Me being a total mess in my "Zen Den."
The Stressful Situation
I am a happy mess right now. I am more behind on deadlines than I have ever been. I have editorial revisions to make that I haven't started. I fell behind on my emails for one day last week and have been drowning in them ever since.
Combined with the mess of a recent move, boxes everywhere, a new home that is not fully furnished yet, and hair that decided to be huge yesterday... all I can say is that worrying about these things used to run me ragged. These days, I allow the little imperfections to exist. Sure, they bother me, but my relationship to them has changed: rather than letting the uncomfortable feelings spur me into frenzied action, I focus on stress-reduction instead.
Even the littlest of life's "stressors" are still unpleasant, the main difference is how I respond to them. Instead of reacting to them and heeding what my stressful thoughts are telling me to do (i.e. override my need for relaxation in order to meet a goal), I make a point of tending to my baseline level of stress to make sure it doesn't become unmanageable.
It's important for me to point out that not all stressors have to be "bad." Even good, joyous events — like my high school bestie's wedding — can pose stress in the form of change to routine, tiring and difficult travel, and a mounting workload that goes unattended while you're off P.T.R.-ing (painting the town red). Distractions of any kind can throw us off our game temporarily, but thats ok — that's life. All you have to do is learn how to plan for them, deal with them, and get back on the wellness wagon.
Above: Talley, Emma, and me at our lifelong friend Jordan's wedding.
As a Virgo, I hate the feeling of an unchecked "to-do" on my list... even my need for a pedicure is currently causing me real distress. When I'm stressed out, it can almost feel painful for me to put important work aside. But the irony is, stress-induced feelings and thoughts are typically self-perpetuating. Putting work aside to reset my mind was just what I needed to induce the body's relaxation response and to stop my stress response from running amok.
That's why, as a clinician, I've planned for these self-sabotaging thoughts, impulses, and feelings that arise when confronted by my personal stress triggers. As I've mentioned before, I now make stress-reduction a priority in my life — it's important for my happiness and my health — and the beauty of my MSW degree is that I have accumulated an extensive toolkit of self-care, grounding, self-soothing, distraction, and coping techniques to draw from when I notice my anxiety starting to rise. (Those are the clinical terms for them, but they're really just everyday activities or hobbies.)
Just yesterday, I was in the midst of a stress tornado... but in 30 minutes, I had re-claimed my zen. As someone who used to suffer from debilitating anxiety, the ability to stop my anxious thinking in its tracks has been life-altering. Now I'd like to tell you how I did it in case you'd like to try one day, too.
What I Did
It's not like everyone has the freedom to stop for an impromptu self-care practice like I can and that makes me so grateful for my lifestyle. I used to work in an environment where taking a break like this was definitely not an option.
Now that I have the freedom to tend to my wellness first, this is what I did to put self-care first. Tip: To make your own mini wellness ritual, change it up to reflect things that bring you back to a place of inner stillness, or otherwise reduce your stress. Almost anything can count and engaging as many of the physical senses as possible works like magic.
(1) Get physically comfy.
I changed into some athleisure samples I received from Brooks Running. I love this black mesh style because they're on-trend, but subtle — definitely not OTT. I wore them for yoga, but I can see why runners would like them — they're made of thin, "second skin" material, as opposed to my usual Athleta leggings. I can safely say this is now the cutest workout outfit I own. Thanks, Brooks running!
Brooks Running FastForward Crossback ($34); Brooks Running Ghost High Waist Mesh Crop ($90)
(2) Smell something pleasant.
The use of aromatherapy is becoming widespread with the essential oil trend, but smelling something pleasant is a legit therapeutic technique — even when you don't choose spiritually significant scents. Using any of your physical senses is considered a grounding technique that can help distract you from stressful or upsetting thoughts. Bring your awareness to your body and sniff something lovely, including cookies, clean laundry, or perfume.
Being me, I chose to burn some sage. I love that it's supposed to dispel negative energy, but mostly it has a subduing effect on me that always makes me relax. Burning sage and incense at the same time puts me in a total stupor; but if you want something a little less unique, I've also been loving this aromatic candle from Nest Fragrances.
Crafty Cake Smudge Bundles ($14); Nest Fragrance Grapefruit Candle ($40)
(3) Spritz your face.
Splashing cold water on your face — or literally dunking your face into cold water — will actually work if you find yourself in a place of panic. It's an instinctual reaction in the body that happens when your face goes into cold water. But I just wanted a little soothing aromatherapy in the form of a skin-friendly face mist, so I chose a lavender face mist from a luxury green beauty brand, Georgette Klinger. (Hillary Clinton uses this line!)
Georgette Klinger Lavender Facial Mist ($10)
(Photo via Do Yoga With Me)
(4) Do some yoga.
Do Yoga With Me is a great, free online streaming website where you can follow along with real instructors' classes. Today I discovered this 20-minute Vinyasa for Vitality class that I found really grounding. Getting your blood flowing, regulating your breathing, and bringing your awareness to the sensations in your body are all incredibly therapeutic for stressed out people. We store our unconscious memories in our body, so working out the knots and tensions — and getting healing blood flowing — is emotionally and physically refreshing.
Even though it's hard to keep your mind focused on the postures, your breathing, and the physical sensations, especially when you have anxious thoughts running through your mind, part of the practice is gently guiding your attention back when you notice your thoughts have wandered. Believe it or not, the kinder and gentler you are to yourself with your corrections, the easier your progress will be. (In other words, when you lose focus, don't feel obligated to get angry or frustrated with yourself — that actually impedes the process.)
