Monday, May 17, 2010

Reflection: Reducing Stress

I recently went to a wonderful talk on mindfulness and stress reduction that was hosted at my workplace. The speaker, Rezvan Ameli, gave us some simple, useful strategies for becoming mindful and aware of our own thoughts and actions.

Afterwards, I started thinking about the ways in which I try to reduce stress in my own life. I do not pretend to be an expert on dealing with stress, and in fact, there are many times still in my life when I feel overwhelmed with stress. It is odd to think sometimes that my life could be stressful - I have a great job now, wonderful friends and family, and a lot of other positive things to be thankful for. Yet, it is important to realize that stress comes to everyone, no matter their situation in life. No one is more "worthy" of stress than others.

I think in recent years, I have become much better at managing daily stress. In the past, I was much less adept at dealing with stress. I might have become very upset at something almost daily, whereas now it is limited to once or twice a month. I wondered, what are some of the ways I have now for dealing with stress?

1) Having a regular sleep-wake schedule. I have an 8-hour a day, Monday-Friday job, and for me, this is pretty much the best schedule that I could have. I am no longer staying up extremely late night after night. Having the motivation to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time has really evened out my stress levels. It has also significantly decreased the amount of napping that I do. I used to fall asleep during class consistently (I suspect this was a conditioned response after awhile). While it still happens from time to time, it has decreased from every single time to once every now and then.  

2) Reducing being around people who stressed me out. In the past, I spent a lot of time around people that made me feel stressed out. It wasn't their "fault," but the situation would stress ME out. Now that I am more independent in the world, I can choose better who I wish to spend time with and who I don't. Instead I put my energy towards the relationships that matter. I also don't try to have social activities going on ALL the time anymore - it is OK if I see a good friend just every once in awhile. I don't think that "avoiding" a situation is necessarily helpful, though. I think there is a big difference between pro-actively choosing not to be in a bad situation that cannot be improved, and passively just trying to avoid a situation that could be improved or learned better. 

3) Listening to/reading something before I go to sleep. A lot of times it is really hard for me to go to sleep. Something that actually helps a lot is to listen to a not-terribly-engaging podcast. I often listen to NPR's "Car Talk" because it is mildly amusing and each segment is only about 3 minutes long. This means that I can't get too involved in it. I usually am out within about 10 minutes. (Don't worry...I don't listen to it in my car!) 

4) Writing out to-do lists on paper. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed from the idea that there are multiple priorities in my head. Writing them down lessens the cognitive burden. If it still seems too much, I break it down into smaller tasks.

5) Taking a moment to be "mindful". This was talked about in the lecture, and it's something I do from time to time as well. If something happens, I can either "react" or I can "pause and respond." That is, I can either do something automatically, or I can stop and think, "is this really how I want to deal with this situation?" Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is yes. But either way, by observing my own reactions, I know that I have thought about it. 

6) Making things. This is anything from making a nice dinner, refinishing a bookcase, making a sweater, sewing a skirt, etc. I just like to have projects to keep busy, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of creating beautiful things from ordinary supplies. 

7) Biking. It does not require a lot of hand-eye coordination, keeping score, or special equipment (other than a bike and a helmet). I like to challenge myself to go further or steeper than I have before. The other day, I biked up 2 hills that previously were too steep for me. What a great feeling it was to conquer those hills.

8) Mindful breathing and listening. Again, this is something discussed in the lecture that I wanted to share. All it takes is taking a moment out of the day to close your eyes, breathe in deeply and breathe out deeply. I think mindfulness can be applied to other activities as well. It is too easy to just go about life on autopilot or to multitask. It can be done with things as simple as eating dinner. I like to just turn off the TV or laptop and just really pay attention to what I am eating. 

9) Keeping my house clean. I noticed the other week that I was feeling stressed out immediately upon entering my apartment. Laundry was still hanging up to dry everywhere, my bike wasn't put away, and dishes were still on the counter. I figured I just needed to put stuff away. I actually felt a lot calmer when I was done, and also the next day when I got home. 

10) Thinking about the big picture. Being stressed out happens easily if I'm worried about the future and what "might" happen. However, all that stuff is just imaginary and hypothetical.  I try to think about how it's going to work out just fine. I know that in a month, week, or year, it will be worked out, and I might even laugh about it.

I'll stop there at 10, even though it's a bit formulaic.
What are some ways that you guys find effective for dealing with stress? What has or hasn't worked for you? 


Em! said...

#8 in your list has become the most effective for me. Meditation for 30 minutes daily. I also realized how hard it is to really not think about the past and future. So rarely do we think about our present moment.

Sounds like it was a great lecture!

Nanda said...

What a great post to read after a hectic and stressful week. I often feel so guilty when I take time to do stuff that decreases my stress (like walking, or knitting), so it's good to have someone else saying it's not only OK, but definitely something you should be doing.