy and we get many things that add to stress but there are only a few things that really cause stress. Learn to peel the onions slowly (pace yourself) and identify the real cause of your stress so you can learn how to deal with it. Ignoring or hiding stressors under layers harms you in the long run.
Formulate a plan.
Develop a system or community to relieve stress – take a walk in the park, meditate, go out with friends, check in with a close friend, watch a movie or whatever makes you feel less stressed.
Seme Eroh – life coach, IT security professional, and author of When the Fog Lifts: Gaining Clarity After Chaos and Confusion
Stress Awareness Starts With You
It doesn’t have to be Stress Awareness Month for us to learn to identify and avoid our stress triggers and find positive ways to deal with people or situations that stress us out. Try the tips above and see if 2021 turns into your “zen” year!