This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on January 16, 2019 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine
Question: I recently had a health scare. While I am okay, my doctor has urged me to take better care of myself, in particular, carving out time for reducing stress. I have been successful in making some changes to diet and increasing my exercise but I really struggle with finding ways to relax and unwind. I’m not the bubble bath taking or knitting type. I think a lot of people struggle with this so I hope my question is helpful to others as well: What activities can help me reduce stress?
I am glad you are okay. Stress is a killer, and we all need to realize the immediate and lifelong need to take better care of ourselves. You are already making positive changes and I hope that you keep moving forward with making diet and exercise changes. Small changes can lead to big improvement if you resolve to make it important.
Stress can be self-induced or can have external causes. Self-induced stress can come from negative self-talk and unrealistic expectations. To illustrate this, think of a picture you may have in your head about how your day/life should be going. When our reality doesn’t match that picture, we have stress. External stress can be caused by others, events or circumstances for which we have little or no control. During external stress, self-care is very important. Take some time to understand where your stress originates. Understanding this can lead you to ways to manage it. Here are some ways to reduce or manage stress for both mind and body:
Vigorous vs calming activities: Instead of bubble baths and knitting, how about tennis, biking or boxing (weather permitting, of course)?
Take mini breath breaks—Do this while sitting at a stop light, while waiting for the microwave to finish, or while having a quiet moment. Relax your shoulders, and take in your breath deep into your diaphragm, three times or more. Be careful that you are breathing deeply and slowly (causing your belly to move in and out); not at the top of your lungs. These two ways of breathing stimulate the nervous system in different ways, and breathing low in your diaphragm triggers a relaxation response. Explore meditation skills to reduce stress. There are several helpful online resources.
Narrow your focus– If stressful events/tasks have you feeling anxious or worried, switch your focus to the here and now. Here is an exercise to help illustrate this: If you are drinking a coffee or tea, stop for a moment and feel the warmth of the mug in your hand. Stop and recognize the aroma and the taste on your tongue. Breathe in deeply and take a moment of gratitude for the pleasure it brings. Spending time being mindful of your coffee is so much better than suddenly finding it gone.
Get grounded—Grounding techniques can be helpful when things feel particularly out of control. Stop and notice parts of your body that touch the chair, the floor. Listen to the world around you and think about what you notice. This is called “grounding” and can be incredibly calming.
Manage expectations and perfectionism—Work on accepting that you will never be perfect, or do things perfectly or have a perfect family; these expectations of yourself and others are not worth the risk of adding lethal stress to your life. A good book is When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough by Martin M. Antony, PhD and Richard P. Swanson, MD. Talking with a counselor can also help you with this.
Schedule self-care – Your doctor asked you to “carve out time” to reduce stress. You may have to schedule it. I have co-workers who use their 10-minute breaks to walk the parking lot for exercise and a social connection. We reduce stress by briefly escaping or by talking about it with someone who can help us process it. Lastly, many of us wear many hats and are really good at taking care of others. This “health scare” is a signal it is time to care for YOU.
Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”