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Takin’ it easy: How to not sweat the small stuff

For National Stress Awareness Day, Mary Meagher from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences tells us how to keep calm and not sweat the small stuff.

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By Haley Venglar ’19

In honor of 2019 National Stress Awareness Day, we’re sharing some healthy and helpful tips to manage stress from Mary Meagher, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

1. Take a deep breath. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program that was created to manage symptoms of stress. How can you practice MBSR? You can start with focusing on your breath–e.g., feeling the sensations of the air as it moves in and out of your nose.  Although this sounds simple, your mind will wander. When this happens, just notice it and gently bring your awareness back to your breath. The key is to try to be neutral towards whatever thoughts and feelings come up, accepting them without judgment or struggle. The regular practice of mindfulness can deepen and transform your capacity to be present in your everyday life helping you to wake up to the richness and poignancy of each moment of your life, whether joyful, painful, or boring.

“I recommend that students begin with a guided mindfulness breathing meditation for at least 6 minutes a day,” said Meagher. “It’s best to set an intention to meditate and then create a plan to support the follow through and increase the length with time.”   

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2. Dance it out. Getting your body moving, whether it’s through weight lifting, dancing, or whatever form of exercise you enjoy, is extremely beneficial for relieving those anxious feelings. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever and increase your endorphin levels, freeing you from worry.

“Everyone knows that regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to enhance your health, but it can also enhance your mental health,” said Meagher. “It relieves stress, enhances your mood, improves memory, and helps improve your sleep.

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3. Fuel yourself with food. When we get stressed out, our bodies tend to produce increased levels of the stress hormone–cortisol–which causes some individuals to seek out foods higher in fat, sugar, and salt. However, reaching for a burger or ice cream when we feel stressed can lead to lowered immune functioning, fatigue, and poor concentration.

Instead, try incorporating things like nuts, spinach, oatmeal, herbal tea, and even dark chocolate to help reduce your stress levels.  

“A key to healthy eating is structuring your food environment to reduce temptations,” Meagher said. “Buy healthy foods at the grocery store and carry healthy snacks with you, so that you will have easy access to healthy choices. Don’t keep tempting comfort foods in your home. And if you are an emotional eater, don’t shop when you’re distressed.”

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4. Get a good night of sleep. You’ve heard that 7-8 hours a night is the ideal amount of sleep, but did you know that sleep quality matters just as much as sleep quantity? Lower-quality sleep can slow you down cognitively and even increase your levels of inflammation. It is important to go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends. Also, remove smart phones, computers, and TV from the bedroom. Finally, exercising during the day helps you fall asleep more easily at night.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, you can work on improving your quality of sleep by trying things like limiting naps to 30 minutes, avoiding caffeine before bed, and skipping fatty foods in the evening that might cause indigestion.

“Sleep is essential for good health,” said Meagher. “Research indicates that poor sleep is linked with stress, depression, obesity, reduced work productivity, chronic diseases, and poor quality of life and well-being; the good news is that it is easy to develop good sleep habits.”

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5. Look for the little things that make you feel grateful. Whether it’s a friend that picked you up when the stress of moving weighed you down, or the barista that spelled your name correctly, Meagher recommends looking for the good.

“Sitting down with someone at the end of every day and discussing three good things that happened that day is a good way to start,” said Meagher. “If you live alone, write them down and reflect on why they happened. Eventually, you’ll start noticing the positive things that happen throughout the day without even thinking about it. However, if you really have a bad day and nothing good seems to happen, that’s okay too. With practice, you will find that noticing positive events helps you rebound more quickly from stress.”

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Want to learn more about how you can manage stress? Visit the American Psychological Association’s website here for more helpful tips.

Now, take some time for yourself on National Stress Awareness Day and chill.

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