Tag Archives: stress management

Slowing Down

Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 9.11.17 AM.png

freeimages.com/wutd

Last week while I was organizing our closets in an effort to make a little extra room for baby items, I was struck very suddenly by an overwhelming, full-body exhaustion. I felt that if I didn’t immediately stop what I was doing to take a short nap, I would surely pass out right where I stood and fall into the kind of deep, comatose sleep usually reserved for Disney princesses and fairytale characters. I only needed about 20 minutes of rest to feel like myself again, but the whole experience left me a bit unsettled. The following day, I was out walking the dog when I was hit by a wave of dizziness that nearly knocked me off my feet. Everything around me started to blur and spin, and I had to stop and prop myself against a tree for a few minutes because I was genuinely worried that I was going to faint. Once I was sure I could move safely, we slowly made our way back home and eating a little food helped the feeling pass for the most part, but I felt uncomfortable and off for the rest of the day.

I have been moving at top speed for a couple of months now. I am trying to fit in as many massage appointments as I can physically stand while I can still physically stand. I have doctors appointments and birth classes filling up my otherwise free hours. There’s so much to organize and clean, and prepare for. That nesting instinct that everyone talks about is strong in me, and I feel an insatiable urge to get as much done as quickly as possible, while fully acknowledging that being woefully unprepared for a baby’s arrival is pretty much inevitable. I feel like I am forgetting things, so I’m constantly double checking all of my work, being sure I actually did reply to that email I meant to respond to, or that I went through with ordering a Christmas gift rather than just thinking about ordering it. Add holiday preparations to the top of the pile of all the other stuff I have going on, and well, it starts to make a bit more sense that I suddenly found myself running head-on into a wall of exhaustion.

I need to slow down a bit. Not only for my own health and sanity, but as practice for the months and years to come. In two months, there’s going to be a baby in my house and I know that while my husband and I may struggle to get through those early weeks and months, we’ll also want to savor them, to be more fully present for both each other and the tiny human that will rely on us for its most basic survival.

I am not the only one that needs to pump the brakes this time of year. So many of my clients are coming in complaining of high stress and lack of sleep. Everyone is trying to push through and finish off just a couple more tasks, or a few more assignments before they get a break for the holidays. There are things that need to be wrapped up by the end of the year. There are upcoming cross-country flights that they haven’t packed for yet. There are gifts to be purchased. Appointments to squeeze in. Activities and responsibilities that were designated as specifically 2016 concerns, and only a week left to tackle them. Everyone seems to be telling themselves the same things I keep repeating to myself: just make it through this week and then you can relax. Just finish off these one or two things, plus those two or three over there, and you can start the new year with nothing on your plate and all the free time in the world.

It’s time to take a step back and realize that not everything needs to be accomplished, at least not right at this moment. When you really evaluate your life, you’re likely to find that only a few things have very specific due dates, and that we tend to create a false sense of urgency for everything else. Take a moment to prioritize the items on your to-do list. Pick a few that really must get done by a certain date or time, and put your energy into those. Write the rest down so that you don’t forget about them permanently, and then put the list away and try to release those items from your mind. You’ll get to them in time. If they don’t require immediate action, they don’t need to be draining your mental and emotional energy right now.

Yesterday, I went over to a friend’s house and spent an hour and a half holding her three-week-old baby. As I drove home afterward, I realized that it was the first time in months that I’ve sat down for that length of time and done nothing without my mind churning and worrying about all the things I should have been doing instead. It was so relaxing just to sit there with this tiny bundle of a boy sleeping in my arms and know that the only thing I needed to do in that moment was be still and let that baby sleep.

As the year winds down and we dive deep into the holidays over the next week, give yourself the gift of stillness. Take a little time to pull back from all of your responsibilities and concerns, and just fully relax in a moment of quiet or leisure. It’s time to let this year go, and rest up for the next one.

Managing Holiday Stress & Moodiness

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 10.15.49 AM.png

freeimages.com/gustavobuesopadgett

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror and the 34th St. holiday lights display up and running just a block down from my studio, it definitely feels like the holiday season is upon us (despite today’s unseasonably warm temperatures).

It’s always the case that my mood plummets a bit right after Thanksgiving. I feel tired and worn down from traveling, and getting back to my regular routine after being off for a while is more of a slog than a welcome return to normality. This year it seems like I am not the only one feeling a little dragged down by the weight of the holidays. Whether it’s the shorter days, the dreary weather that greeted us this week, or just general end-of-year malaise, it seems that everyone I encounter is feeling especially worn out and a bit down in the dumps this week. It’s as if we are all experiencing a little post-holiday letdown before the rest of the season really kicks into high gear.

