I don’t know about you-but for me 2020 has been a bit of a stressful year. So I thought I’d share with you some of the things I do everyday to reduce stress and anxiety. But in this video I’m also going to explain a way of thinking about stress that can transform it from just something bad that happens to you into something that you can channel and use to be more productive, and also to help you feel calmer.
You’re going to learn 10 daily habits to reduce stress and anxiety. And don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to meditate.
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Ancient Brain-Modern Stress
So I’ve been reading the Little House on the prairie books to my daughter, and in book 3 we read a story about Almanzo, and his farming family in the 1800’s, and they survived off of what they grew. In one of the stories, right before the 4th of July, they’ve got their corn starting to sprout in the fields and the weather starts to get weird, it seems like it’s going to freeze. Before they go to bed the parents start to worry a little about the crops, they don’t sleep, they stay up and watch the temperature and sure enough, it does start to freeze. So they get all the kids out of bed in the middle of the night and the only way to save the corn is to pour water on each of the tiny stalks before the sun comes up. If they don’t, their corn will freeze and they’ll have no harvest that year. So every member of the family anxiously ran through the night, hand watering each little corn sprout in their acres and acres of fields. By the time the sun rose, they had managed to save most of their crop, and they were exhausted, but also content. And, after they did the rest of their morning chores, they were able to sit back, relax and appreciate the hard work they’d done.
The Function of Stress
The stress response is your body’s activating response. When you sense a threat (in Almanzo’s case, their livelihood was about to be destroyed) your body turns on the sympathetic response, sends out some adrenaline to spur you into action, heightens your breathing and heart rate to prep you for performance. Almanzo and his family used their stress response to spur them on, the worry helped them be vigilant, not sleep, and then take impressive action. This stress response potentially saved them from complete crop failure.
Anxiety isn’t just something bad that happens to you, it serves a function. Our modern language confuses “Anxiety” with “Anxiety disorder” and has given a negative connotation to the word anxiety. But anxiety isn’t out to get you, it’s your body and mind’s performance mode. The stress or anxiety response can help you have more energy and get more done, and then naturally resolve if you know how to channel it.
I’m going to teach you daily habits you can use to resolve your anxiety. When you think of Anxiety as a motivating energy to resolve problems, Anxiety can become a powerful tool instead of just something bad that you want to avoid. And even if you do have an anxiety disorder. These tools will help you reduce your stress levels and get healthier.
The Modern Problem of Stress:
One of the reasons that so many people struggle with stress and anxiety is that we face a few modern problems that make it a lot harder for us to deal with stress than Almanzo and his family had back in the eighteen hundreds. Because our anciently evolved brain isn’t so good at dealing with modern stressors, we need to take an intentional approach to managing anxiety.
1. Resolve the physical stress reaction with exercise
The first problem that many of us face is that so many of our modern stressors are connected to problems that we can’t solve physically. So in Almanzo’s case, when they were worried and got that jolt of adrenaline and cortisol, they were able to use that physical energy to solve a physical problem. They didn’t feel stressed afterwards, because they burned off the adrenaline and cortisol when they were running around solving the problem. For many of us, our modern stressors are things like deadlines, assignments, traffic noise, our “crops” are sitting at a computer instead of planting corn. So if I am stressed about a problem at work, I may not sleep, and I may even solve the problem, but the adrenaline and cortisol stay in my system until I physically burn them off. So this is where exercise becomes clutch.
Daily exercise is an essential part of reducing pent-up anxiety and stress. 5 Minutes of exercise has been shown to reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels. Exercise can decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Aerobic exercise, you know, where you’re breathing really hard- tends to be the most effective, but any kind of movement is helpful. Going for a walk or bike ride or, even just doing wall sits in the office or stretching for a minute during the day can help. So find a way to add some movement to your day.
2. Reduce Stress with a Morning Routine
How you start your day is going to set the tone for your entire day. If you’re like many people, the first things you do make your anxiety worse. Perhaps you’re tired because you went to bed too late, so the first thing you do is you look at the news or social media, and then you drink some caffeine.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It crosses the blood brain barrier in seconds and it makes you feel more alert by reducing adenosine- that’s a relaxation chemical in your brain. It also increases adrenaline, and can make you feel more irritable, agitated and anxious. You develop a tolerance to the alerting effects, but not to the anxiety effects. Caffeine use can impact your anxiety and sleep for up to 48 hours and it contributes to anxiety and depressive disorders. So if you’re serious about decreasing your anxiety, try getting it out for your system for at least 3 days and see how it impacts you.
