Stress is an elusive thing to define. A couple of classic definitions include “strain” and “pressure.” Most of us intuitively recognize the emotional/mental form of “stress,” but there are other things that are physical stressors on our bodies, such as the toxic burden from our water, air, food etc.; illness or injury; or even falling short in some of the other areas of healthy living (posture, sleep, etc.).
Because of the way the nervous system is in either sympathetic or parasympathetic mode at any given time, but not both, it’s very important not to live in a constant state of “fight or flight.” If our bodies stay in sympathetic mode all the time, we don’t digest effectively, we don’t rebuild effectively, etc. That means stress management is very important, not only for emotional well-being but also for physical health!
So what are some ways we can manage stress?
- Eliminate things that are stressful. This obviously isn’t always possible, but it’s the obvious first choice when it is. This might involve removing certain things (or people) from your life, or it might just mean making adjustments to remove the stress of a thing. For example, if you’re regularly stressed because you can’t find your keys when it’s time to go to work, you wouldn’t get rid of the keys or the job (usually!); you’d create a consistent storage place for the keys or invest in an electronic tracker to remove the stress of having to scramble to find them.
- Breathe deeply. Doing this as a matter of course is good, but it also really is beneficial to take a few deep, slow breaths when you’re feeling stressed. Essentially, by intentionally acting like your body is in parasympathetic mode, you can actually encourage it to move into parasympathetic mode.
- Laugh! I like to keep a YouTube playlist of funny videos I enjoy. I also have a Pinterest board for funnies, and a folder on my computer for saving similar items.
- Sing. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good. Singing is a joyful thing.
- Play. Most of us grownups are pretty bad at playing; we’re too busy doing serious or “important” things. You might have to make a conscious effort to put some play back in your life.
- Another thing my children and I have done is create “joy journals.” These are basically scrapbooks of things that make us smile. It might be a cheerful image torn out of a magazine, a note jotted down of something complimentary that was said about us or something funny a little one said, a favorite joke. There’s no right or wrong, as long as everything in the book is something that brings a smile to your face.
- “Fake it ’til you make it.” You might be noticing a trend here. Acting peaceful or happy and feeling peaceful or happy are kind of a circular thing. Feeling these things will generally make you act that way, but acting that way can also often make you feel them. So consciously choosing to smile, laugh, sing, breathe deeply, etc. can effect your mood.
You can also often “trick” your body by embracing emotions that don’t immediately seem to fit the moment. Even if you have to stop and imagine/remember a situation where it did make obvious sense to be happy or calm, “remembering”/recapturing that feeling for a few moments can “reset” your actual emotions. (If this sounds too weird, just consider how your body responds when you’re reading a book or watching a movie. The body treats imagined situations much as it does real ones. Wouldn’t you rather harness that to keep your body on an even keel than allow it to use worries to “feel” problems that aren’t even here?)
- Journal. This can be a good means of “venting” what needs to be vented (without directing it at anyone else!), enabling us to set it aside. It can also help us to work through things and find solutions. For some people, it’s also a form of play.