Every year I am struck by how stressed out everyone feels at a time that is supposed to be all merry and bright. Whether it’s the melancholy and introspection that inevitably accompany the transition to a new year, or simply the weight of expectation that the holiday season brings, it’s a time of mixed emotions, high demands, and all too often is rimmed with a sense of disappointment and sadness.

If  you tend to struggle during the holidays and can’t muster up the appropriate level of good tidings and cheer, first off don’t beat yourself up for that. You’re not alone. The holiday season is rough for a lot of people, and no matter what time of year it is, you’re not required to feel or act any particular way. It’s okay to be a grinch. I think that poor guy was misunderstood and unfairly maligned. You don’t owe anyone joy or cheeriness just because holiday songs and obnoxious commercials tell you it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But you do owe it to yourself to try to make it out of this season without too much damage to your physical, mental and emotional health. Here are a few suggestions for how to reduce your holiday stress and celebrate in a healthy, manageable way.

Avoid holiday overload.

This weekend hosts the lighted boat parade and Fells Point Christmas festival, the Mayor’s Christmas Parade, a bunch of holiday craft markets, and I’m sure a ton of other stuff that doesn’t hit my radar. It’s only the first weekend in December. Between parties, shopping, and festive gatherings of all kinds, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the holiday spirit before the season even has a chance to get cranking. It’s important to remember that with the holidays, as with all things in life, you cannot see and do everything. It’s okay to skip out on some events, or RSVP no to a few party invitations. Pick a couple of key holiday happenings that you’d like to attend, and let the rest fade into the background of tinsel and lights. If you miss something that you really wish you could have gone to, just remember that you’ll have another chance in the years to come. Christmas comes back again each year, no matter how hard Starbucks tries to kill it off with its solid red Satan cups.

Create some solo traditions.

Maybe it’s just me, but one of the hardest things about the holiday season is the forced merriment with large groups of other people. I need my alone time and feel quickly overwhelmed by too much holiday socializing. That doesn’t mean I prefer bah-humbugging it up from my couch and pretending it’s June; I just need some of my holiday happenings to be solo time that let me get into the festive spirit without the necessity of small talk.

I like to make time each week leading up to Christmas Day watching movies that feature, but don’t necessarily focus on, the holiday season. My choices are always movies (or tv episodes) I’ve seen a dozen times, so that I can do other things while watching, like fold laundry, bake, or desperately try to catch up on my end of year filing and finances for my business. It’s a simple nod to the holiday season that allows me to celebrate quietly and peacefully on my own, leaving me recharged and ready for more daunting social celebrations.

Do not listen to Christmas music until at least one week before Christmas.

Why must the radio and every shop you step into have Christmas music blaring away weeks in advance of Christmas? If you find that you are feeling really agitated and ornery, it may be because you’ve just heard Sleigh Ride for the 9 thousandth time. One thing that seems to be sorely missing during the holiday season is blissful silence. Seek out quiet spaces and try to reduce your exposure to the overstimulation of lights and carols, and bells ringing incessantly.

Intentionally do something that has nothing to do with the holidays.

I saw Christmas decorations in stores back in early October. It made me want to scream. The holiday season really does seem to get longer and longer every year. Try setting a specific date for when you wish to acknowledge the holidays and begin celebrating, so that you limit the season to a more manageable, digestible timeline. Or take a break from all the chaos by intentionally ignoring it and focus instead on maintaining activities and routines that you do all year long. Be intentional and mindful in your practice of your regular life to keep the holiday spirit from encroaching upon every part of your daily existence. There’s no rule that says you have to celebrate all month long, or that you have to celebrate at all. Be strong and continually bring your attention back to those activities that help you feel grounded and centered.

Remind yourself that this is only temporary.

The holidays can be really genuinely hard for many people. We are often reminded of people we have lost, find ourselves feeling isolated and lonely, or are forced into difficult family situations that try our patience and zap our emotional energy. Oftentimes, these hardships cannot be ignored and just need to be endured. Give yourself permission to feel sad, frustrated, annoyed. Give yourself permission to experience the season in whatever way is needed for you at this time, and know that you don’t have to make excuses for the benefit of others. “The holidays are hard for me,” is a perfectly valid statement that should require no additional explanation. You don’t have to be cheery for fear of dampening other people’s spirits. Your lack of celebration isn’t keeping anyone else from embracing the season in whatever way works best for them. Remind yourself repeatedly that before long it will be January and the holidays will be behind us. Time actually moves quite quickly, even when we’re feeling trapped and stuck in place. Hang in there, and take care yourself.

