What do you think of when you hear the word stress?
A business person with clenched fists? A shy person anxiously walking out on stage to give a presentation? A Wall street day-trader with veins bulging on their forehead?
My relationship to and understanding of stress shifted this year. I had always seen stress as something to manage with casual rest and down time, but I had never felt overwhelmed by stress… until this year.
This year has been incredibly challenging for me.
Between unexpectedly losing one of my best friends to a drunk driver, ending an emotionally significant relationship, going through a major shift in my business structure, and moving several times, 2016 has been a big year for me.
Each of these things individually might not seem like the most traumatic events (worse things have definitely happened to people in the world, and I know how fortunate I am), but the stress that residually accumulated in my body throughout the year started to weigh on me heavily.
My brain’s functioning slowed down and conversations sometimes felt choppy. I had difficulty getting to sleep. My digestion suffered. Which, in case you’ve recently been experiencing these things, are all common side effects of chronic or acute stress.
I’ve had days this past year when I felt anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, and I even, at times, engaged in suicidal ideation. I had nights where I faced the darkest parts of myself… processing old emotional wounds that I thought I had buried in my past.
I have about a dozen articles that I have outlined, and ready to be written, but most days I haven’t had the energy to bring them to fruition. And, as someone who highly identifies as a writer, that’s been messing with my identity/self-concept.
But instead of pushing my nose to the grind stone and forcing myself to blast out content to meet arbitrary deadlines, I’ve been allowing myself to lean back and really savour my down time. I mean, after nearly four years of working seven days a week, I figured I was due for some rest.
After releasing my 60 Day Self Care Challenge article, many people asked me for some more concrete, actionable items that they could use in their lives to manage stress.
So I’ve compiled a few tips that will help you manage your stress, and help you get back to feeling like yourself again. I have personally been using all of these, and they have helped me more than I can put into words.
Two quick things before I dive into these tips…
1. The Only Way Out Of A Hole Is To Climb Out
When you’re feeling anxious, depressed, stressed out, overwhelmed, or like you’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown, the challenging reality is that you will not be able to get out of it without some effort. The good news is that, if you’ve found your way to this article, then I already know that you have enough courage and strength to do the work that it will take to get out of it.
While I wish there was a safe, healthy, durable way to instantly lift yourself out of your pain, life doesn’t work that way. If you’re drowning and you want to stop drowning, you’ll have to start kicking your legs like crazy and start swimming.
The positive side of this mindset/mantra is that it is empowering. You might feel like shit right now, but you will get out of this. You are a powerful warrior of a human being, and you will get out of this.
2. Can’t vs. Won’t
When people say that they can’t do something, what they really mean is that they won’t.
“I can’t get out of this depression. I feel like I’ll be stuck forever.”
“I can’t eat healthy. It takes too much work.”
“I can’t reach out for help. I would just be a burden on those around me.”
Substitute ‘I can’t’ for ‘I won’t’ and see what happens.
‘I won’t get out of this depression. I won’t eat healthy. I won’t reach out for help.’
Once you’ve done this, ask yourself WHY you won’t do these things. Maybe you get some secondary payoff by not taking these actions. Maybe your pride is getting in the way. Maybe you have the belief that you have to struggle indefinitely, or that you deserve to be punished. Whatever your reasons, by becoming aware of them, you can then choose a different path.
By replacing your I can’t’s with I won’t’s, you go from being in a place of victim mentality to a place of choice and empowerment.
I’m definitely not saying that we choose to take on our depression, anxiety, or other chemically driven psychological imbalances, but with many stress-related illnesses, there is a degree of perpetuation that our mind tends to play out in the enabling of our mindsets.
I find it a bit crazy that we aren’t taught how to manage stress in our early lives (shouldn’t such things be included in mandatory education models?)… but that’s besides the point.
Without further ado, here are some things you can do to effectively manage your stress, starting today.
