As a psychotherapist, I often help clients develop effective ways of managing stress. And yet, for a long time I did little or no stress management in my own life. I was working long hours as I taught full-time and built a full-time clinical practice, leaving little space for relaxation. Oh yes, so important to decompress, I would think to myself—I’ll do that as soon as I have some time….
I started to live for the weekends and vacation, and to use alcohol to relax at the end of each day. It wasn’t a healthy way to live, and it caught up with me; eventually I was completely burned out, and started to have fleeting thoughts that maybe I’d be better off dead (at least I’d get a break, I thought). I continued to experience the fallout for many months even after I started taking stress management seriously.
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.
Use your midday meal as a time to check in with yourself, and to decompress from the first half of the day. If at all possible, sit at a table designed for eating (not at a desk), and share the time with others. If you’re nervous about wasting time, try it a couple days a week and see if your productivity stays the same—or even increases—after recharging for the afternoon.
Presence at the Table (30 seconds): When you sit down to eat, take three slow, grounding breaths. With the first breath, feel your feet on the floor and your weight pressing into your chair, sensing where you are physically, mentally, and emotionally. With the second, take in your surroundings, noticing the things that fill your life. Pay special attention to anyone you’re sharing the meal with, really seeing what’s around you. With the third breath, notice the food in front of you, taking in its colors, textures, and aroma. Bon appétit!
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 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.
My favorite thing to do during this time is 20 to 30 minutes of bedtime yoga, which is a very easy and meditative mind-body activity. It does involve technology if you take an online class (like this 20-minute practice), but the instruction is so simple you don’t even need to look at the screen.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (1-5 minutes): Sit comfortably in a quiet space. Use your right thumb to gently close the right nostril, and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Pause a second, then close your left nostril with your right pinkie, release your thumb, and exhale gently through your right nostril. Pause, inhale through the right nostril, and switch the thumb and pinkie again as you exhale through the left. Continue for one minute, and longer if you like. Notice any effects on your nervous system. Don’t worry if this is confusing it first—it was to me. With practice you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
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.
Give these practices a try this week – experiment to find what works best for you. As you go through your days with greater ease in your mind, body, and spirit, you’ll be able to find deeper connection to what you care about most.
These practices are adapted from my e-guide, “10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day,” available for free when you sign up for my newsletter .