On Pushing Away Fear

I am not in the habit of rereading books. When I finish a book,  I tend to move on to a new one and rarely find myself returning to stories no matter how much I loved them the first time around. There are, as is always the case in life, a few exceptions to this rule. Ordinary People was the first “adult” book I ever read way back in fourth grade. The school library copy I was reading landed in a swimming pool when I was on vacation and I was forced to buy it because of the damage. It’s the same copy I still have and I’ve read it countless times since my elementary school days, gently turning the stiff, nearly ruined pages. When I was young, I also read Say Goodnight, Gracie over and over again. It’s an incredibly sad story and I cried every single time I read it. I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more than once because it was assigned reading in a couple of different classes. Same with The Canterbury Tales. And I’ve read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, several times now, even though it was only published four years ago.

Wild is the book I think about most often. It has stuck with me in a way that no other writing has. The wilderness, the solitude, the search for a self that is better and more whole than the person that heartache and self-hatred has forced you to become. I will return to certain passages in this book at moments in my life when I need particular inspiration. The section I go back to most often is one where Strayed writes about fear. As she first sets out for her long journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed describes her mental processing as the full weight of her decision (and of her immensely heavy, overpacked camping backpack) settles on her:

Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into? I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs. So then I tried to simply concentrate on what I heard–my feet thudding against the dry and rocky trail, the brittle leaves and branches of the low-lying bushes I passed clattering in the hot wind–but it could not be done. The clamor of What have I gotten myself into? was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers.

But I wasn’t thinking of them.

It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.

I am in the middle of a major transition in my life. My most significant transition yet. I find myself repeatedly returning to this passage. “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story…” Whenever I am feeling unmoored and anxious about an uncertain future and all of the hiccups, both large and small, that could greet me on my path, I make the conscious decision to tell myself a different story. I remind myself that I am strong, I am brave, I am safe. I tell myself that everything will be okay, because I have the power to deal with whatever comes my way. It is working. In the past few weeks, I haven’t felt even a little anxious about what the future holds for me. I feel confident and capable. I decided not to be afraid, and I no longer am. I am telling myself a different story and allowing that story to guide me.

It has been about a year since I read Wild in its entirety, but I return to this section probably once a month, pulling the book off of the shelf and opening directly to page 51, where the spine is a bit worn and loose from so much use.

Our lives are made up of thousands of little stories we tell ourselves, and that others tell about us. If you are feeling lost, afraid, stuck or unsettled, try evaluating the stories of your life and make the choice to tell a different one. Tell yourself you’re not afraid and perhaps, before you know it, you won’t be anymore.

Guided Meditation App

As I’ve mentioned before, prolonged, self-directed meditation is not really my thing. I have tried it in the past and it just doesn’t work for my personality and mindset. But lately I have been getting increasingly into short guided meditations as a way to reduce my stress and bring a bit of energy to my body and spirit on draining (far too hot) summer days. In the past I have used Youtube to find guided meditation videos, but I recently started using the Stop, Breathe & Think App. It’s a quick and easy way to take a step back from the stress and grind of your daily life and make time for quiet moments of reflection and release.

IMG_1773

The app has a good selection of guided meditations that mostly range from 3-10 minutes in length.

IMG_1771

Each meditation lists the length and the general purpose of the meditation, so that you can choose one that best suits your needs in the moment.

IMG_1774

I like that they are short little practices, because I can fit them in between my appointments when I need to settle my mind, or at the start of my day if I need a bridge between waking up and moving into my daily routine. I have not tried the Falling Asleep meditation yet, but I look forward to testing it out the next time I am struggling to quiet my mind at bedtime.

The app is free to download and offers a lot of information on how meditation and mindfulness work, how best to practice, and what benefits you can expect to experience by incorporating meditation into your regular routine.

IMG_1772

The Stop, Breathe & Think app is available for iPhone and Android devices, and can also be used online instead of via smartphone.

 

(This is not a sponsored post. More Well is in no way affiliated with Stop, Breathe & Think.)

 

Do You Have a Nighttime Routine?

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.33.10 AM.png

freeimages.com/bramhofland

I am not a strong sleeper. I tend to have trouble dozing off. It seems like as soon as my head hits the pillow, a million thoughts flood my mind and I cannot get them to pipe down enough to let me get a little shut eye. Or if I do happen to fall asleep quickly and easily, I wake up every couple of hours, stirred by some little sound, or the need to go to the bathroom. I’ll fall back to sleep again right away, but two hours later, I’m awake again, and the cycle repeats all night long.

