To say, “I am a person who stresses out,” is an understatement of the highest caliber. I am one of those classically obnoxious, everything must be perfect, how could strangers possibly display any lack of manners, why isn’t the world working my way Type-A weirdos. I have high standards for myself and others, and I am routinely unfair when people do not meet the standards I hold but have not expressed for them.
Additionally, I’m hyper-sensitive to external stimuli (with diagnosis ranging, depending on the professional in question, from Highly Sensitive Person a la the work of Elaine Aron, to mild on the Autism Spectrum). My hyper sensitivity makes every obnoxious laugh on the subway grate in my ears, magnifies the negative emotions of others I feel empathically, and shreds my nerves when people shout in public, blow car horns, or behave in insensitive or rude manners. In other words, I’m a total high-maintenance pill. No, really, I am, and I own that. At least my gut instinct is to be a pill. Over time I’ve learned to bite my tongue, use positive self-talk and carefully timed venting sessions to get over my disappointment in the way life is imperfect when I view it through my particular series of lenses, and I try very hard to be patient with my own limitations and those of others. We all do the best we can, right? But that doesn’t stop stress from accumulating. Which didn’t bother me at first – until I started understanding exactly how it was affecting my health.
Over the past year or two I’ve been expending a lot of effort on improving my health: finally going to the dentist for tooth care I’d been postponing indefinitely, quitting drinking altogether, obtaining a prescription to help with my sometimes troubled sleep, exercising, eating a more balanced diet and learning to cook far better in an effort to really get a handle on how the things I put into my body directly relate to my well-being.
But there were still times, times that usually included high levels of stress, when I suffered intense muscle fatigue, poor sleep, difficulty concentrating, and interrupted or altogether stopped menstrual cycles. My body was crying out, “UNCLE!” and I was baffled, as, for the first time in a long time I was proud of the efforts I’d been making for my own health.
But stress was a constant. Highly strung nerves, two months of unemployment over the summer, the stress of beginning a new job, planning a wedding, and being constantly, painfully attuned to the expectations and needs of the people around me all contributed to my constant and unceasing sense of being ill at ease. My jaw constantly clenched, my brain constantly whirring, I knew I really needed to get a handle on this element of my health. To add to the importance, I learned that my mother and both of her sisters had, in the last couple of years, been diagnosed with long-term stress-related disorders – each had a different one, but all were extremely serious and dramatically affect their quality of life and ability to function from day to day.
There was, to me, an obvious thread of connection running through my life: from my high personal expectations to my sharp sense of awareness of the various stimuli around me, through my stressful life circumstances and good-but-not-there-yet health initiatives, all signs pointed to the obvious: I was headed on a path for burnout, and many of those elements were within my control or sphere of influence. We all probably know by now that high stress levels can harm your heart, circulation, musculature, teeth, and mind, cause your blood pressure to rise and your body to use energy in poor ways. The level of stress I had been enduring could have been worse, sure, but it was steady and unrelieved enough that I felt confident that I would end up having severe physical health problems, a mental breakdown, or an emotional interpersonal disaster. Or, all three. But only if I wasn’t careful.
Here is what I’m trying to do to relieve these issues:
- Sleep. 8 hours, no less. Go to bed early, and if I can’t, sleep in a bit. I am lucky that I have some flexibility in the hour I arrive at work. If I need more sleep, I cut things out of my morning routine (like, I can exercise after work if need be, or use a ponytail to hide the fact that I didn’t have time to wash my hair in the morning). We bought a dog bed to which we banished our dog, who likes to wait until the middle of the night to stretch almost the full width of the bed – this was causing me a poorer quality of sleep than I realized until we stopped letting her do it. I love to snuggle with her, but she was forcing my body, while half asleep, to get poorer sleep and to stay in only the higher levels of my REM cycle. We are investing in new pillows and have been trying to keep our bedroom temperature regulated, too. Most of these fixes are not difficult, and they make a world of difference.
- Cut the caffeine. I can’t get rid of it entirely, but I am no longer drinking 4-6 espressos per day. This includes caffeinated tea, coffee, and my beloved Diet Coke. I save the Diet Coke for powering through intense projects or going out, have one coffee each morning, and call it quits. Herbal tea tastes better to me, anyway.
- Set fair expectations for the people around me. My fiancÃ© was not doing a great deal of contributing to the housework we were supposed to be sharing, and it was stressing me the fuck out. But a well-timed reminder from another Persephoneer taught me to ask him to help me with the damn cleaning. The solution was so simple I felt utterly stupid for not just calming down and asking for what I needed to begin with. Of course he was willing to help; he just needed to be pointed in the right direction. I used some of my Type-A skills to set a cleaning schedule for us, and it’s become significantly more manageable.
- Exercise consistently. I notice a big uptick in my stress levels on days when I don’t get at least a little exercise in. This can be as simple as a walk in a peaceful place (my neighborhood has some tree-lined paths that are nice), or a half hour of yoga. I am doing more aggressive exercise during the week, but I finally gave myself permission to modify what I needed to modify so that I got my endorphins pumping while keeping my cortizol & norepinephrine low. Hormones! They’re like magic. And so manipulable.
- Set fair expectations for myself. Like with working out, I needed to know enough about myself to know that yes, I am capable of achieving a lot if I put my mind to it, but no, no accomplishment is worth sacrificing my health. I had to learn to balance what I wanted to accomplish with what was good for me to fit in. My new self-expectations include “achievements” of keeping my stress low, getting plenty of rest, and providing myself enough nourishment and entertainment/down time to rejuvenate.
- Play to my strengths. This means knowing that my tendency toward perfectionism can be a good thing, if I don’t abuse it. It means that my perfectionism can be channeled toward more restful pursuits, like making sure I get a little exercise in every day, making a sport out of finding the very highest quality healthy food and then challenging myself to make something good out of them, or rewarding myself for times I was able to step away from a conflict or blood-boiling conversation and take a few deep breaths.
- Finally, seek quiet. I know a lot of people recommend meditation but I’m not confident that I’ll ever be able to get my brain to clear out effectively enough for this practice. I can recognize the value in sitting quietly with myself for a while. Even if I’m reading, I try to make it just reading – not reading, eating, checking my email, having half a conversation with my dude and scolding the dog all at once. One thing at a time.
One thing at a time is a pretty good mantra for me right now. Things are still chaotic, still stressful, still push all my little sensitive buttons, but I’m learning to negotiate that better. Sometimes I have to manually unclench my jaw – that’s okay. I can do that. And so can you.
What are your favorite tips for calming down and reducing stress?