12 Ways To Effectively Eliminate Stress
1. Prioritize quality sleep
When you’re going through a tough time, sleep is often one of the first things that gets sacrificed. Whether by way of you staying up staring at a digital screen all evening, or your racing mind giving you a hard time in allowing yourself to go to bed, it’s a vicious cycle that feeds into itself.
It is absolutely imperative that you prioritize quality sleep in order to allow your mind and body to recharge and rejuvenate themselves.
Simple, straight forward things you can do to ensure a good night’s sleep:
– Try to go to sleep at a consistent time each night (ideally before 10pm)
– Aim to get some form of exercise during your day. This will make it easier to fall asleep.
– If you have control over it, sleep in a slightly cooler than room temperature room
– Offload your thoughts into a journal, or talk with a friend or loved one before bed to help you get out of your head and into a more relaxed state
– Try progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or T.R.E exercises as part of your mental cool-down exercises right before going to bed
– If you can’t get to sleep within 20 minutes of lying down on your bed, get out of bed and do something calm and distracting in another room (reading fiction, playing a musical instrument, journaling out your thoughts, talking to a friend, etc.) for a little while until you feel sleepy
2. Prioritize quality nutrition
Similar to the above point, if you don’t have quality nutrients going into your body, it will be very difficult for your mind, heart, and other vital organs to function properly when you are managing chronic stress.
The usual stuff applies…
Avoid caffeine/refined sugar/stimulants, drugs, alcohol, smoking, and overly processed foods. Drink lots of water. Eat a largely plant based diet (with a variety of colours in your vegetables and fruit) with some nuts, lean, high quality proteins, and ancient/whole grains. Eat salads, make/eat the majority of your food at home, and buy a blender so that you can easily drink down a high number of vegetables every day.
In essence, eat real food. You already know this… now start doing it consistently. It’s never more important to do than when you’re managing chronic mental and emotional stress.
If you’re a nitpicky person who loves to take action on specific details, I did a bunch of research and these are some of the best possible foods to eat to reduce anxiety and chronic stress.
Stress busting foods: steel cut oatmeal, turkey, spinach, salmon, oranges, almonds, blueberries/blackberries, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, asparagus, and properly fermented foods like pickles/sauerkraut/kim chi (refrigerated ones, not the ones on the shelf).
And remember the saying ‘foods first, supplements second.’ You can’t just supplement your way out of a junk food filled diet. Start with clean, whole foods first and make them the majority (80+%) of your food intake.
3. Reach out to people
This is one of the most important and often most difficult steps of this entire list.
We are a social species. We NEED other people to survive and thrive. This is an unavoidable fact of your life.
One of the greatest things that I did for myself this past year was I cultivated a short list of five people that I could reach out to, 24/7, when I was at my worst. Inevitably, they wouldn’t all always be available (because people have lives and ever-shifting schedules), but there would always be at least one or two of them available to me when I needed someone to talk to.
I can’t recommend this step highly enough.
Build a team of people who you know that you can lean on for when you’re hurting.
Ask yourself, “Who do I feel safe talking to? Who do I talk to that always leaves me feeling better?” Write down that list, and then reach out to those people. Bonus points if one or several of those people have also been through challenging/difficult/traumatic times in the past that are somewhat similar to yours. You will get a more reassuring type of empathy from someone who has been there and gotten through the other side of what you’re currently experiencing.
When you reach out to them, let them know where you’re at. Tell them how you’re hurting. Be fully honest. Then, ask them if it’s alright if you reach out to them occasionally when you need help. You’ll likely be surprised at how willing people are to lend a hand when specifically called upon.
The ego primarily deals in the realm of isolation and withdrawal. This means that when you’re feeling at your worst, your mind will start to tell you that you are a burden, or unlovable, or a nuisance to other people… in order for you to not reach out to them. But you must overcome this. You have to challenge your ego by choosing against what it would have you do.
Reach out. Ask for help. There are people in your life who want to be there for you. I promise.
Aside from reaching out to our friends when we’re hurting the most, it’s also good to push ourselves to socialize even when we don’t really feel like it.