I am trying to get better at establishing a regular nightly routine–something that signals to my mind and body that it’s bedtime, and we need to start getting sleepy and stay that way throughout the night.

I’ve started performing the same skin care ritual each night, a slow and methodical routine of washing and moisturizing that is the first step in letting my body know that it is time to wind down. The intentionality of the care and the repetition of the behavior is soothing, and I’ve come to find that it is one of the more relaxing parts of my day.

I also started keeping a notebook next to my bed so that I can jot down any last minute worries or reminders that pop into my mind the second my head hits my pillow. I have found that most of my bedtime thoughts are focused on things I need to remember to do the next day, as if this one last, sleepy reminder will somehow make those thoughts stick in my mind. I wake up in the morning knowing that there’s something I’m supposed to remember to do, but naturally I can never actually remember what it is. Writing those thoughts down not only gets them out of my mind so I can relax and drift off to sleep, but it makes the following morning less stressful too because I’m not searching my brain to remember whatever it was I thought of the night before.

Lastly, once I am in bed, I begin by positioning myself on my back, with a pillow beneath my knees for additional support and comfort. Then I slowly scan my body and try to relax each part of my body from my toes to the crown of my head. I breathe deeply, with slow, full breaths from my abdomen, and try to feel my body relaxing and releasing into the mattress beneath me. My tendency is to sleep on my side at night, but I find this relaxation exercise to be a little easier when I’m on my back. It has been a good way to release the tension of the day, and helps me further shift my mind away from any intrusive thinking that could get in the way of my ability to fall asleep.

This has been my first week with a dedicated focus on implementing this routine, so the jury is still out on whether or not it will make a major difference, but I have found that I awake feeling more refreshed than I have in recent weeks, so that’s definitely a good sign.

Do you follow a specific nighttime routine? Do you have trouble sleeping? You can check out more tips for improving your sleep here.

Summer Reading Suggestions

Although summer doesn’t officially start until June 20th, it’s supposed to be sunny and 90 degrees here in Baltimore this week, so yeah, it’s summertime. My plan for this weekend is to put up the umbrella, kick back in one of our comfy, cushy patio chairs, and get lost for a while in some summer reading. I have lots and lots of book recommendations. If you’re looking for something to read, and don’t know where to start, let me know and I’ll be happy to give you a list of suggestions that will last you all the way through fall. For today, since this is a health and wellness blog, I’m sticking with just a few suggestions from those general categories.

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

41jFVZL72YL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir from a neurosurgery resident who is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. It is a thoughtful and heartbreaking look at terminal illness from a gifted writer who has had to come to terms with death as both a doctor and a patient. For a book that feels like it should be a meditation on dying, Kalanithi instead focuses largely on the choices involved in living, and what it means to be alive when you don’t know how much time you have left. As he points out, we all die someday, and “in the absence of any certainty, we should just assume that we’re going to live a long time. Maybe that’s the only way forward.”

You will cry when you read this, but you will also take a hard look at your life, and be thankful for it: for the struggles, and the joys, and the complexity of existence.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time

by Brigid Schulte

51dhE3VbJcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Overwhelmed is a remarkably well researched and in-depth exploration of stress management, work-life balance, and how we prioritize our time in a society that prides itself on hard work and busyness. Schulte is a journalist and it shows in this book’s investigative approach to understanding how time and leisure are addressed in a variety of cultures and settings.

Schulte explores these topics with a feminist’s mindset, acknowledging that while men increasingly experience a sense of time-crunch and feel overwhelmed, the stress of multiple roles and too many responsibilities still disproportionately affects women. It is an incredibly insightful and eye-opening look at how people manage the often overwhelming demands on their lives, and it offers some optimistic advice on how to reduce your stress and make the most of your time.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story

by Dan Harris

41TFgZuntRL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

After having on-air panic attack, news anchor Dan Harris sets out on a quest to reduce his stress, and find a way to silence the incessant, striving voice in his head that was constantly pushing him to try harder and work more. This is a book about mindfulness and meditation for the mindfulness and meditation cynic. Harris’ journey winds its way through traditional religion, new age self-help solutions, and neuroscience and psychotherapy. Harris writes honestly about his own skepticism, as well as his rejection of a variety of theories and approaches to leading a happier, healthier life.

