Life can be stressful. Sometimes we feel so stressed that we can’t work out what to do to reduce our stress because our brain is too full to think. At times like these, it can be helpful to have a list of ideas to fall back on.
1. Basic Self-Care
Basic self-care is the foundation of good mental health. Without it, things tend to wobble and fall apart.
Basic self-care includes things like eating a balanced diet, sleeping enough, drinking enough, watching our alcohol intake, managing our money, exercising (if it’s safe to do so), finding a routine that works for us, and washing regularly.
2. Reduce Stress Using Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are part of laying a solid, stress-reducing foundation.
Boundaries can relate to our relationships. For example, if we have a friend who calls at all hours and expects an immediate reply to every message then we might need to be clear with them that firstly, we’re not available every hour of the day, and secondly, we won’t always apply immediately.
If we’re someone who’s not so great at saying no, then we might like to create particularly firm boundaries or even ‘rules’ for ourselves. For example, we might have a rule that we don’t check our work emails when at home (or when not on ‘work time’ if we work from home).
Boundaries can also come to play at work, with our kids, when we spend money, with our kid’s school, and with any volunteering we do. Every single time something feels a little ‘off’, or we’re feeling overly stressed, then it’s worth reflecting on whether a boundary has been broken and what we could do about it going forwards.
3. Be Aware Of Where Our Stress Comes From
Prevention is often better than cure. Pinpointing the source(s) of our stress and working to limit the impact of them (where possible) can help to keep our stress levels down longer-term.
We’re all different people, so the things that make us feel stressed will differ. Common sources of stress include things like deadlines, crowded places, interviews or exams, sensory problems, unsuitable living conditions, those we love going through a tough time, money worries, and lack of sleep. These are only a few examples and by no means an exhaustive list.
Thinking about particularly stressful times and tracing the events leading up to them might help us to pinpoint some of the things that contribute to our overall stress levels. We could also keep a stress log to make a note of stressors as we go. Learning about our personal stress triggers allows us to do something about them.
For example, if our stress levels are affected by lack of sleep, then we could improve our bedtime routine. If the dishwasher is a constant source of stress because every family member puts dirty dishes on top of it but never in it, then we could speak to them about setting up a jobs rota.
Sometimes, our stress relates to things that we have absolutely no control over. Realising our limits and accepting our lack of control can be really tough. The things we want to be able to do and the things we’re reasonably able to do don’t always align. We might desperately want to be able to find a cure for our friend’s illness or for our child to revise for their exams. But we’re not super-human. We can’t ‘solve’ everything and we can’t control everything (or anyone).
Asking ourselves the question: ‘so what are you going to do about it?’ can help us to work towards acceptance. Sometimes the answer to that will be ‘I’m going to…’. But at other times the answer might be ‘there’s nothing I can do’. If there’s nothing we can do about a situation, however awful it is, then why are we stressing about it? What does that achieve?
Acceptance is hard. It can sometimes feel painful. But it can also be incredibly freeing – as if a huge weight has been lifted.
5. Balancing Our Time To Reduce Stress
Balancing our time is something we’re always working on. It’s not something on a ‘to do’ list that we can cross off. It’s a constant process of reflecting and adjusting.
When we plan our time for the coming week, it’s often helpful to use a diary, planner or timetable. Having something that allows us to visually see what we’ve got coming up can help us to plan. It also makes it easy for us to assess whether we’ve got the rest/work balance about right.
When planning our week, there are a few things we need to consider. It’s important to include some downtime, whether it’s TV time, craft time, meditation time, or ‘having a nap’ time. We probably want to include some social time. Considering travel time can help to avoid a situation where everything feels rushed. We might like to build in a contingency plan or two. Over time, we’ll get to know ourselves which should make it easier to plan our time in a way that works for us.
The other advantage of planning in advance is that it enables us to do things to reduce our stress levels ahead of time. For example, if there’s a week coming up when we’re out every evening, then we could cook double of all our meals the week before and freeze them so that on our busy week we can just heat and eat.
6. Connect With People
Some of us like our own company and might not feel the need for loads of social interaction. Others are extraverted and feel most-energised when surrounded by other people. Wherever we sit on the spectrum, some connection is important. Poor mental health often thrives in isolation.