If you feel tired, one thing you could try is getting more sleep :). Sleep helps your brain function better, which makes it so you can better solve problems and resolve situations that bring you anxiety.
If the idea of making these changes seems overwhelming, start slowly. Make one little change every month. There is no quick and easy fix for Anxiety, but you can drastically reduce your anxiety by making small and sustainable changes.
3. Don't let media control your adrenaline glands
Now let’s talk about your media consumption.
Our anciently evolved brain is much better adapted to the world of Little house on the prairie than it is to modern media. Almanzo and Laura may have gotten a newspaper once a week, or heard news from town occasionally, but that news was often about local events. The news was brief, infrequent, and actionable. Stress about the news could be resolved by taking action. So if a couple in town got married they could make them a present, or if a barn burned down, they could go help build a new one.
This is the opposite of what we have today, 24/7 streams of disasters around the world that trigger the stress response but prompt little action.
If you wake up in the morning and just start scrolling through your feeds or start watching the news, you are basically giving other people the power over your adrenaline glands. I do not recommend starting the day off with news.
If you sit back right now and think- what do I want the tone of my day to be? Upbeat. Calm. Self-Assured. Peaceful. Powerful. What kind of media does that for you? For me it’s prayer and scripture study first thing. For you it may be meditation, journaling, uplifting music, but the important thing is that the first thing you do is something you choose.
I choose to check a couple of straightforward news sources once or twice a day. And choose to focus more of my time on areas that I can take action on.
4. Turn on the parasympathetic response by marking tasks as complete
The stress response is supposed to help you. It’s about performance and taking action, but it’s also supposed to be a short term reaction. It’s healthy for bursts of speed, but it becomes unhealthy when it’s chronic and the stress remains unresolved.
Take The Little house on the prairie story- they worried, they didn’t sleep, they took action, they did what they could to save the corn, some plants lived, some died, then they relaxed. Our body has a natural balancing reaction to the stress response- the parasympathetic response. But most of us don’t know how to turn it on. You can turn it on through grounding exercises or breathing exercises, but the most natural way is to simply complete a task. You feel worried about an assignment, then you turn it in. ahhhh.
This is one reason why coping skills can only go so far in helping anxiety- because anxiety is best Resolved by doing one of two things, either taking action to resolve the problem or threat or whatever it is or to practicing active acceptance letting go of the things you can’t change.
But in our virtual world, Even when we do complete a task or resolve a problem it can be hard to see the results, so find a way to acknowledge when you can “set a task down”. Make it concrete. I really like checklists, but there are lots of ways to Mark something off when you’ve completed it. You could use a physical button like Mike Boyd or Simone Giertz or give yourself some other physical, tangible way to celebrate your success.
This can be hard to do with long running stress or long term projects. But you can practice little skills to turn off stress. Something I learned from Michael Barrett, The director of the center for change-an ED tx center. Every day when I drive home from work I say a little prayer- Lord, I’ve done the best I can-they are now in your hands.
There are many ways to do this, but the basic idea is choosing when to carry something mentally heavy and when to set it down. So it could be as simple as turning off notifications on your phone or setting boundaries at work about when they can and can’t contact you.
When your job is mostly mental, emotional or virtual I also really find it helpful to choose something manual to complete. It can be really nice and relieving to see physical progress on a task.. So clean something, mow the lawn, fix something physical, there’s something about physical tasks and completion that seems to just click that aaahhh button, that parasympathetic response in our brain.
5. Running from anxiety makes it worse. Go slow to go fast
Managing anxiety is about being intentional and in control instead of reactionary
I have this picture in my head of me as a little kid, when I was coming home from playing at a friends house in the evening, now I grew up in a super safe town, but when it started to get dark and I’d be walking home, you know how it feels, like there’s a tingle at the back of your neck, you maybe wonder if something is behind you in the dark. Now of course, nothing was, but if you start running you get more and more scared, until you get through your front door and look out behind you-at nothing.
