Stress Less Article Written for Westport Coastal Neighbors magazine, September issue

Identifying as “stressed” and “busy” has become akin to a status symbol. Here in Fairfield County, I interact daily with friends, family and, of course, clients who have packed their days full of commitments and still wonder why their stress levels are so high. As a psychotherapist, I often work with clients who are struggling to maintain an appropriate balance between their work and personal lives. Unfortunately, much of the desire to be busy comes from the social construction in American culture that busy delineates success. Our schedules are so full that we have little time in between meetings, doctor’s appointments, children’s extracurricular activities and community events, which causes us to become exhausted and overwhelmed.

Small amounts of stress provide a biochemical response that encourages us to perform and complete tasks. However, excessive stress causes a breaking point where productivity decreases, performance worsens, and people experience irritability, anxiety, depression, sleep-deprivation, and a depletion of emotional and mental wellness. Additionally, stress diminishes the energy we have available for dealing with problems, which leads to poor communication and damaged relationships. 

Creating a healthy balance between our work and personal lives is critical because if our emotional and mental health needs are not being adequately met, how are we expected to be a great employee/mom/wife/friend/community member? Simply put: we are better in all our roles when we are less stressed. 

I often hear people describe that there “aren’t enough hours in the day” to attend to all the tasks that need to be completed. But, there have always been only 24 hours in a day. This has never changed. So, the question becomes: how can we as individuals, and as a collective, create a more balanced lifestyle and, with that, achieve greater peace? The answer is: we need to do less. We must truthfully assess our responsibilities, commitments, and desires first. Then, we can re-prioritize in accordance with which tasks must be done immediately, can be done soon, and can wait until another day.  

 

How do we start making changes?  

 

Analyze what is a priority and what is a desire. I don’t mean quit your job, ignore your children, or avoid all social expectations. But, you should relinquish the belief that you are only a good employee/mom/wife/friend/community member if you are constantly on the go. Forcing yourself into too many commitments creates a domino effect and increases your overall stress. By prioritizing what is most important and should be attended to immediately, what is important but can be attended to later, and what can be attended to when there is greater disposable time, you have time for the people and tasks that matter most. Here’s an example: while you would never decide to not feed your children dinner, you can certainly wait to finish the laundry. While you would never blow off a meeting with your boss, you can absolutely respond to those emails tomorrow. 

Set realistic goals for work and home and be efficient. Dedicate time to accomplishing that which needs to be accomplished. Don’t procrastinate. Focus on what you set out to do, and only focus on one task at a time. When you are at work, work. When you are at home, be at home. This won’t be possible 100% of the time, but do the best you can. Put the phone away and shut down your computer so you can enjoy time with your family and friends. This is also important to portray to your loved ones in an effort to create a healthier environment for all and teach time management skills. Lead by example. You are likely not the only one spending too much time with technology or packing the schedule too full. You cannot possibly work 24/7 and expect to have a fulfilling and meaningful life.             

Be honest with yourself and others. When you are overwhelmed, you are more likely to lash out on others. This anger comes when your adaptive energy depletes as the day goes on. We become grouchy over small things and take our frustration out on inappropriate targets. Acknowledge that you are feeling overwhelmed and take a break if you need. Don’t complain endlessly, but speaking openly with people who care about you will offer them insight into your experiences so they can brainstorm reasonable and appropriate suggestions and help facilitate positive change. 

Learn to say no. This is a big one. So often people ask for favors, to contribute to an initiative, to schedule plans, or to volunteer. Most of us love to be involved and feel guilty if we are unable to help. But remember: saying no does not mean you don’t care. Saying no sometimes means you are choosing wisely how to spend your limited time. You are not a superhuman and no one expects you to say yes all the time. 

Take care of yourself first. Have you ever been on an airplane? The flight attendant always states you must put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. This is because you cannot help other people if you faint. The same thinking applies here. You cannot help anyone else if you are not caring for yourself; you will burn out eventually. Your body needs to be treated with love and care. Nourish it with exercise, sufficient sleep and proper nutrition; they have been clinically proven to help people manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety while reducing stress and enabling people to better cope with stress and solve problems. Consider the sources you may rely on like excessive coffee, sleeping pills, cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. While they may help initially, these substances have a negative effect on you in the long term by creating a vicious cycle of dopamine peaks and crashes in your brain. Lastly, find a self-care practice you enjoy and make time for it  (e.g., yoga, reflexology, hot baths, meditation, acupuncture etc).  

Get help. It is wonderful to seek advice and support from loved ones and coworkers. But if you are feeling stuck, one of the best things you can do for yourself is seek assistance from a mental health professional. We can help you process your feelings and understand yourself and your environment better, while helping you create realistic and effective changes to improve your life. 

Life inevitably tests our ability to manage our time and stress. There is a level of comfort we naturally find in our daily life and patterns, but those habits may be facilitating stress. A tweak in the perception of the stresses that surround you can lead to better prioritization of responsibilities, and an ability to spend time doing what matters most to you. Your work, your family, and your body will thank you. Break the mold of daily routine and decision-making patterns and strive for balance.  Say goodbye to quantity and hello to quality.