For so many of us, stress is the 100-pound backpack that we carry around with us every day. It weighs us down. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. And gosh, take a look inside and you’ll see a lot of stuff swirling around in our stress packs. While there’s no way to eliminate stress (and in fact, stress isn’t all bad; it shows that things matter), it is true that negative effects of stress can wreak havoc on our bodies—and have a negative impact on our health.
One of the most important things you can do to counter-balance the effects of stress is to practice self-care, even if it’s just for a few minutes when you can.
I often remind myself that self-care isn’t selfish. It’s a way of caring for and improving your mental health, which encompasses your psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing. If you can prioritize your happiness, research shows that you’ll have the ability to be more productive at work or school, build stronger relationships, and be more open to dealing with change and our daily stressors.
For many years now, I have been on a journey to guide others in making health-conscious decisions while also improving my own. And I believe the foundation for self-care comes down to two things: sleeping and talking.
- Sleep is the time when your body is working to maintain a healthy brain function in addition to preserving your physical health. We’ve all been there—whether you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or just getting good-quality sleep, you’re among the 84 million adults in the United States who are sleep deprived. I was, too. For me, it started when I was a teenager. I struggled to fall asleep at night and then I had a hard time waking up in the morning for school. If you’re sleep deprived, you may have trouble making decisions, controlling your emotions and dealing with change, which are all (not-so-coincidentally) symptoms of stress. Additionally, sleep deficiency increases your risk of obesity, negatively impacts fertility, weakens your immune system, and disrupts autophagy. I’ve mentioned the powerful autophagy process many times before, but as expected, this cellular cleansing cleanup crew in our bodies is deprived when we aren’t getting enough quality sleep. Autophagy is activated when we sleep. Since we are not eating when we sleep, our body isn’t receiving nutrients to initiate autophagy. During sleep, autophagy removes the junk and repairs the damage in our cells. It’s recommended that we tailor our sleep accordingly to get back in sync with our cellular cleansing cleanup crew so that we wake rested and rejuvenated. The crucial connection between autophagy and sleep is our circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is our body’s natural timekeeping system that regulates sleep and wakefulness—along with body temperature and hormonal changes—through one-day cycles. The goal is to synchronize your sleep and autophagy to help boost energy and maintain processes essential to our well-being. For me, less can be more—while I use to aim for eight hours, I now sleep a maximum of seven and a half hours per night. But I actually sleep, and wake rested and energized.
- Just as important: Talking. Having someone who can listen to your thoughts and feelings, whether it’s a family member, a friend, a support group or a therapist can be highly beneficial. This engagement and connection are crucial for helping reduce stress and improving your mental health.
These are some of my favorite quick switches—little things you can do for a minute here or a minute there to make sure you remind yourself that you can come first, too.
Switch from this: Scrolling the news
To this: A short meditation
There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with the news or your updates from friends and family, but your life shouldn’t be overwhelmed by how many times you can swipe up and down on your phone. Checking our phones have become such a habit that it’s now the default state for so many—whether you’re standing in line or sitting down at home.
Once a day, make a conscious effort to forego the phone check for a few minutes of meditation. In my life, I’ve found that this easy practice has helped to clear my mind and improve my performance throughout the day. I start each day with a short meditation. The primary goal of meditation is to learn to be present and calm. Meditation has been shown to improve sleep, as well as lower blood pressure and stress. If you’re in a crunch for time, even five minutes of meditation can set you on the right track. Try doing it in the early morning, when your blood pressure and stress hormones are at its highest. I suggest going to a calm, quiet place where you can sit, close your eyes and breathe in a relaxed way. That’s it. Try to focus on one word or phrase over and over. This is called a “calming focus.” You can use a breath, a sound (“om”), a short prayer, a positive word (“peace”), or a phrase (“I am relaxed”).
The first several times you do this, your mind may wander and you’ll want to redirect yourself to the present. Simply take a deep breath or say to yourself “thinking, thinking” to gently return your attention to your chosen focus. But as you meditate regularly you will learn to simply be. Start by meditating for just a few minutes; you can build up to five to 10 minutes if you like. Once this becomes a habit, you will find that you feel recharged and ready to tackle the rest of your day.
Switch from this: Dwelling on the negatives
To this: Reflecting on the positives
When you’re feeling stressed, all you may see are the things that have gone wrong. In order to go back to feeling positive and motivated, you need to think about all the things that have gone right. Before going to bed at night, take a few moments to write down the three best things that happened that day. These things can be something as small as getting an extra 15 minutes of sleep or having a nice lunch break at work. The more you start recalling the good moments, the more you will realize how blessed you truly are.
Switch from this: Always feeling like you have to go to the gym
To this: Stretch, dance, and move around your home
I love going to the gym—and all the benefits that come from regular exercise. But at times that can also be a stressor too—another thing on your to-do list. Sometimes it’s ok to skip the regular routines and just integrate purposeful movement throughout your day.
If you’re stressed, chances are your muscles will be tight and aggravated. Stretching is powerful as it relieves tension, both from your body and from your mind, by loosening tight muscles, increasing blood flow, and allowing the release of endorphins. Endorphins, as you may know, are hormones secreted by the brain that allows us to deal with pain and stress. I recommend that you stretch for as little as three to five minutes a day to keep you limber and your mind strong. Additionally, if you do it before bedtime it may actually help you fall asleep faster.
If you need more of an upbeat pick-me-up, crank up your favorite song and dance. Your brain will secrete endorphins to help put you in a better mood. Additionally, the combination of music and movement can work wonders on your energy levels and may allow you to tackle the rest of the day.
Switch from this: Going to bed tense
To this: Treating yourself to a self-massage or facial
Grab a bottle of lotion or cream and take five minutes to massage your face or your hands. This will feel amazing as the brain releases feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin that relieves muscle tension and increases blood flow to the skin. You can also get a foam roller to massage your legs and back, which can help to get out those pesky knots.
Switch from this: Always feeling like you have to do something productive
To this: Embracing your inner child
We can truly learn from children when it comes to being happy and carefree, and part of their playfulness comes from their vivid imagination and creative thinking. I suggest doing something that a child would do for fun; this could be coloring in a coloring book, drawing, reading some fiction, or even playing dress up. Loosening up by doing something that requires a bit of fantastical thinking, even if just for five minutes, can be the bit of fun you need to help give you a pick-me-up when you need it the most.