Some Simple Tools To Knock Back Stress
January 03, 2022
Yes, we are into the New Year, but let’s trade the word “resolutions” for another word starting with an “R” – a much more upbeat and soothing word: refresh.
Doesn’t that seem to be an apt word for a new beginning? Isn’t that what many of us feel we need?
Here are what I consider the most important components of truly refreshing ourselves:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Reducing stress
- Having compassion for ourselves
The importance of getting enough sleep is a serious and underrated subject. We know that most people need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night, and when they get less than seven, there is a measurable loss of concentration, a reduction of energy and a rise in the risk of disease.
We might not feel the full hit, because we think that drinking enough caffeine can make up for a few hours of sleep, and boost the energy we’re missing. It might seem that way temporarily, but you can’t fool the body or the brain. The sleep debt is still there, and it accumulates. And the caffeine lingers in the body, making it harder to get the next night’s sleep.
Then too, many people try to wind down the evening with a drink, or a glass of wine – or more. If you end up wide awake at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., this is usually why. Alcohol might initially bring on sleep, but disrupts it a few hours later. Many people are shocked at how cutting out drinks in the evening allows them to sleep through the night.
Also, a recent study shows that how well we sleep is affected by the quality of what we eat. A diet high in sugary and processed foods also diminishes the quality of our sleep.
Stress and anxiety make restful sleep difficult. Some people turn to prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids, but those do not provide the most restful sleep, and you can easily become dependent on them
Something that does help is taking time to meditate – in the day or evening, or just before bed. Even five or 10 minutes of sitting quietly and breathing deeply will bring you to a more relaxed state. Breathe in for a slow count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and breathe out slowly, perhaps to a count of eight. Do this a few times and you’ll be amazed at how much calmer you will feel.
This exercise isn’t just for bedtime. If you are nervous about a meeting or other situation you are heading into, take a few minutes privately beforehand to do some of this deep-breathing. It will immediately make you calmer.
Then there is meditation, which is not a new-age fad. The practice has been around for thousands of years because it works, but the past decades have provided the medical evidence for just how effective it is – lowering blood pressure, heart rate and so on.
Mindfulness is another commonly used word that also is not new. All that ‘mindfulness’ means is being in the moment, instead of spinning out, worrying about what might happen in the next days or months, or even the next few hours. If you keep your mind on the present moment, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to stress about future unknowns. Yoga is also a beneficial stress reduction tool and often incorporates meditation. And exercise of all types reduces stress.
We’ve all had a difficult year, and for some it’s been much worse than that. If we think about how we’ve had to radically adapt to major changes in a fairly short time, it’s only logical that we are not quite the same people with the same habits we used to have. The fact that we can’t be, for now, as socially connected or present with friends and family is painful and it takes a toll.
But criticizing yourself, or blaming yourself for things that aren’t going right, is detrimental.
Instead, it’s crucial that we have, or develop, self-compassion. There are many things we can’t control, or fit into our constricted lives, but judging ourselves harshly decreases rather than increases the probability that you can keep a healthy habit. And it’s important to show compassion to your loved ones who also may be struggling to develop a healthy habit.
There are some things we can do today. We can prioritize getting more restful sleep. Take time to breathe deeply, Treasure the moments you have instead of the worrying about what you can’t ever correctly anticipate anyway.
As the writer Corrie Ten Boom said, “Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows. It empties today of its strength.”
Let’s be as gentle and as strong as we need to be, for ourselves, and others. Let us take better care of ourselves and start one habit to refresh ourselves today.
Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, is Chief Quality and Clinical Transformation Officer at University Hospitals.