Lowering cortisol levels throughout the day
My partner, Joseph, refers to it as my "Go! Go! Go!" tendency. While I'm not opposed to celebrating quiet time, I definitely have a tendency to over extend myself. This tendency usually comes from a good place: I don't think that life is all that long, and I'm trying to pack it with as many meaningful successes, experiences, relationships, and moments as I can. I take everything I do seriously, because I recognize that I'm exchanging time for it, and time is one resource that can never be recaptured. Sometimes, when I pair this personality trait with my every day schedule, which includes full time employment and two hours of commute time, I can become prone to stress. For me, I know that stress is creeping into my life because my sleep is interrupted and I start to gravitate toward caffeine and sugar. I've incorporated a few actions into my day to day life to help manage stress over time.
1. Knowing the true amount of time mundane tasks require
After a series of particularly busy weeks, I took a break to catch up on housework. In particular, I decided to tackle my laundry end-to-end. During the week, it was driving me absolutely crazy to keep up with clothes - mine, my partner's, my little one's. Everything would get washed and dried, but rarely put away. This created the kind of backlog that Lean Six Sigma consultants the world over could devote hours to resolving.
Still, the true issue didn't really occur to me until I became committing to taking the process from start to finish and timing the entire process: It took approximately three hours to load, wash, load, dry, fold and hang and store a single load of laundry. Three hours!? I had been trying to do this task in fifteen minutes each evening. No wonder I was always falling behind. When you know the true time required by your life's mundane tasks, you can start carving out efficiencies, like batching. For example, once I realized that it took an hour each night to prepare dinner, I started to look at ways to meal prep as a way to reduce that time, or move it to a period when I wasn't tired from a long workday ("Hello Sunday morning!") For laundry, I started to ruthlessly edit the amount of clothing we had in active rotation and better organize each step. Still, the most important thing I learned was not to be so hard on myself! Of course things were getting messy or disorganized - I simply wasn't yet allocating the time that really required to do things properly.
I think this is the heart of that "I can never catch up" feeling that so many women have. We don't give ourselves credit for the five minute diaper change, the thirty minute storybook, the forty minute dinner prep, the ten minute laundry wash, the fifteen minute vacuum, the thirty minute lunchbox prep, the minutes devoted to the minutia of life and child-rearing: every moment you spend chasing down that missing sock, running after your toddler (or teen!) with a toothbrush, checking off activities on the school calendar, planning an outfit for your child's holiday party (or your own!)...these moments all add up to some of the most meaningful of your life. Taking the time to mindfully do any one of these activities and actually crediting the exact time that they take leads to surprising - and liberating - results.
2. Ruthlessly controlling information consumed
First, let's think about how we all define the word "information." If you are like most people, you probably read that line and immediately started to think "Sure, it makes sense to control how much information you receive through the news or social media." This is true for most of us, but for me personally, I focus on expanding information to every single thing that I am forced to take in through any of my senses during the day. When you walk past beeping cars in a busy city you are taking in auditory information. When you accept work that should be performed by a different department, you are taking in verbal or written information. When you wash yourself with soap that you really can't tolerate the smell of, you are taking in olfactory information. When you eat, you are bringing into your body substances that will inform all of your bodily functions - yet another kind of information. Certainly, staying away from unpleasant and upsetting news is helpful, but if done in isolation, without regard to the myriad sounds, tastes, smells, sensations and sights you are exposed to in your daily life, it will make only a nominal improvement to your well being. My favorite culprit for stressful information in need of control? A television or tablet left on although no one is watching it. How many conversations have you had where you are subconsciously competing with a device? I take little steps all day long to control information received through all of my senses, like wearing perfume every day, shutting the door of my office to better concentrate, using the fireplace or natural light instead of overhead lights, and eating unrefined whole foods.
3. Finding twenty minutes for exercise
Stress collects in the body the way algae collects on stagnant water. Movement is the best way to dissipate any tension that collects in your back, shoulders or neck. I try to spend no less than twenty minutes every single day focusing on moving my body constructively through space. Instead of focusing on how my body looks, or how much weight I am gaining or losing, I just focus on moving beautifully through space. Sometimes that might mean lifting weights, other times cardio dance, other times yoga or Pilates. The most important thing for me is that my entire body is involved. While there are absolutely benefits to training a single body part per day, to eradicate stress, I think it is important to move your entire body. It can be tricky for me to fit an entire hour long workout into my schedule on many days, so I prefer an approach that allows me to fit in fifteen minutes to thirty minutes at lunchtime, my afternoon tea break, or upon my return home in the evening. If I can fit in more than one session, I'm thrilled ("there's my hour!") If I can't, at least I know that I did something constructive to keep my joints limber, perfect my posture, promote circulation and loosen fascia.
4. Practicing yoga
The most important part of yoga that I practice daily does not require a single asana (although those are pretty great too). I keep a few books about yoga and spiritual practices at my desk at work, and I like to open up to a random page and focus on that particular lesson for the day. Over time, I think that I can summarize my favorite yogic lessons in two words: "patience" and "acceptance." I'm lucky to work in an environment where my coworkers don't tempt me into losing my patience very often, but even then, customer demands, budget constraints, quarterly pressures and just my own personal goals can levy a decent amount of stress. So far, after almost twenty years of handing stressful corporate legal matters, I have yet to find a problem that can't be solved with a proper dose of patience and acceptance.
Acceptance does not mean, ""don't act," but rather "act when you feel confident that you are truly seeing things for what they are, including your own personal role in the events." Remember when you had a problem growing up and your mother would say "Why don't you just sleep on it?" That works well too, as does a short walk around the building to get fresh air. Instead of rushing right into a massive work related project, I will take five minutes to do alternate nostril breathing. Instead of stewing over a personal frustration, I'll honor my feelings for a few minutes and then practice a mantra or listen to a soothing meditation at lunch. When you feel stress over any continuous length of time, you're only harming yourself, not the object of that stress. Who and what is worth that? It makes little sense to spend time in asanas only to harm yourself in this way, violating the principle of ahimsa that forms the foundation for most yogic practices. In any case, I benefit from keeping reminders of my highest self at hand in the places that I really need it, and not just at the yoga studio or my quiet space at home.
5. One personal call each day
Fitting in at least one personal call per day while at the office is essential to managing stress. There is nothing as soothing as a little check in from someone who loves you no matter what you are doing for a living. On busy days, it can be really nice to take even just five minutes to check in with someone special. Especially when people get busy with family and work obligations, weekends and evenings can book up really fast! This puts a damper on those long, meaningful conversations with friends that used to flow for an hour or more. My friends and I have even made habits of calling each other on our morning commutes sometimes, since it can often be the only uninterrupted time we have to discuss anything at length. Texting absolutely does not count here. There is no replacement for the sound of the human voice.
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