There are loads of different ways to connect with others. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, and we’ll probably all have our favourites.
We could use technology and message, video call, play games with, or watch a film at the same time as others. Or, we could meet up with people in person; go for a coffee, have a playdate or drop in on a family member for lunch. Share our creativity can connect us with others in a different way. We could share some art, music or writing, either work we’ve done ourselves or work by others that stands out to us. Having a shared experience with someone – a holiday, charity challenge or gig is a connection that we can keep coming back to through shared memories or jokes. Volunteering can introduce us to people that we would never otherwise encounter. Sometimes the unspoken connection, a hand on our knee or a slight smile can say more than words ever could.
When we’re stressed, one of the most valuable connections we can have is one where all we have to do is send a word to a friend and they ‘know‘. They call us or come over, stop up spiralling and offer to help us carry the load. Sometimes there’s nothing they really need to ‘do’, we just need to know that we’re not alone.
7. Reduce Stress Using Touch
Our sense of touch can both increase and decrease our stress levels. We can probably all remember a time when we were wearing something so uncomfortable that our stress levels continued to rise until we could take it off.
Hugs with someone we’re close to can reduce how stressed we feel. They can help us to feel supported and can cause oxytocin, a hormone, to be released which can act as a stress-reliever.
Time with animals can reduce our stress, too. It can reduce our blood pressure, and help us to feel supported and loved. Pets are excellent listeners and the rhythmic pattern of stroking a pet can be soothing.
Weighted blankets and other sensory items can also help. It can take a while to find out which things work for us personally. But once we have, we can use our senses to self-soothe, and bring our stress levels down to a place where we feel able to tackle life again.
8. Step Outside
We don’t have to go on a long hike or drive out to the middle of nowhere. Being in a garden, local park or green space can give us a nature top-up. If we’re not able to get out, then opening a window, having plants inside and listening to sounds of nature can have a similar effect.
If it’s safe, then ditching our shoes and socks can help us to feel grounded and connected to the earth. Some of us like to ground ourselves in other ways such as wild swimming, gardening, or physically touching tree bark and other textures.
We can connect with nature in all sorts of ways; photography, art, bark rubbings, touch, sight, smell, taste, sound, writing, learning, being curious, learning, or doing a craft such as willow-weaving. Seeing nature through the eyes of a child can bring a sense of calm and wonder.
9. Using Tools To Reduce Stress
Over time, we might find tools that help us when we’re stressed.
This might look like having a rollerball in our desk drawer at work. We could have our favourite ‘sing your heart out’ CD in our car. Headphones in our bag mean that we can listen to a chilled-out podcast when on public transport. In our house, we could have a blanket in every room. Fiddle toys could live next to our keys, by the kettle, and on our bedside table. A list of affirmations can work well on the inside of our wardrobe door. We could set hourly alarms on our phone to encourage ourselves to drink enough fluid. There’s no limit to the number of things we can dot around. We don’t need to feel embarrassed about using these anchors, either. If they help, they help.
Dotting these things around means that something helpful is always within reach. It’s also much easier to remember to use them when we see them regularly.
10. Express The Stress
There are times when stress feels as though it’s an expending bubble inside of us, and it’s slowly squishing everything and filling us with pressure. Letting our stress out in a controlled way can allow us to gradually reduce the pressure we feel until calmness returns
There are tonnes of ways that we can express the stress. We could have a 30-second dance party. Sing along to our favourite CD. Go for a drive (provided we’re safe to do so). Write. Draw. Talk. Splash some paint around. Hike. Send a scream to Iceland. Yoga. Go to a high-intensity exercise class (if it’s safe for us to do so). Kick a football against a wall repeatedly. Rip up some paper.
As always, different things will work for different people, but the options are endless!
11. Have Fun
We often forget to have fun, but it’s so important! Being silly, having fun, laughing, exploring, being curious, playing and ‘letting go’ can all be a vital part of maintaining our mental health.
We all need a break from time to time. Lighter times can often feel like they’re giving us a top-up of something we didn’t know that we needed.
Sometimes having fun when we’ve got a deadline coming up can feel counter-intuitive. But it can actually help us to be more productive overall. It can help us to put things in perspective, be more creative, and problem-solve.
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