Thankfully we don’t have to wait till we’re completely burned out to manage the stress in our lives. The best approach to managing inevitable stresses is to make it part of your daily routine, rather than waiting till you’re completely overloaded. It’s much easier to deal with stress when you’re not completely stressed out!
For most of us, there are predictable times that we experience stress. For example, the morning rush is often a crunch time, as we get ourselves (and perhaps our kids) ready for the day. When our kids were young, I found their bedtime routine to be a consistent challenge and was often maxed out by the end of the night.
Since stress is somewhat predictable, we can make stress reduction predictable, too. Plan to do calming activities at specific times each day, and do additional practices as needed when your stress level starts to spike. And perhaps most important of all—keep the practices short and simple. Stress management shouldn’t be stressful.
Here are some suggestions for how to build stress management into your daily routine, including six quick and effective exercises.
Waking up can be a stressful experience. Stress hormones like cortisol are peaking at this time to prepare us for the day’s challenges, and our thoughts often start to race to all the things we need to do.
Use the early morning as a time to get grounded and reconnect with yourself. Spending even a few seconds with calming breaths can set you up for a more centered start to your day.
I Am Here (1 minute): Close your eyes and turn your attention to the breath as it moves in and out of your body. As you breathe in, think to yourself, “I am.” As you exhale, think, “Here.” Repeat this cycle a few times as you breathe: “I am … here. I am … here.”
Notice how your body and mind respond to this simple statement.
By this time you’ll have jumped into your tasks for the day, whether childcare, a job, or classes. You might still feel fresh and energetic, and it’s harder to recognize the stress that has started to accumulate in your mind and body. Take a brief pause to shake off the stress so far, even if you’re not sure you need to.
Breath Minute (1 minute): Set a one-minute timer. Take even, calming breaths, really slowing down the exhalations, for one minute. Count how many breaths you take during that minute. Whatever number you count to is your breath number—for example, my one-minute breath number is seven. Whenever you feel stressed during the day, pause and take that number of slow, calming breaths. It will take about a minute, and you won’t need a timer. Notice if the mind starts to settle simply by returning to the breath.
Mealtimes are an opportunity to engage the “rest-and-digest” part of our nervous system, which calms us down and helps to clear stress hormones from our system. When I was ignoring stress management in my own life, my lunches were an additional source of stress. I always worked on my computer as I ate alone at my desk. I hated the idea of “wasting” my lunchtime by not working.
Our energy tends to flag by the middle of the afternoon, and it may become more difficult to deal with challenges. Tension can build up in the body, which the brain interprets as additional stress. Spend a couple of minutes letting go of physical tension in mid- to late-afternoon. When you deliberately release physical tension, you engage the calming part of your nervous system, which in turn soothes your mind and emotions, preparing you for a more peaceful evening ahead.
Muscle Relaxation (2 minutes): Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Take three calming breaths, exhaling for a count of five. Squeeze your hands into fists, hold for a moment, then completely let go of the tension in your hands. Take three more calming breaths. Now shrug your shoulders up toward your ears, creating tension, and then let your shoulders relax. End with three more slow breaths. Notice how you feel now.
Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of managing stress and anxiety. As you move toward bedtime, practice letting go of the stress and tension you’ve experienced throughout the day. Use a winding down routine to prepare yourself for sleep in the 30 to 60 minutes before bed. Unplug from technology and do relaxing activities like reading, light stretching, or enjoying a cup of tea.
Our minds are good at obsessing about things that went wrong during the day or worrying about unresolved problems. These mental habits can lead to stress and anxiety that get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
Try focusing instead on things that went well that day, including things you’re grateful for. You don’t have to try to force yourself to feel grateful—just notice the good things in your life (including a bed to sleep in!). This practice can set the tone for how you feel not only as you drift off to sleep but for when you wake up in the morning.
Thank you, Good Night (3 minutes): Place a pen and paper at your bedside so they’ll be there when you go to bed tonight. Just before you turn off the light to sleep, write down three things you’re grateful for about your day. Your gratitude list might include the people you love, daily experiences (like the food you eat), something you did well today, or whatever you like. Allow what you write to fill your mind as you turn off the light and go to sleep.