Dealing with Stress

Due to some discord in my community, I’ve been feeling a great deal of emotional stress lately. It kind of sucks, but it’s also provided me a chance to recognize some of the ways in which I manage stress. These are my instructions to myself, and I thought some of you might find them helpful, too.

1. Keep breathing.

I tend to hold my breath or breathe just at the very top of my lungs when I’m stressed. Taking a moment or two to breathe slowly and deeply seems to help. If I remember, I also add in a couple of metta phrases because—well, it couldn’t hurt.

2. Eat well.

My inclination is to drown my sorrows in a bag of potato chips, a bar of chocolate, and a dry martini, but those foods just accentuate my anxiety symptoms. It’s not as satisfying in the short term, but sticking with fruits, veggies, and other whole and healthy foods leaves me feeling better.

3. Take an e-mail break.

This might not work with every stressful situation, but this particular conflict is playing out largely in a frenzy of e-mail reply-alls, which means I get a phenomenal headache and my left eye twitches every time I look at my inbox. Checking e-mail only during two or three set times each day and logging off the rest of the time has been helping. I do worry that I’ll miss something important that’s unrelated to the stressful stuff, though, so if this lasts much longer, I’ll set up a filter and funnel all of the unpleasant e-mails to a folder I can look at when I feel ready for it.

4. Go outside.

Spring arrived in New England not a moment too soon. I take several walks a day, both with my kids and on my own, and while the sunshine and birdsong and peeping frogs don’t cure my headaches, they sure make them easier to bear.

5. Exercise.

Rather than curl up under a quilt, which is what I want to do, I’ve been getting up at 5:30 every morning and doing an hour of Fitness Blender workouts. Admittedly, I do not enjoy these workouts while I’m doing them, and I curse Daniel and Kelly with every jumping lunge or flutter-kick squat, but I feel deliciously exhausted afterward and ready for a shower and the rest of my day.

6. Keep an open heart.

As much as I want to close up and run away or lose myself in fantasies of moving to Asheville (North Carolina) or Brisbane (Australia), I’m doing my best to keep myself here both physically and emotionally. “Cut and run” is practically my motto, but I suspect sticking around offers me a great chance for spiritual growth and learning.

7. Connect with my senses.

On my walks, I look for rabbits and newly-opened flowers. I take my camera and look for new angles on the same old sights. I tune into my kids, especially when they’re playing harmoniously together. I smell the herbs and spices as I measure them into the soup, and I taste the grapefruit on my tongue. These things ground me.

8. Do something for someone else.

Taking meals to a friend or looking up fun, new dessert recipes to delight my family or surprising my spouse by doing the dinner dishes while he’s reading to the kids at bedtime help me take the focus off of my own stress and anger, fear and self-pity. Hugging people also helps.

9. Sleep.

When I’m stressed, I don’t sleep as well, which means I need to stay in bed longer to get enough rest to function well. I’ve been trying to prioritize an early bedtime over other important but less time-sensitive tasks (like my own pleasure reading). I definitely feel the difference when I’ve gotten a solid eight hours (or more).

10. Keep my family and friends close.

Maybe it’s the oxytocin release of being with loved ones, but it’s been helping to make time in my schedule just to be with my spouse, my kids, and my friends. All of them are precious to me and remind me that I’m precious to them, too, and that helps neutralize some of the negative effects of working through this conflict (even though—or perhaps because?—I rarely talk with them about it directly).

These are the things that have helped me during this most recent stressful time. They don’t erase the stress completely (and I certainly don’t do all of these things perfectly all the time), but every little bit helps.

What do you do to manage stress in your life?

Course Correction: The Little Audacious Plan

I was going to start a Big, Hairy, Audacious Plan on October 1st. It was going to be awesome. It was going to last more than a year and by the end I was going to be fitter, healthier, better rested. I’d know how to play the piano, would speak Spanish fluently, would be submitting stories and essays for publication on a regular basis, and would have read and comprehended at least one dozen literary classics.

But then reality sunk in.

At first I mistook reality for my husband being a naysayer for questioning my plan.* I called him that and many other things and then I went to bed. Even though I have not been sleeping well at all (~5 hours a night, interrupted by my three-year-old), I could not go to sleep. I lay there for an hour trying to fake my way to sleep until I finally got up and made my jittery, anxious self go to the kitchen and journal while I ate a snack.

It was during this time that I realized that I was just totally fried. The insomnia, the digestive symptoms, the eczema, the weight fluctuations, the anxiety—all of it was related. And none of it would be solved by my Big, Hairy, Audacious Plan.

So I devised another plan. A Little Audacious Plan. A Gentle Audacious Plan.

It goes like this:

1) Deactivate my personal Facebook profile. Yes, I know it was less than six months ago that I reactivated it with my cleverly devised pseudonym and all of that. I had very good reasons for doing so, but over these months I realized that, although it’s not the only cause of my being fried, my interactions on Facebook certainly weren’t fostering calm and a sense of wellbeing. On the contrary, they were making me anxious. They were making me irritable. They were making me want to move to the frozen north of Canada and live in a travel trailer with nothing but caribou and lichen and permafrost to keep me company. I lamented the fact that I would not be able to grow a beard in this scenario. Instead, I deactivated my Facebook account in a fit of insomnia. Also a rash decision, but perhaps not as rash as Option A. (My Imperfect Happiness Facebook Page remains intact, as does my @imperfecthappy Twitter account.)

2) Meditate. Like a lot of meditation. Formal meditation twice a day and informal (reminding myself to take a deep breath or, if necessary/possible, lying on the floor with my eyes shut for a few breaths at least once an hour).

3) Practice Gentle Yoga. At least thirty minutes a day of the slow-moving, breath-led variety as part of my bedtime routine. This isn’t for physical fitness; it’s for activation of my parasympathetic nervous system.

4) Write. Since I was seven, I’ve been told that I was a “great writer.” Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more bogged down by the contradiction between being told that I was a “great writer” and struggling with that very activity. If I’m a great writer, why is it so difficult? If I’m a great writer, why didn’t I get more than a polite rejection letter for that short story I submitted in 2004? Why did I get rejected for that incredibly competitive writing fellowship with the famous author’s name attached to it? Why didn’t I get into the renowned MFA program? Why didn’t I win higher than fifth place in that writing competition in seventh grade? I could reason through only one very painful conclusion: I am not a great writer. After several years of mourning, I finally decided that even if I wasn’t a great writer, I still wanted to be a writer. I don’t have to be great to have fun. So, that’s what I’ll be trying to do with Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes’s The Pen and the Bell. With a different focus area in each chapter, this book leads the reader through exercises designed to access the shared benefits of both writing and contemplative practice. I’ll focus on one chapter a month, writing every day using the exercises outlined at the end of each chapter. With any luck, this will help me to rediscover the joy and fun that writing used to hold.

There are some other nitty-gritty guidelines I plan to practice around internet usage, media consumption, fostering compassion, and building relationships, but these are the high points. I’ll plan to check in weekly and let you know how I’m doing.

The formal writing practice will begin October 1st. For items 1 through 3, I’m not waiting until October 1st; I’m starting right now.

*I still think my husband was being a naysayer, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.