10% Happier is funny and insightful, and a perfect introduction to the world of meditation for anyone whose first instinct is to roll their eyes when they hear the word mindfulness.

Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget

by Sarah Hepola

51PyxfeBKCL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

I have talked about this book before, but want to give it a second shout out, because I loved it so much. It is an incredibly funny, but honest and heartfelt depiction of alcoholism and addiction.

There are moments that are genuinely moving, or upsetting, but in general if you’re looking for a more lighthearted read about a serious subject, Blackout is the book for you. It’s not just about drinking, but about growing up, figuring out who you are, and managing the ups and downs of a rapidly changing life.

Hepola writes with so much humor and openness that you can’t help but feel like you really know her, and wish you could spend more time with her. This is a rare memoir that I would go back and read over again.

Hepola did an interview about Blackout last year for Fresh Air. You can read notes from that interview here.

 

Would You Try Time Tracking?

A few weekends back, I was sitting at my dining room table, a cup of coffee in hand and the Sunday paper spread out in front me. I was lamenting the busy day I had ahead of me, and how I had just wrapped up a really busy week and wished that I could just sit at home all day, instead of heading in to my studio to work with the four clients I had scheduled. I only had about 30 minutes before I needed to be out the door, and I still hadn’t changed out of my bathrobe. With only enough time to read one article, I settled on a piece in the Sunday Review titled “The Busy Person’s Lies.”

In the article, Laura Vanderkam relays her experience of closely tracking and charting how she was spending her time to determine if she was really as busy as she felt she was, as busy as we all claim to be.

“[P]rofessionals tend to overestimate work hours; we remember our busiest weeks as typical. This is partly because negative experiences stand out in the mind more than positive ones, and partly because we all like to see ourselves as hard-working. One study from the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review found that people estimating 75-plus hour workweeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours. I once had a young man tell me he was working 180-hours a week — impossible, considering the fact that this is 12 more hours than a week contains — but he felt tired and overworked, as we all sometimes do, and chose a high number to quantify this feeling,” Vanderkam explains.

In tracking her own time, she notes the following:

If I wanted to construct a narrative of craziness, the sort professional women in particular tell one another as we compete in the Misery Olympics, I had moments that would qualify. I pumped breast milk in Amtrak bathrooms. I was up from 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. with the baby one night before getting on an early flight to Tampa, Fla., where I was giving a speech. I logged hours doing laundry — sheets, blankets, pillows — as a brutal stomach bug worked its way through the gastrointestinal tracts of all four children. To catch up, I worked late at night. I worked on weekends. I worked on vacations.

These data points exist, but there was plenty of evidence of a calmer life. I got eight massages. I went for long weekend runs (constituting some of the 232.75 hours I spent exercising). I went out to dinner with friends. I spent evenings after the kids went to bed sitting out on the porch, reading fashion or gossip magazines. (My reading total: 327 hours flat. It could have been “War and Peace.” It wasn’t.)

…There are 168 hours in a week. If I worked 37.40 and slept 51.81, this left 78.79 hours for other things. This is a lot of space. Even if I felt I was constantly packing lunches, I spent a mere 9.09 hours weekly on housework and errands. There was some driving around — 7.84 hours a week — but there was also time for singing karaoke twice, picking strawberries, peaches and apples and even two solo beach days for me: one on the Atlantic, one on the Pacific. My life wasn’t just train-car-bathroom pumping.

Reading this article at a moment when I was trying to scarf down every small bit of free time on what felt like a very busy day was a bit of revelation. I am not that busy. I know this to be true. I look at other people’s lives, my husband’s life for that matter, and I know that I have it really good. There is a lot of time available for me to relax and pursue the activities that make me feel happy and carefree. And yet, I still feel really busy. Perhaps it’s because I spend a lot of time thinking about work. Or maybe it’s because in the midst of all my free time, I am responding to appointment requests, or following up on client emails, so it tends to feel a little bit like I am working every day of the week, that I am perpetually in work-mode.

For me, I don’t think the problem is needing to prove that I have space in what seems like a busy life, but rather a need overhaul how I conceptualize my time. To reset my thinking, it may be worth the effort to track my time for a few weeks to see exactly how often I am dealing with work concerns, and what other activities are most likely to be interrupted by the need to address a work issue.

Based on Vanderkam’s article, it sounds like we could all use a bit of a reality check, and to take a moment to reevaluate how we think about the daily experiences of our lives. Would you ever try time tracking? If so, you can read more about Vanderkam’s method and how to keep track of your time here.