When it comes to stress relief, it’s all about being proactive.
April is Stress Awareness Month, but if you’re like most of us, then it’s sort of an all-year-long encounter.
As a journalist who covers breaking news, I had mostly accepted that feeling extremely stressed out was just going to be a regular part of my life.
At least, that's how it used to be. At a certain point, I realized that I could actually start proactively working on self-care the way I would work on other habits in my life, and I could significantly reduce my stress levels in spite of the stressful nature of my work.
Unlike a lot of my friends, I don’t always have the luxury of a set schedule — some days news seems to happen so fast I don’t even get around to the to-do list I made the night before — so for a long while finding time to combat stress ended up being a source of stress itself.
It was a nasty cycle of highs and lows where adrenaline faded, exhaustion set in, and the only self-care I could muster was a Saturday on the couch because all of my stress had manifested in making me feel awful. The body really does keep the score.
After several years in the business and a lot of trial and error, I’ve realized that just like all things, self-care requires some structure and discipline, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. It also looks different depending on the day, the stress, or the severity of the breaking news.
And you don’t have to have a sporadic, unpredictable career like mine to have trouble finding time to manage your stress.
Plenty of people with 9-5s encounter similar difficulty in making time for self-care, especially now when life post-pandemic feels closer to normal but there are still many leftover anxieties from the past two years.
The trick — if you can even call it that — is to be patient and find ways to manage stress that work for you, even if you have to coerce yourself into it sometimes.
What is stress anyway?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a universally accepted definition of stress, but you probably know it when you feel it.
“Most people consider the definition of stress to be something that causes distress. However, stress is not always harmful since increased stress results in increased productivity,” according to researchers at the American Institute of Stress. “A definition of stress should also embrace this type of healthy stress, which is usually ignored when you ask someone about their definition of stress.”
My day is often filled with good stress (alongside the bad kind). Getting a scoop, an exclusive, or beating a deadline can make me feel like I’m soaring, but it’s still stressful. However, that stress is motivating - it helps me work faster, work harder, and feel really engaged with what I'm doing.
Researchers define stress in a few different ways:
- Acute stress: This is stress that comes on quickly and also dissipates quickly. You’re likely either in fight or flight mode.
- Chronic stress: Think long term. All those little everyday tasks and stressors build up, ultimately potentially impacting your health.
- Eustress: This is the good kind of stress. The first day of a new job, a first date, graduating, starting on an exciting project, etc.
- Distress: Everyday stressors that are negative. This could be a work disagreement, relationship problems, or health issues.
How does stress manifest?
Stress can affect several aspects of the body. You probably notice that your muscles get tense when you encounter stress, or you might notice your breath seems a little shorter or your stomach starts churning. Your body changes in other, less noticeable, ways too.
“When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening, or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response,” explains the American Psychological Association. “This ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the ‘stress hormone.’”
All of this can end up being detrimental to your overall health if not managed properly, and that might look different for each individual person.
Overcoming the tension
Because the definition of stress isn’t concrete, neither is the antidote. That can be the trickiest thing about self-care. How do you even know what will help? What works for one stressful week might not work for another, but it also might.
I think of self-care as a sort of toolbox for addressing my stress. It might not always work 100%, but I know slowing down, giving myself some space, or doing something healthy will be worth it.
Essentially, being open to the idea of feeling less stressed and making time for self-care working is half the battle.
Research has shown that several activities can combat stress by releasing feel-good chemicals in the body: journaling, exercising, sleeping, even kissing.
Put self-care on the schedule
One of the things I love most about my career is that no two days look the same. I can spend one day at my laptop tapping away and another out in the field on an assignment. As a result, I can have trouble finding time to make regular self-care a priority, so I’ve made some aspects of my self-care non-negotiable.
I sign up for workout classes ahead of time for extra incentive to get to them. Part of what makes having a hectic schedule stressful is worrying that I won't be able to make it to do the things I want to do. So I don't leave it up to chance or "wait and see" if I'll have the time. Instead, I know I’m much more likely to head to a yoga or cycling class if I’ve already signed up for it, and I know I’ll feel 10 times better afterward.
I’ve also adopted a planner that helps me keep track of my habits. Being able to mark off how much water I drink, workouts, and other healthy habits keeps me motivated. It’s a little dose of serotonin every time I can mark it off at the end of the day.
Make it a habit
The same concept goes for self-care activities as simple as sleeping, which can be one of the best ways to reduce the negative side effects of chronic stress. A few years ago I set a bedtime that allows me plenty of sleep. I also avoid scrolling through social media while I’m in bed. It doesn’t sound like much in the way of self-care, but just that little bit of structure helps me get a good night’s rest and I’m ready to take on whatever is next.
Routines are one way psychologists say you can better handle stress. Dr. Steve Orma, a psychologist who specializes in treating insomnia, anxiety, and stress, tells Headspace that going a step farther and making stress reduction a habit is also beneficial.
“You need to consistently check in with yourself about what you’re worrying about, then address it,” he says. “Just as we create routines with exercise for our physical bodies, we should do the same for our mental health. One way to do this is scheduling ‘thinking time’ to think through any problems or worries weighing on you instead of letting them build up.”
That could be in the form of journaling or talking to a therapist on a regular basis. The more proactive you can be about managing your stress, the better off you are.