The image we often have of someone dealing with stress has, thanks to portrayals in film and television, involved a cigarette, a bar stool at the local pub and waking up the next day feeling worse than ever.
This is a cliché, but unfortunately, it’s one that has mirrored reality for many people.
Today, the movies have begun to reflect a more health conscious culture when it comes to showing different ways to manage stress and tension. From Forrest Gump’s cross country jog to Shailene Woodley’s soundtrack fueled runs in the HBO series Big Little Lies, it’s just as likely to see someone going for a run on your television than drinking away their problems anymore.
Stress is unavoidable, but resorting to bad habits to cope with stress is not conducive to creating the result you want, and derails you from the road to wellness. What has far more impact, both in the near and long term, is a lifestyle change that leads to healthy habits and positive ways to handle anxiety.
The Power of Healthy Habits
Chronic stress can lead to all kinds of issues. In addition to the tendency for some to turn to bad habits to combat stress, it also can lead to problems such as sleep deprivation.
That, in turn, can lead to sleepwalking through the day which can result in bad decision making, not performing well at work and the sort of irritability that can challenge the relationships that mean most to you.
In severe cases, it can worsen serious conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Dizziness, nausea and headaches can also be symptoms of unending stress.
Healthy habits, be it improving your diet or a regular yoga practice, help relieve tension, feelings of frustration and can even lead to reversing the effects of chronic stress.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Nothing here is rocket science. Chances are you have read or been told most or all of these tips before, but for whatever reason, you chose to ignore them. Now is the time to read them again and reconsider incorporating them into your life.
First, here are three mental steps to get the ball rolling.
Admit It, Make a Plan
As with most things in life, nothing will change if you don’t admit there’s a problem. Take some time to self-reflect and realize the ways stress is affecting your life. If you truly want it to stop, come up with a plan to manage stress that also incorporates healthy habits.
An important mental step is to gain some perspective. Is what is stressing you out really something that will have a long lasting impact? Is the frustration that Hal from marketing causes by continually messing up the team project at work really something to take home with you? Is what your parents said on the phone last week reason to feel terrible five days later? If you look at these things objectively, the answer is most likely “no.” Try to step back and put things in perspective. Life is full of ups and downs and you’ll always have to find ways to ride out the downs and enjoy the ups while they last.
Let It Go
The third mental step is to accept what you cannot control. That’s a common phrase heard in mental health settings and it is something a great many people struggle with. You can’t control Hal at work, for example, or the things your parents will say that you may not want to hear. What you can control is how you react to it and how you deal with whatever stress it creates. An important part of this step is identifying people who are supportive and helpful. You’ll want to spend more time and converse deeply with them.
Now, on to the physical.
Yes, you should make healthy choices at the grocery store. Try shopping just around the portions of the store where they have vegetables, fruit and other healthy foods, and not so much in the aisles filled with boxed or canned, processed concoctions. Eat smaller amounts of food more often to even out your metabolism over the length of the day, skipping the big lunches and dinners.
Many people can’t imagine starting the day without coffee. Fair enough, but try to keep it to a minimum and plan to wean yourself from it completely at some point. Opting for water over soft drinks and eliminating caffeine after noon can help a great deal. Caffeine can stay in the body for hours and lead to trouble falling asleep.
The image of the person working 10 hours a day and handling 14 things at once is another movie and television cliché. It’s supposed to evoke a driven, successful person. In real life, it’s more often a person who is severely stressed out. Stay ahead of stress by taking time each day to do something that you find relaxing. Reading, playing the guitar, writing, gardening, whatever works for you. Just make sure it’s something you will find time for on a regular basis.
Yes, you knew we’d get here. Regular exercise is hard for many people, for the simple reason they don’t want to do it. It can lead to muscle aches and pains and embarrassment when the body builder next to you in the gym looks like Mark Wahlberg and you, to date, do not. Free yourself from all the preconceived notions of exercise. The idea is to get your body moving every day, not become a marathon runner or mixed martial arts fighter (unless you want to do those things).
The human body is not designed to sit in one place for long periods of time. Whether it’s swimming, walking, running or yoga, find something you like and do it. It’s the No. 1 way to reduce stress if done regularly.
To add a little fun or additional challenge, try gamifying your workout goals through the use of cell phone apps and wearable technology that can track your performance and paint a clearer picture of your physical health.
Talk About It
This goes back to those emotionally supportive people mentioned earlier. Expressing your feelings – not in your head, but out loud to someone else – can help to relieve tension. Don’t bottle up emotions. That will lead to more stress on top of the stress you already feel.
Are You Ready?
Making lifestyle changes is difficult. Human beings tend to go down the path of least resistance, and sometimes it seems easier just to continue on the current path and deal with it one day at a time. But that’s not going to help long term.
Keep a few things in mind before setting goals.
First off, keep the goals reasonable. Don’t plan on running 3 miles the first time you lace up a pair of running shoes. Set challenging, but realistic goals that you can reach.
Write down your goals, as well. That makes them more concrete. It has the same power of expressing your emotions as mentioned above.
Remember to reward yourself. If there’s one thing that’s true about stressed out people – maybe almost all people – it’s that they are far too hard on themselves. Relax and enjoy your successes, no matter how small. Changing your habits is hard. Give yourself credit for doing it.
Better? OK, probably not. But you will be if you try to incorporate some of these suggestions into your life. Take it slow, reward yourself and realize that change doesn’t happen in one day, week or month.
Perhaps just as important as all of this, don’t stress out over trying not to stress out.