Stress management strategies go beyond popping a pill or thinking “good, happy thoughts”, rather it’s a comprehensive plan of attack with quality sleep as the catalyst that’ll turn things around.
There’s a lot of stuff bandied about focused on stress management these days. Meditate 11 hours per day. Stay present and don’t look back or too far forward. Ignore your boss. Take herbal supplements (most are crap). Spend three weeks backpacking the mountains of Tibet.
All well and good advice, and some of it surely works, but realistically most of you don’t have time to meticulously plan your day around stress-relieving activities such as these.
The baby’s diaper is soiled. Your five-year-old has soccer, music and parkour lessons each and every day. Your commute is long, and your job is hard. You just can’t. No way.
What’s the alternative then?
It’s a lot easier to just take a pill, you say, but a burst of placebo notwithstanding, most of the over-the-counter stuff simply doesn’t work. And the behind-the-counter stuff? Enough side effects to fill an entire 30-second TV spot (you’ve all seen them).
Note: If you have a diagnosed medical condition (i.e. depression) listen to your doctor’s advice over some dude on the internet (me). The commentary below is referring to stress that’s annoying, but manageable.
If popping a pill is not the answer, what about changing your diet or making a concerted effort to go to bed earlier? Food quality can make a difference in your mood and stress levels, and we all know the importance of a good night’s sleep. Sticking to either isn’t easy either, but in all honesty it’s probably easier than changing how you relate to the daily stressors of life.
Your natural stress response to shitty stuff at work or home is hardwired into your DNA. It’s not exactly easy to overcome centuries of human biology, and simply ignore your “lizard brain” fight-or-flight response that’s triggered every time your mind (wrongly) thinks you’re under threat.
So, are we screwed? Not necessarily. Try to improve your diet. Try hard to exercise. Try harder to relax and reset once in awhile. All these things help.
And then, utilize a few realistic stress relieving techniques (that are within your control) to make your life better:
1) Learn to Say No.
Our culture really likes to emphasize hard work. I get it. You don’t get anywhere without it, but if you’re the type that never declines a request just because you can’t say no, the stress of it all will catch up to you. Do you really need to stay an extra hour again today? That project will still be there at 8 AM tomorrow and you can pick up where you left off with a fresh mind and body. There’s a difference between working hard and working smart. Could delegating that task to someone make your business more efficient? If the answer is yes, don’t sweat the small stuff and move on.
2) Make Every Effort to Sleep Long & Hard (after sex, of course, which is important too)
As above, our culture too often devalues rest and leisure time, but taking time out to relax, and most importantly, get a good night’s sleep, should be prioritized. If you take nothing else from this post, this is the most important: sleep. Make every effort to sleep 7-8 hours each night, uninterrupted (sorry, kitty, your nocturnal habits aren’t welcome in the bedroom). Of course, if you have a newborn you’re going to have to deal with it for awhile, but don’t let it carry on for years at a time. If you snore and suspect you have sleep apnea, get a sleep study done! Sleep Apnea (OAS) does not only affect heavy set folks. Apnea has been linked to cardiovascular events (i.e. heart attacks) so get that shit checked out. Definition: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — a condition where the upper passages of your airway close off, interrupting your breathing and depriving you of oxygen until you wake up and start breathing again.
Another bane of modern society that doesn’t accommodate our ancestral genes is the amount of blue light we are subjected to at night.
Light bulbs, TVs and other electronic devices (think e-readers) produce large amounts of blue light and “trick” our brains into thinking that it’s daytime. This, in turn, reduces the production of the hormone melatonin in the brain, which signals bed time and gives you that sleepy feeling before bed.
The easiest and most effective way to avoid blue light is to wear amber-colored glasses a few hours before bed. They look ridiculous and your wife and child will mercilessly make fun of you, but you’ll feel better! Here’s the pair I use. These glasses effectively block blue light, so your brain doesn’t get the signal that it’s supposed to stay awake and suppress melatonin production.
Studies show that when people use blue-blocking glasses, they produce just as much melatonin as if it were dark. See the source of this information at Authority Nutrition
The graph here shows the glasses almost completely blocked the melatonin suppressing effect of the bright light, when compared to bright light subjection with no glasses on.
Again, the glasses look dorky – and I had one unfortunate mishap where I fell down a flight of stairs and bruised my tailbone with them on, but it was a leg day and I was in a frail state already. Regardless, use stairs with caution when wearing (it says so in the fine print).
There’s also a program called F.Lux that you can install on your computer to block blue light emitting from the device. To my knowledge, there’s no such program for your TV or cellphone, though. Please correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll add a link here.
3) Stick To A Routine
Essentially, the stages you undergo throughout a 24-hour cycle comprise your circadian rhythms, and consistently going to bed and waking up at the same time throughout the week (and weekend) will do wonders for your stress levels. That hangover isn’t just booze-related – the fact you went to bed at 2 AM and awoke at 9 AM (when your usual wake-up time is 6 AM) is a factor, too. Not every seven hour sleep is created equal. Our bodies are primed to stay awake and be productive at certain times of the day, and at the same time feel tired and want to go to sleep at other times.
If you’re constantly in a state of flux competing against your circadian rhythms, you’ll never be at peak performance and you’ll be exasperating your response to stress. Maybe you could get away with it at 20, but eventually a lifestyle predicated on burning the candle on both ends catches up to you. Do everything possible to stick to a routine. Boring? Sure. But if you’re perusing the internet trying to optimize your health and fitness, you’re probably willing to make sacrifices. Note: Don’t cancel that weekend bro’s trip to Vegas over this – life is still meant to be lived once in awhile!
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