‘Tis the season of stress and we’re all feeling it.
We’re often told that in order to reduce stress, we need to consume less alcohol, eat healthier foods, sleep at least 8 hours per night, and exercise regularly. While these are excellent ideas, they’re difficult habits to form in the best of times – attempting them now is almost guaranteed to fail, which will only add guilt and shame to your stress cocktail.
For this reason, I’m going to share some instant gratification stress reducing techniques you can use to reduce your stress right away (within 24 hours).
These techniques aren’t mine, they belong to my husband. Steve isn’t someone who’s easily stressed out, so when he does feel stress, it hits him hard. His stress symptoms are often physiological:
- tightness in the chest
- waking up in the middle of the night (4am ish) and unable to fall back asleep because he can’t turn his brain off (thinking about work*)
- difficulty taking in a deep breath (not COVID)
Steve’s symptoms had gotten so bad that he went to see our family doctor. Our doctor was utterly useless, recommending medication only. She didn’t even bother with the lecture about getting more sleep and exercise. Steve didn’t want to take any pills, preferring instead to self-medicate with wine, so he decided to home-remedy his way to a Zen-like state. Ok, well not quite Zen, but he did manage to almost completely eliminate his stress symptoms. Here’s how he did it:
STEVE’S SIX (6) SUCCESSFUL STRESS-REDUCING STRATEGIES
1. Switch (partially) to decaf
If you do nothing else on this list, please try switching (partially) to decaf, especially if you’re a coffee lover like we are. For us, drinking less coffee was not an option – we love the ritual of it too much. Instead, we started buying high quality decaf coffee beans (Dark Horse and Pilot have great decaf options, plus they deliver).
Now, we make half of a pot of regular caffeinated coffee (instead of a full pot) followed by a half pot of decaf. This way, we’re able to drink the same amount of coffee but with only half the caffeine. Making this one change got rid of Steve’s chest pains and helped him sleep through the night almost immediately. After two days, his symptoms were almost 100% gone.
How are we sure this worked? We ran out of decaf two weeks ago and started drinking a full pot of regular caffeinated coffee again. After a few days, Steve’s chest pains and sleeping troubles returned. We went back to partial decaf last week ,and Steve-o is better again.
2. Hijakck Nelly’s Meditations
Meditation is just sitting and breathing. That’s it. I’ve been using the HeadSpace app to mediate regularly for over two years – it helps me focus better (be more productive at work) and be less reactive (snap less often at Steve).
Steve doesn’t have a regular mediation habit, but when he’s stressed, he loves to hijack mine. When he hears the soothing voice of Andy (my British HeadSpace guy) coming from my iPhone speakers, Steve comes running. He plops himself next to me on the sofa and starts following Andy’s instructions.
It’s smart. Steve doesn’t have to use his own mental energy to schedule time to mediate, he just piggy-backs off of my already-established good habit.
How does meditation reduce Steve’s stress? Since Steve feels stress in his body, breathing slowly calms his nervous system, which, in turn, makes him feel calm. It works best when he hijacks my meditation in the morning before he starts his workday.
Instead of meditating, you could use a technique called square breathing, which I used in law school when I woke up thinking I was having a heart attack. I was so scared I almost made Steve take me to the hospital. It turned out to be a panic attack (how was I supposed to know?). Square breathing (which Steve’s suggested I try) fixed it. We both still use square breathing on occasion when we’re super stressed and need to calm down quickly (before a meeting, a presentation, or a social situation).
3. Focus on the “other”
This is a strategy that is often suggested for those battling depression but works equally well as a stress reducing technique. Focusing on the “other” means focusing on making someone else happy. For Steve, this means making our dog, Franklin, happy by taking him for a walk. Focusing on someone else’s happiness (even if that ‘someone else’ is a family pet) gets us out of our own heads and boosts our happiness. Talking Franklin for a walk has an added layer of benefit for Steve because it gets him outside. Steve’s been working from home for years (way before COVID) so he’s prone to getting house-sick. Going outside and breathing fresh air always makes him feel better.
4. Bedtime routines
Instead of increasing sleep duration, Steve focused on increasing his quality. Under normal circumstances, Steve’s happy to fall asleep on our uncomfortable and too-small living room sofa while watching TV, only to wake up after midnight with kink in his neck and having to switch locations from the sofa to the bed. This doesn’t result in the best night’s sleep, so during stressful times, he incorporates a couple bedtime routines to help him fall asleep faster and stay asleep.
Reading before bed. Instead of watching just 1 more episode of something in the living room, Steve started reading in bed instead. Sometimes he reads a book but more often he reads articles saved to his Pocket app on his Kobo.
Listening to sleep cast (HeadSpace): Sleep casts are basically bedtime stories. We use HeadSpace since I’m already subscribed to it but there are lots of free ones available. They’re 45 minutes long and begin with a wind-down breathing exercise before telling us a story. My favourites are called Slow Train and Lazy Lagoon. Steve’s usually snoring before the story starts.
5. Recharge your batteries on weekends
Do at least one purely fun thing on the weekend. For Steve, this means car rides together in the country, taking Franklin to a dog park and watching him play, or going on a nature walk together. Instead of filling our weekends with things we SHOULD do, we prioritize the things we WANT to do. Everything else is scheduled around the fun stuff. Sure, this means our house is often messy, the leaves are not raked, and that we might need to buy a pre-cooked chicken from the grocery store instead of making dinner ourselves, but that’s the price we’re willing to pay for rest and recovery time.
6. Lastly, self-medicate with the good stuff, without guilt
Steve’s ideal way to spend an evening after a stressful workday is to open a good bottle of wine, order pizza, and watch documentaries (often boring historical ones). The most important thing about this melange of activities is NO GUILT. There’s no point indulging in anything if it’s laced with guilt or paired with self-loathing. Steve makes sure to enjoy every drop, bite, and minute of his luxurious after-work time.
I’m also very careful to be supportive in these moments. Sometimes when Steve says “I want pizza”, he’s hoping I’ll talk him out of it. Other times (like during his season of stress) he’s seeking approval. My response to his pizza comment is always “Do you want me to be supportive – yes or no?” If he says “Yes”, he gets the full supportive treatment. No guilt. Ever.
Sure, this isn’t a strategy to be used every single day and without trying any other stress-reducing measures. But if we’re being honest, Steve isn’t the only one who numbs a bad day with food and booze. Our philosophy is: if you’re gonna do it, you should enjoy it.
Give ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ the night off so that you can look back on your pizza party fondly, instead of with remorse.
Give these a try (especially the decaf trick!) and see how they work for you. Life is only going to get more stressful as we approach the holiday season. Having as many tools as possible in the toolkit to combat stress is important, both for you and your loved ones.
Please share your stress-coping tactics with me – I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter (@nellymosstag).
If you’ve found this post useful, please consider sharing it with a friend.
Until next time, stay safe and healthy,
*Steve’s stress is obviously not marriage-related because his wife is perfect. His stress is work-related. Steve loves his job and is getting to work with some great people (I know because I hear him on calls all day – they’re so damn fun and smart that I wish they were my co-workers). But his days are long (he works in three different time zones, starting in Europe in the early mornings and ending in California). He’s doing 3-4 different jobs, all of which he loves but requires a lot of very fast context switching which is mentally exhausting. And, he has way more responsibility than he’s ever had before. All good things, but still stressful.