That’s how I visualize daily low level stress and anxiety- it’s like you start to feel a little tingle at the back of your neck, and the impulse is to run. So if you’re at work and you start to feel a bit stressed, you try to work harder and faster, maybe a bit frantically.
But that doesn’t make you more effective. You fill every waking moment with busyness- checking your email, or just keeping busy by always staring at your phone. Once my husband was getting ready to change jobs, and he was so busy at work that he didn’t have time to “talk to his boss to quit”
Just like me as a little kid, we perpetuate anxiety when we run from ghosts.
Instead of running. Stop. Slow down, turn around and look behind you and you’ll see that nothing’s there.
This looks like taking time throughout the day to slow down. Take a deep breath. Do something calming or grounding- these usually take just a few seconds.
You may think you’ll get more done by just going faster, but you’ll be more effective and less stressed if you take a minute to clarify.
6. Regulate your nervous system throughout the day
Mono task – our brain gets super stressed out by multitasking. It basically interprets too much stimulation as being unresolved threats. Close those tabs. Do one thing at a time. And notice where you are. Just notice right now that you’re watching this video.
I promised that I wouldn’t tell you to meditate, but mindfulness is different. It’s just slowing down, noticing the present moment. Noticing that you are doing what you are doing. And then moving on.
7. Big Picture/Small Picture
Stress is not the problem, Chronic, unresolved stress is the problem.
This is the problem of the brain not knowing how to sort and manage all the stimulation and triggers and threats that come at it. And when we feel too many things crowding our brain, this can trigger the feeling of being in danger even when you’re safe. If you’ve got so many things that feel urgent, but you can’t do them all, the brain can go into shutdown mode. But No one has time to do everything they want or need to do. So what do we do?
If you take the time to intentionally sort out and choose- what are you going to work on, what are you going to let go of, that can really help clear up that chronic unresolved stress. Whether it’s anxiety or ADD, I am constantly feeling like my brain is overflowing with ideas and tasks and to-do’s and then there’s the screaming children…so the way I manage this is to constantly be writing down lists, and then clarifying-what is the most important thing, what are my priorities. And then I can get to work and do a couple of them.
For some people clarifying looks like journaling- this can really help with anxiety because it helps your brain sort through the confusing mess, get clarity, and then get going again.
Locus of control
Write down your Wins
And I’m going to jump ahead here, but this is one area where sleep is really important. To be able to sort through tasks like this, you really need the executive functioning part of your brain to be working. And for that part to work well, you need to get enough sleep. When your mind is rested it can better manage stimulation and resolve anxiety when it comes up. I know it can be hard to sleep when you’re anxious, but if you’re not getting enough sleep, just choose one small step you can take to
9. Get better at saying "No"
Resolving Anxiety is about regaining self- control. If you want to resolve anxiety you may have to say no to the occasional party so that you get enough sleep, so that you don’t need coffee in the morning to function, so that you’re not stressed out and anxious throughout the day. Choose a sustainable path instead of a frantic one. This is going to require a careful sorting of priorities in your life. When we consciously choose to not overload our brain, it can handle big tasks with calm and composure.
10. Natural stress reliever
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but there is a bunch of research that nature is good for anxiety. And I personally love it. So try to get some nature into your day to day life.
I’m blessed to live in an area where I can get out in nature every day. But you can get a dose of nature even if you’re trapped in the city-
Go for a walk
Look at the sky
Water a plant or keep a fish
Visit a park
Or watch a documentary.
Nature is soothing for your brain, so make it part of your daily or weekly routine.
Take time to wind down in the evening so that you can fall asleep, get a good night’s rest and wake up ready to take care of yourself instead of jumping right back on the tired-caffeine-bad food-social media spiral. Spend time with friends or family, do something relaxing, turn off your phone, for me it’s taking a hot bath and reading a book. Even though I’m super busy with 3 little kids, a job, and a business, I make it a priority to get a few minutes peace most nights before bed. What will you do for your wind-down routine?
When you take the time to resolve problems, and work with your brilliant and ancient brain, you really can learn to reduce anxiety and even get some stuff done.
OK, that’s it. Hope you find this helpful.