(5) Have a snack + water.
Whether it's Alkaline water with electrolytes and dried goji berries, or La Croix and leftovers, being hangry never helps. Hint: CBD or a little toke of MJ (if you partake) can work wonders, too.
By the end of my break, I was able to focus again. Plus, I was more grounded in my perspective and realized that there's plenty of time for me to get my work done. I actually made the decision to let go of a newer client because I found that my rising stress levels were becoming problematic. But even before I reached out to my client, I already felt confident that I could get through my work thanks to the reduction in my anxiety.
Stress hormones in the body have an effect like a negative lens that distorts our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Whatever you perceive while stressed will come across differently when you're calm, and this occurs simultaneously on all levels (i.e. biologically, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc.)
So, I used my break to reset my mind. Rather than staying in a compromised mindset, which would have perpetuated the cyclical stress patterns, I got back to my DGAF-baseline. While I knew I could have gone full workaholic, I realized that I don't want to put myself through that. Now, I have a lighter workload and less of a mental block against completing it.
Lastly, the quality of my work improves when I access my zen. (Attitudes and feelings tend to make themselves evident in my writing in some way or another!)
I believe in empowerment via understanding, so I'm going to provide a little background on why this works. I encourage you to come up with your own practices and feel free to reach out with questions.
Awareness is the first step. When you catch the thought, feeling, or signs of stress early enough, you can interrupt the stress process, nipping it right in the bud. But sometimes awareness isn't enough and you have to consciously realign your mind with a more positive track — it's actually really easy to do. The sooner you catch those fear-based thoughts, you have a number of ways to intervene — you can re-frame or change the dialogue of your thinking, shake up the tension in your body, focus your attention on something emotionally neutral or positive, etc. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, and activities can all help you interrupt the stress response.
How? They invoke body's relaxation response (it's a real thing), which kicks in to counter the stress process. Think about the things that make you calm, that bring you to your most peaceful states — these are the types of activities to prioritize if you want to make wellness a bigger part of your life. Things like shopping, going to the spa, getting acupuncture, snuggling your dogs, and spending time in nature all count! The key is that they speak to you enough to get you out of your stress-rut.
Once you identify and start practicing these things, your brain remembers. The best thing about the brain is that when you choose an alternative to stress, you're training your brain a new, healthier alternative. This forms a new neural pathway, and each time you engage in a stress-reduction activity, you are strengthening the positive behaviors and reinforcing a lifestyle in which an alternative to unmitigated stress exists. Thanks to something called neuro-plasticity, this practice can continue re-program your brain to have healthier responses to stressors throughout your entire life course. (You can teach an old dog new tricks!)
It works because of something called Pearlin's Stress Process Model. Once the stress response abates, the stress hormone, cortisol, stops being produced — and its associated mental and physical repercussions subside. I could go on about this for hours because I wrote a research paper on this exact topic during grad school, but learning to do this is glorious. Each time you "learn" to have a healthier response to stress, it gets easier because your body remembers. It's just like you learned a new trick and practice makes you better at it.
The point is, you can trust me on this because I'm a professional: When you begin to feel overwhelmed, give yourself permission to stop and tend to your stress ASAP, even though your stress-influenced thoughts are telling you to keep working at all costs.
I have found that once calm, my ability to be present and to focus improves so drastically that the quality of my work far exceeds my "stressed-out best." My boyfriend Tom talked about the very same concept just this morning! Presence is everything and when stress derails your concentration, getting centered is key.
So that's what I did yesterday when I felt myself begin to unravel. I finished revisions on an article for Brit + Co. on the topic of stress-reducing beauty products (what do you think inspired my break?!) and then gave myself some "me-time" — just like my Shine Text instructed me to do.
(It seriously worked, I relaxed!)
Before I restructured my lifestyle to prioritize my wellness, I wouldn't have been stuck in this position. I would probably have considered myself a lot more "responsible" and outwardly accomplished, but I'd still feel like a "wired-but-tired" wreck pretty much all the time.
These days, I feel fulfilled and at peace. I look forward to the work I do and I get to spend quality time with my dogs — and myself — every day. The place I'm at took a long process of changes and adjustments to my beliefs, my reality, and my lifestyle, before I found things that worked for me.
The issue all along was that in meeting the demands of my former lifestyle, I neglected to prioritize my own wellness. But running myself ragged all the time wasn't just impacting my happiness, it was actually damaging my health in a medically-verifiable way. Now that I understand the many causes of inflammation and stress in the world — as well as the role stress plays in triggering my underlying health condition — I give myself permission to put myself first (and don't even feel guilty about it, either).
It's not just that I'm happier, more positive, and sleep like a champ every night; I'm also more intentional about who I am, which allows me to feel better about myself. When I'm kinder to myself, I'm kinder to others — and when I'm stressed out and unfriendly (I sassed a customer service agent the other day), I feel guilty and self-judgmental.
As someone who was formerly plagued by chronic anxiety and insomnia, I know that a daily practice of self-care and stress-reduction —via frequent and regular activation of the relaxation response — needs to be a priority in my life. That's why when I felt overwhelmed by my workload, I finished up the article I was working on (it's for my favorite editor, I just can't say no!), took a walk with my dogs, and took part in the impromptu wellness ritual I described above.
What are ways that you manage your stress? Tell me on Instagram!
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