One of the best ways to get perspective on our emotional pain or chronic stress is to be around people whose spirits lift us up.
Read a book in the same room as a friend. Go for a walk with some buddies in nature. Go to a dinner gathering and be the awkwardly quiet one. Whatever. Just go. Get around people. If the alternative is staying home and wallowing in your stress/anxiety/misery for yet another night, then being around others is probably the best idea.
(Side note: obviously do this within reason. You don’t want to use socializing as a way to numb out from your emotional reality. If you need to cry or process some emotions from a recent trauma or you are grieving something, then sometimes staying home and sobbing by yourself or with the help of a friend will be the best thing for you. Honour yourself, but also don’t buy into your mind’s bullshit if you find yourself being overly isolating.)
5. Prioritize fun
I’ve spent much of the last few years optimizing my business development above all else. While this has served the millions of readers that have found their way to my work, it has not always served my emotional health or overall sense of balance.
These past few months I’ve been engaging in more things just for the fun of it.
I started playing around with film, photography, and music more frequently. I went and played trampoline dodgeball with friends every few weeks. I went and sang karaoke (terribly) just because it made me laugh.
While it isn’t always easy to feel like things are fun when you’re struggling, even attempting to do fun things is a vote of courage for your self-care. So try it out. Do fun things. Bonus points if those fun things are also done outdoors, and/or done with other people.
(Side note: for further reading on the subject/health benefits of play, check out the book Play It Away by my friend Charlie Hoehn. It’s fantastic, and seriously changed how I approach my life.)
6. Exercise in gentle, repetitive ways
You already know that exercise is good for you (beneficial for your emotional health, physical health, sexual health, etc.) but certain kinds of exercise are better than others when it comes to stress management.
Gentle, repetitive forms of exercise like yoga, walking, swimming, dancing, tai chi, cycling, lazy morning sex, and jogging are good at allowing you to sweat out some of your stress hormones, while not giving your heart rate crazy stimulating spikes and thereby inducing more stress or anxiety.
My go-to forms of exercise are dancing, walking, and hanging out in an infrared sauna at my favourite local float centre. That last one isn’t technically exercise since I don’t move my arms or legs while I’m in there… but it definitely helps me sweat out a ton of stress.
What appeals the most to you? Think about which forms of exercise would be compelling and fun for you, and put them in your calendar.
7. Do something that makes you feel alive every day
My good friend Michael taught me this one.
He went through a challenging breakup last year that rocked him to his core. It stirred up a lot of difficult stuff for him to face and process. His way out of sinking into despondency was to do one thing every day that made him feel alive. For him, that meant surfing, rock climbing, or doing Wim Hoff breathing every day. For me, that has looked like skateboarding, going for a walk along the ocean, or engaging in a deep conversation with someone whom I respect every day.
So what makes you feel alive? Even if it only feels like it helps just 1%. Do it. It will be worth it. Believe me… a bunch of 1%’s over the course of a month add up to genuine hope, ease, and happiness.
8. Slow down and breathe
If you’re reading this list so far and your mind is spinning and your heart is racing, then maybe you don’t need to be looking at a screen right now. If this is true, I’d recommend you go lie down on your bed/couch/the floor and simply breathe.
Breathe deeply into your chest. Expand your lungs fully and release your breath slowly out through your nose. You don’t always need to optimize and hack and get things right… sometimes you just need to slow down, be in your body, and breathe consciously for a couple of minutes.
“Laughter is an instant vacation.”
Emotional processing and learning to manage stress can be fucking exhausting. And sometimes you just need to force some lightness, playfulness, and laughter into your life.
Go to a live comedy show. Watch your favourite comedian online. Try a laughing meditation (where you falsely force yourself to laugh until you start laughing at your ridiculous attempts to fake laugh). Watch this video of a mascot falling on his face. Meet up with a friend who somehow manages to always make you laugh, no matter how shitty you’re feeling.
