Is Doing Less the Key to Stress Relief?

Here’s the thing about stress. It seems that more often than not, standard suggestions to relieve your stress involve something that you have to do like taking a yoga class, learning to meditate or taking up a hobby. These are all great ideas, but they also mean carving out more time from your schedule, learning how to do something new or trying some activity that just further complicates your life.I get it, because I’ve seen some very stressful days that I wasn’t sure I’d survive. In 2017, my husband and I moved temporarily from Minnesota to Colorado to take care of our terminally ill son. We were caring for him while juggling work and our lives back in Minnesota. It was an incredibly stressful time and there was no opting out. As a result, I’m well-acquainted with intense and unrelenting stress. The thing is that I didn’t have time to go take a class or add anything into my life. I needed to get through tough days without adding to the stress load. So I tried to cope—and some days I didn’t cope well—but in the end, I learned a lot about dealing with stress on a limited time budget. Here are my best suggestions—and how I got through: Breathe. This may sound like a cliché, but taking a couple of deep breaths actually activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which tells your body to calm down, relax and recover from stress. Another technique is to concentrate on each inhalation and exhalation for a few minutes. This helps your mind focus on the moment at hand instead of worrying about the past or feeling anxious about the future. Whatever you’re doing, take it outdoors. The fresh air can help clear your head. Even better is spending that time in green space like a garden, park or wooded area. Through a great deal of research, scientists have discovered that spending time on wooded or green areas can decrease your stress, reduce your blood pressure and regulate your body’s stress hormones. And it doesn’t have to be a time drain, sit outside when you can, walk by your favorite garden or eat lunch on a park bench. Tune out stressful news. It’s important to know what’s going on in the world, but scouring the internet for news stories that upset you, called doomscrolling, only contributes to your stress and makes you feel worse. Trust me, you’re better off playing mindless online games than looking at negative news. Rest. Your body recovers from the wear and tear of a stressful day or difficult periods in your life through rest and sleep. Also, being well-rested makes you better able to take on life’s challenges than when you’re exhausted. It helps to make you more resilient. Eat well. On the worst days when my son was sick, I’d come home and immediately head for the jumbo-sized bag of potato chips. In fact, how fast I hit the bag and how many chips I ate were directly related to how bad the day went. I quickly learned that eating this way only sapped my energy and made me feel gross. Fortunately, that habit was short-lived. What I did find was that eating regular meals that were balanced and mostly plant based actually gave me energy and helped me maintain my health despite overwhelming stress. Move your body. I know this may sound like one more thing to do, but just taking a walk at lunch or choosing the stairs instead of the elevator can help protect your body from the many health issues and symptoms that can arise from enduring long-term stress. Meditate or visualize. Many people thing that meditation involves sitting cross legged on the floor mentally repeating a mantra—which it can. But it doesn’t have to. Just picturing your favorite beach or a garden in full bloom in your mind is also a kind of meditation called visualization. And it can be done lying in bed, sitting in your doctor’s waiting room or during a work break. Just the simple act of quieting your mind can activate a calming response by your body’s nervous system. If you’re trying to do it all, just stop. Let go of things that just aren’t that important. I’ve learned to classify the things that stress me out as priorities—A, B, C and D. The A priorities are the ones that I need to pay attention to, and do something about if I can. The B’s are a little less important, but still need my attention. The C and D priorities, not so much. This allows me to say no to irritating errands and tasks I don’t want to do, and avoid getting caught up in problems that aren’t that important. Let go of your anger. If you’re outraged, angry or holding a grudge, know that those negative feelings are hurting your health far more than the object of your anger. In fact, it’s possible that they don’t even know or care about the extent of your feelings. And the stress caused by negative emotions can have a very real impact on your health, adversely affecting your sleep, appetite, blood pressure and heart, just for starters. There can be a real sense of freedom in releasing angry or hurt feelings that you’ve been holding onto for months or years or decades.

Is Doing Less the Key to Stress Relief?

Here’s the thing about stress. It seems that more often than not, standard suggestions to relieve your stress involve something that you have to do like taking a yoga class, learning to meditate or taking up a hobby. These are all great ideas, but they also mean carving out more time from your schedule, learning how to do something new or trying some activity that just further complicates your life.

