Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash
From Jacqueline Hargrove, Ph.D.
Some stress is part of everyone’s life. But there are times when the daily demands of the job or school, the complications of home life, the pressure of living in the New York metropolitan area, and the state of the world, especially with the ongoing pandemic, can combine to leave you feeling physically and emotionally overwhelmed. In these moments, you may notice your heart rate rising or your breathing becoming heavier, or find you are lacking energy or a sense of enthusiasm or confidence.
You know you need to do something. But what?
In this Q&A, Jacqueline Hargrove, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says you can start by separating “stressors,” those things like work, planning a wedding, or having a child, from stress, which is your body’s response to these stressors. Once you do that, she offers five tips on how to improve your mindset and increase your flexibility so you can begin to improve how you manage stress and get unstuck from cycles of chronic stress even while the stressors of life persist.
The best way to deal with the stress is to do things that are physical. That helps breakdown those hormones that increase our heart rate and our breathing and get us ready for action. This can be a whole host of different things. Anything that literally just gets your heart rate going, or breathing deeply is fair game. Physical activity helps your body reach a calmer state. A lot of folks may not like going to the gym or going for a run. So you can do a Zumba class at home, or yoga. Or just focus on deep breathing or breathing exercises.
Alternatively, you can connect with other people and soak up some physical affection. If you’ve ever come home from work and been greeted warmly by your partner, or even a pet, you know how that can be comforting and stress reducing. Even laughing and crying can be helpful, as many may know from having a good cry or experiencing a deep belly laugh. Afterwards, you feel better, because it’s a physical process and helps us actually release some of that stress and tension that can stay stuck in our bodies.
Figure out what you can control and what you can’t
A lot of the stressors are out of our control. So it’s important to understand if something that is stressing you out is something you have some control over, and can problem solve, or not. If there is something, even a small thing, that you can do and is in your control that will help reduce or eliminate the stressor then absolutely do it. However, if it’s something that’s more chronic or something that you don’t necessarily have control over, try to see what meaning you can gain from the experience. Many of life’s most important transitions, such as that first job or first child, come with stress. But often it is the positive meaning we tend to associate with these events that can help us mitigate the stress associated with them. However, let’s say you may be facing a situation at work that’s challenging. Or in a relationship where you feel your needs aren’t being met. Sometimes just shifting our expectations can actually reduce stress because then we aren’t fighting with what we are expecting of other people or things we can’t control. Overall, it’s important to remember that stress, not chronic stress, is a part of life and learning to roll with and make meaning of these challenges is part of the journey.
Take stock of your environment and surroundings. It’s not necessarily all on you
Try to contextualize your stress. What I mean by that is, sometimes we can think we have a personal failing because we’re so stressed out. But if we just take a minute to step back, we realize there’s so much going on in our lives. Being in a global pandemic right now is stressful, being a parent right now is an added level of stress. Navigating your life as a person of color or an immigrant or a member of the LGBTQ community has its own stress due to discrimination or systemic barriers that are unjustly imposed on these communities. There are so many ways in which our identities can contribute to the stress that we experience. In this way, it can help to acknowledge how our identities and the environment we are in play a role in the day-to-day stress we experience. This can help us not be so self critical and can also help us identify ways to manage that stress and find empowering ways to deal with the stressors.
In the United States, there is a common narrative that centers around always needing to be productive, and that is a culture that is ripe for stress. Productivity can simply mean intentionally working toward a meaningful goal. So let’s say your goal is mental health and well-being, then rest can be a really productive thing that you’re doing in line with that goal. Making time for yourself can therefore be productive. Also, capitalize on idle time. This can include choosing to not do anything during those five minutes in between meetings. Or if you take public transit during your commute, maybe intentionally getting off one stop earlier and extending your walk home. Finding time when you don’t need to be engaging with your day-to-day stressors can be really important.
Learn to say no
Learn to say no to things and learn to set boundaries. A lot of our stress can come from sometimes feeling like we have to say yes, or put more and more on our plate, when it actually isn’t in our own best interest. So if you’re saying yes to things, and you have the ability to say no, you can ask yourself: Is this benefitting me? Does engaging in this activity help me feel energized and excited? Or does it end up making me feel depleted and resentful? Take time to listen to your body, set some boundaries, and find some time to relax and restore.