I’ve never really thought of myself as a stressed out person. I’ll be late for an event from time to time, which bugs me. I’ve never finished a paper sooner than 6 hours before it’s due. I have a bad habit of leaving too late for international flights and enjoying frantic nail biting cab rides to the airport. But generally I’m pretty unflappable. I haven’t been able to chalk it up to my great willpower or zen meditation strategies; it’s just a personality thing I can pat myself on the back for.
But over the last year, a career change has made me realize that I’m far more of a stressball than I ever imagined. Awake at 3am worrying about details of a project? Sure, a couple times a week. Frantic hand-wringing over conference calls gone bad and missed deadlines? Totes! Skipping a meal because I have too much work and my stomach’s too much in knots to eat? Unheard of for this food snob, and more frequent that I dreamed possible. Realizing that personality and circumstances can only take you so far is humbling indeed: definitely a necessary correction (and one I’m still undergoing).
Still, humility is all well and good – until you give yourself an ulcer in the process. Stress sucks. And it’s everywhere, not just work (although the driven East Coasters amongst us may struggle more). A relationship will inevitably have problems, and those problems cause stress. Health issues? The hoary cliché that “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything” is true. Really, if you are a person who cares about something and that something goes wrong, you’ll have stress!
If you read a lot of faux sciencey wellness blogs (like I do), you’ve seen the articles on inflammation and what a horrible thing it is and how it could be the root of all evil, or at least all health-related evil. I will let science take its time to weigh in on this. We can look forward to the studies and peer reviews and sensationalist science journalism over the next few years. But in the meantime, the very habits that prevent inflammation – exercise, eating well, sleep – are ones that help manage the stress we all encounter in various ways. They’re the basics, the foundational elements for healthy, stress-free living. Do they work for the stressed-out urbanite? Let’s see!
The theory: We all know we’re supposed to do it. Michelle Obama says we should and have you seen her arms? It’s supposed to be walking, or maybe running, or maybe $40 spin classes. 60 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Or was that 20 minutes every day? Or 150 minutes a week? Definitely with weights, unless you do Pilates or something where your body uses its own weight for resistance. Crossfit! That’s where all the serious exercisers are, like VP candidate Paul Ryan. There’s that thing with kettle bells, or maybe it’s just better to take up a sport, something you enjoy like soccer (remember how much you liked soccer in high school?) or archery like Katniss in the Hunger Games.
The reality: When you’re working 12+ hour days, exercise just becomes another thing to worry about scheduling. I hate treadmills and stationary bikes and ellipticals and all forms of repetitive indoor cardio, so I end up trying to squeeze in exercise classes, which tend to be the first thing to fall off my schedule. When I’m tired and stressed, the last thing I want to do is get up early for the gym. Those of you who can do those 6am runs: I commend you. But when you’re under stress, you don’t need yet another time pressure. You’re exercising to make yourself feel better and help you preserve your sanity. I actually like yoga, and going to a yoga class feels less like a chore and more something I (mostly) enjoy. Ergo, I will do it. It’s been a huge help in 2012’s “Summer of Stress”. If you loathe absolutely all forms of exercise, try to combine it with something you do like – a great playlist, a class with a friend you don’t get to see often, even a walk with your significant other. There will be plenty of low-key times in your life to start that kettle bell routine. For now, find the one thing you like and do that a few times a week.
The theory: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Cook your own meals so you can control the levels of preservatives, fat, sugar and salt; use locally sourced ingredients, seasonal and organic when possible. Meatless Monday. Avoid dairy. Vegan before 6. Eat when you’re hungry, eat what’s good for you, eat intuitively. Stay away from processed foods (five ingredients or less). Think about antioxidants. Get enough omega-3 fatty acids. Never drink soda. Get enough omega-6 fatty acids. Try a juice cleanse. When in doubt: kale.
The reality: If you’re looking for an intricate hobby with complexities that rival the financial models keeping you late at work, navigating the healthy eating industrial complex is for you! My company has a lovely little snack bar with approximately 100 different types of food on offer (sandwiches, beverages, cookies, chips, coffee, etc). Of these 100 items, healthy eating will permit me to eat five: green tea, apples, bananas, oranges and Greek yogurt. I love all of those things, but by the time Friday rolls around, the banana, Greek yogurt and apple routine gets pretty old. When you’re stressed, eating crap makes you feel bad. But you know what also feels bad? Not finding enough healthy crap to eat. So you’re left with whatever Seamless Web can provide as you scarf down at least two of your meals at your desk each day. I’m gonna be real: this one is hard. My one real piece of advice is to find a good salad bar and eat your vegetables. Skip the food-coma inducing sandwiches and sugars that spike (and crash) your blood sugar levels. Try to eat at regular times, eat as many veggies as you can, get some lean protein and remember that eating well will even out your blood sugar, make you more productive and help you feel better.
The theory: 7-8 hours. In a calm, cool, dark room without a tv. Turn off screen media an hour before you plan to sleep. Become familiar with the phrase “sleep hygiene” and develop a bedtime routine. No more late nights out on the weekend – try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Alcohol disrupts sleep, so stop or limit your drinking.
The reality: Haha! Really?? No alcohol or late nights? Are our bodies not familiar with the social habits of the average urban resident? I can’t even read my iPhone before I go to sleep? It’s crazy and counterintuitive that checking out for eight hours a day actually improves our productivity, energy and health. But sleep is one of the biggest things we can do to lower stress, and if you’re serious about not being a stressball, you’re going to have to bow out of social occasions to be lame and go to bed. Now, quality sleep – sleep where you don’t wake up at 4am remembering that important email you forgot to reply to – takes a little more effort. Which brings me to my last foundational element:
So, you have to exercise, eat vegetables AND give up bourbon if you want to live a less stressed life? Well, yes. You also have to remember you’re not in control – and that’s okay! Worrying (what you’re doing at 4am) is nagging fear that things won’t turn out the way you want them to. It means that deep down, you believe that 1) you know what’s best and 2) if things don’t go your way, it’ll be disastrous. Stop right now and take a minute to think back on something good that happened to you a few years ago. Should you get full credit for making that good thing happen and making sure it went according to plan? Probably not! Now think about something negative. Same deal, right? Take another minute to think about the things in your life that you’re most grateful for. How many of those things can you claim responsibility for?
My point is not that we should count our blessings – though we should – but that we are not in charge. And recognizing that can be scary, but it is also freeing. Projects may bomb at work, emails may not get sent, you might even fail a time or two or three. I’m not saying don’t do your best. Do your best! But accept that you can never do it all and you can certainly never do it at 4am. Give up a little control. It’s what I’m trying to do. Then I’ll go to yoga, drink a green juice and get to bed by 11.