Find a way to get yourself laughing. It’ll be worth it, and a nice, healthy distraction from whatever you’re currently going through.
10. Shift the story around something that you can not control
Maybe the thing that is causing you a lot of stress is something that you have no control over. For example, maybe you recently got broken up with. Or maybe you were fired from a job you love. Or you’ve started to lose passion for your business that you run.
In any of these three cases, you can choose to switch from a victim mindset (“Life is happening TO me… I’m screwed!”) to an empowered mindset (“This thing has been cleared out of my life to make room for something even better. I can’t wait to see how this period of growth is going to make me an even better person.”).
11. Make art
I believe in the power of talk therapy. I believe in the potency of reporting your mind to someone else, in order to have them frame your experience through the lens of love and compassion. But I also believe that talk based therapy has a ceiling of efficacy. That is to say, it won’t necessarily take you all the way through your healing process. There are no singular, magic bullets when it comes to working through pain.
On top of rest, play, socializing, and living a clean lifestyle, creating art is another powerful tool that you can add to your repertoire.
Now, before you say “But I’m not creative!”, just know that, if you are a human being, then yes, you ARE creative. Your mind creates all the time. Especially if you are prone to anxiety (since anxiety, in essence, is just pure creativity – it is your mind conjuring up things to be afraid of 24/7).
Whether or not you’re already in touch with a specific art form, try something that appeals to you. Try your hand at creative writing, photography, film making, finger painting, cooking, or sketching images.
Depending on where you are in your process, one session of artistic creation could easily be akin to 5-10 sessions of talk based therapy. Art is deeply healing because it surpasses the conscious mind. Artistic creation often comes directly from your subconscious mind and translates your pain, frustration, or inner turmoil into a physical, tangible thing. Not sold? Try it out. You might be surprised by how you feel afterwards.
12. Help others
Depression, anxiety, and chronic stress can be very isolating afflictions.
They each speak to you with their incessant negative thoughts of “You are completely alone”… “You are a burden”… “You aren’t any good at life.”
One effective way to bust out of this mental rut is to remember that your life is not just about you. In fact, if you find this to be an empowering and energizing mindset to take on, you can even polarize it further and say that your life is barely about you.
Your life is more about the people that you can help, impact, and inspire. Your life is about the love, kindness, and compassion that you can spread with each and every action that you take throughout the day.
Helping others is also a great way of getting some distance on your personal situation by remembering that other people are also hurting. And by deciding to alleviate their pain or bettering their situation even 1%, you will feel better about yourself via your contribution.
Here are some quick examples of things that I know that my friends and clients have done for others when they were feeling at their lowest.
– Volunteering in soup kitchens
– Helping out friends who had recently had a newborn baby (doing laundry, doing dishes, bringing them meals, baby sitting for an hour so the parents could go for a walk by themselves)
– Going for a walk with a friend who is struggling and being a support for them
– Signing up to mentor at-risk youth
– Going around town and putting coins in people’s parking metres (beware of local legality with this one)
– Buying a bunch of dog toys and/or dog treats from a pet store, going to a dog park, and handing them out to dog owners (make sure you keep the toys/treats in their packaging so that the owners don’t think you’re secretly trying to poison their dogs or anything weird. Also, make sure to check with dog owners regarding allergies)
– Send a love note/letter of gratitude to someone in your life that you love/respect/admire
– Help a friend move
As always, start with which ever stress busting point sounds the most easy, fulfilling, and compelling. Choose your favourite, and either start doing it now or put it in your calendar to be done in the near future.
Listen, I get it. You’re in a rough place right now. That fucking sucks, and I’m so sorry that you’re hurting. I’m not taking that away from you… and if anyone else is invalidating your experience, it’s alright that they don’t understand. I find that some people that haven’t gone through much emotional pain find it difficult to connect with others who have suffered. And that’s just fine. Their experience is different than yours and not everyone is going to get it.
But as my homie Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more about self-care, self-love, and managing stress, I’d recommend checking out any or all of the following:
Dedicated to your success,