10 Things You Can do to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

1. Clean your room

I’m not kidding. Your space is a reflection of your mind. Clean up your space and you’ll find your mind feels more at ease. Have you ever watched Hoarders? Well, that’s what I did during the Covid-19 shutdown, and every time it inspires me to go through closets and random drawers. My next step was watching Tiding up with Marie Kondo, which inspired me even further. She encouraged people to surround themselves with the things that “spark joy” and then, with gratitude, say good-bye to the things that didn’t. I love that. Then I painted the living room, sewed some new pillow covers, and bought too many plants. But my space feels good. It feels like me. Everything has a home (shout out to Marie) and that brings a sense of calm. Our brain processes incoming information through our senses, which means if our space is in chaos, so are we.

2. Reduce the number of choices you have to make.

I remember when I was a kid and I’d ask my mom something and she’d say something along the lines of “I’m done making decisions for the day”, or my personal favorite, “If I have to decide right now, then the answer is no.” I get it now. Sometimes we have major decisions to make, but most of the time, it’s just a pile of little decisions, so save the brain space and the stress for when it counts most. Limit what you’re able. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent with my friends or family, trying to decide what to watch next on TV. A friend came up with the plan to make a list of everything we want to watch and then just knock one off every time we sit down to watch something. Have a bowl filled with slips of paper of your favorite restaurants and just draw one at random. Empower others around you to make decisions too. Often times, your spouse, kids, or friends, might turn to you for direction. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, empower someone else to take the lead.

3. Maybe it’s not your job to save the planet and prevent cancer.

Sometimes it’s okay to prioritize your mental health. And sometimes that means setting aside other things that are also important to you. I’m an advocate for reducing waste, taking care of my planet, and not putting garbage in my body. But I was shocked by how much stress this created in my life at times. I don’t want to have food with BPA in it, but did you know that metal cans are lined with something that contains BPA? I have spent so much time reading all the labels of the salmon to find out if it’s sustainably fished or farm raised. Did any dolphins die for the sake of this can of tuna? Should I even be eating tuna? Those eggs came from chickens that were vegetarian fed, doesn’t that just mean corn? Isn’t corn a GMO? Am I going to die? Should I recycle my packets of Stevia? If I recycle the wrong thing, will the entire batch have to be thrown away? Did I just kill the planet? I just had to do a time-out and really assess which practices I could keep without stress and which ones were becoming problematic. Sometimes we simply have to do the best we can and leave it at that. Doing it all can become too much sometimes and we put too much pressure on ourselves. So, if it’s better to pass on the salmon for the sake of your stress levels, do it. Take some fish oil.

4. Uses environmental cues to communicate safety and calm.

We experience the world through our 5 senses, which means we can use that to create calm in our lives. Turn off the overhead lights, light candles, turn on lamps, use fuzzy blankets or even weighted blankets, listen to music and even sing along (music and singing activates the vagus nerve in a way that helps us feel safe!), pet your dog (seriously, it produces feel-good neurotransmitters), surround yourself with living things like plants. I’m a new plant mom and I’m loving it (though, there have been some casualties in the process). Check out the concept of Hygge! It’s a Danish concept. And did you know that research shows that the Danish are some of the happiest people worldwide, despite have long periods without sunlight during the year? Your brain is in constant communication with your environment, which means it’s a great opportunity to communicate messages of safety and calm.

5. Set boundaries.

We all know this one, but let’s reiterate it because it’s a forever kind of process. It’s like when you buy a new carton of strawberries. They looked perfect at the store, but you didn’t realize that one of the berries was bad. And now, a few days later, you go in to get them and now it’s not just one strawberry, but half the carton. Sometimes it’s best to get a little distance from the things that are having a negative impact on your health. Boundaries and walls are very different (check out this blog for more). I’m not a fan of cutting people off—leave a door—but step away as you need to. I also recommend being clear about where the boundary is coming from and why it’s necessary for you. It might be confusing for people in your life who have grown accustomed to you being within reach more often than not. It’s entirely okay to let people know that you’re feeling overwhelmed right now and you’re needing to be mindful of your stress levels. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. When you’re feeling filled up again, I encourage you to re-engage as you’re able.  

6. Write it down.

You have to name it to tame it! Did you know our brains are more at ease if we can name our specific emotion and put our experience into words. Even if the narrative is negative, just to be able to make sense of our experience helps us feel better, BUT be careful. We can formulate false narratives! Be open to reevaluating the way you see a situation. There’s probably more to see. Journaling can be a really effective way to formulate ideas, name emotions, and create a narrative. What’s the bigger story? What are you learning? What have you learned about others, relationships, the world, and yourself? What do you hope for? What are you willing to do to make that happen? Can you be okay with a different outcome? Write it out and see what you learn!

7. Practice Belly Breathing.

Have you ever watched a baby breathe? Their belly goes up and down, but if you take a deep breath right now, your chest probably did the work. When you’re feeling your anxiety levels rise, pause and take some deep belly breaths–at least 4 seconds in and 4 seconds out. There are many variations to the pattern, but it’s called diaphragmatic breathing. Chest breathing communicates to our brain that we need to be on alert and belly breathing communicates we’re safe and all is well. You can do this anywhere: school, work, your car, in the closet where you’re hiding from your kids, anywhere! I use this technique all the time when I’m driving in traffic because I swear, if one more person blocks the fast lane for no reason, I’ll lose it. If breathing is the first and last thing we do in life, there’s got to be something to it, right?

8. Non-aerobic Exercise

I think we can all agree that exercise is a good thing for our mental health; however, if you’re struggling with anxiety, cardio might have the opposite affect that you’re looking for. Think about what it feels like when you’re starting to panic or your anxiety starts to rise, your heart rate increases, you might feel warm, tightness in your chest, and it’s hard to breath–sounds like running doesn’t it? Sometimes our brain can’t distinguish between types of stress. If cardio triggers your brain into thinking it’s anxiety, it could be the catalyst for a panic attack or feeling “off” for the rest of the day. Instead, try yoga, pilates, or weights (not too heavy, again, exercise is a form of stress, if your body interprets it as being too much, it could lead to more anxiety.) Try it out and see how it feels. Listen to your body!

9. Go with decaf, even though it’s basically murky water.

I know, it’s horrifying–decaf. But here’s the thing, caffeine increases the amount of high beta in our brains. High beta is a brain wave highly correlated with anxiety. Caffeine also increases our heart-rate, which again, can trigger your brain into thinking it’s anxious. Do yourself a favor and make things easier on your brain by skipping the coffee, energy drinks, and anything else with caffeine. You might find yourself able to fall asleep sooner, sleep more deeply, and wake more rested. Being well rested increases our stress tolerance during the day too.

10. Practice Gratitude

Life is messy and stressful. People betray us, we lose relationships, we fail at our jobs, our housekeeping and meal prepping goes unnoticed and unappreciated, dishes get left on the counter when the dishwasher is 2 feet away, and peace and quite seems like a distant memory. Practice gratitude. It’s easy to get stuck in an internal loop of negativity. It doesn’t mean your frustrations aren’t valid–they are, but means you’re choosing to live in the sunshine and not the rain. Break the cycle by thinking of three things you’re grateful for every day. You have to pick 3 new things. You can’t say “friends, family, and a reliable job” 30 times in the month. Studies show that doing this for 30 consecutive days will actually change your brain. Redirecting our thoughts to a new focal point can be more effective than simply trying to push away negative and anxiety provoking thoughts. I am grateful for a platform to support others. I am grateful that you took the time to read this. And I am grateful for my sweet puppy, Charlie, who is snuggled up beside me right now.

**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).

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