I get it, because I’ve seen some very stressful days that I wasn’t sure I’d survive. In 2017, my husband and I moved temporarily from Minnesota to Colorado to take care of our terminally ill son. We were caring for him while juggling work and our lives back in Minnesota. It was an incredibly stressful time and there was no opting out. As a result, I’m well-acquainted with intense and unrelenting stress.

The thing is that I didn’t have time to go take a class or add anything into my life. I needed to get through tough days without adding to the stress load. So I tried to cope—and some days I didn’t cope well—but in the end, I learned a lot about dealing with stress on a limited time budget. Here are my best suggestions—and how I got through:

Breathe. This may sound like a cliché, but taking a couple of deep breaths actually activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which tells your body to calm down, relax and recover from stress. Another technique is to concentrate on each inhalation and exhalation for a few minutes. This helps your mind focus on the moment at hand instead of worrying about the past or feeling anxious about the future.

Whatever you’re doing, take it outdoors. The fresh air can help clear your head. Even better is spending that time in green space like a garden, park or wooded area. Through a great deal of research, scientists have discovered that spending time on wooded or green areas can decrease your stress, reduce your blood pressure and regulate your body’s stress hormones. And it doesn’t have to be a time drain, sit outside when you can, walk by your favorite garden or eat lunch on a park bench.

Tune out stressful news. It’s important to know what’s going on in the world, but scouring the internet for news stories that upset you, called doomscrolling, only contributes to your stress and makes you feel worse. Trust me, you’re better off playing mindless online games than looking at negative news.

Rest. Your body recovers from the wear and tear of a stressful day or difficult periods in your life through rest and sleep. Also, being well-rested makes you better able to take on life’s challenges than when you’re exhausted. It helps to make you more resilient.

Eat well. On the worst days when my son was sick, I’d come home and immediately head for the jumbo-sized bag of potato chips. In fact, how fast I hit the bag and how many chips I ate were directly related to how bad the day went. I quickly learned that eating this way only sapped my energy and made me feel gross. Fortunately, that habit was short-lived. What I did find was that eating regular meals that were balanced and mostly plant based actually gave me energy and helped me maintain my health despite overwhelming stress.

Move your body. I know this may sound like one more thing to do, but just taking a walk at lunch or choosing the stairs instead of the elevator can help protect your body from the many health issues and symptoms that can arise from enduring long-term stress.

Meditate or visualize. Many people thing that meditation involves sitting cross legged on the floor mentally repeating a mantra—which it can. But it doesn’t have to. Just picturing your favorite beach or a garden in full bloom in your mind is also a kind of meditation called visualization. And it can be done lying in bed, sitting in your doctor’s waiting room or during a work break. Just the simple act of quieting your mind can activate a calming response by your body’s nervous system.

If you’re trying to do it all, just stop. Let go of things that just aren’t that important. I’ve learned to classify the things that stress me out as priorities—A, B, C and D. The A priorities are the ones that I need to pay attention to, and do something about if I can. The B’s are a little less important, but still need my attention. The C and D priorities, not so much. This allows me to say no to irritating errands and tasks I don’t want to do, and avoid getting caught up in problems that aren’t that important.

Let go of your anger. If you’re outraged, angry or holding a grudge, know that those negative feelings are hurting your health far more than the object of your anger. In fact, it’s possible that they don’t even know or care about the extent of your feelings. And the stress caused by negative emotions can have a very real impact on your health, adversely affecting your sleep, appetite, blood pressure and heart, just for starters. There can be a real sense of freedom in releasing angry or hurt feelings that you’ve been holding onto for months or years or decades.

Tap into your creativity. Remember that creative thing that you used to love doing? Whether it’s snapping photos, journaling, drawing, making

music or growing herbs in a pot outside your back door, the creative process is healing. That’s because creative endeavors can help you express some of the feelings and emotions that may be hard to talk about and it helps to lower stress and anxiety. I found this to be true through keeping a journal while our son was sick and by writing a book after his death. Having done so felt therapeutic and gave me a way to process all that had happened. Finding your creative voice can help you, too.

Regardless of the type of stress or emotional upheaval you may be experiencing, there are small but effective ways to cope. The first step is to recognize that stress may be a problem, and the second is to find real and meaningful ways to cope. Your health depends on it.