Stress Is A Bitch
Look, I hate to brag, but I’m a pretty chill girl. Sure, I’m not very spontaneous when it comes to traveling and I have a Virgo moon that makes me clean up after people uncomfortably too soon and casts a critical eye on things (and people) that never asked for it. Oh, and I really like things a very specific way and am terrible at pretending to like bad gifts. But on the whole, I’m a cool cucumber.
What I mean is, I don’t stress out. In college, I never understood people who ran around campus pulling out their hair screaming about how they’d been studying for two weeks straight for one test. I never went to the library to write a paper and an all-nighter was an urban legend to me. Even as an adult at work, deadlines are not scary, and I hardly encounter a situation where it’s impossible to keep a cool head. I maintain unwavering faith that things work out, and if they don’t…they don’t. Rarely is anything as high stakes as they are made to seem. I’m good at perspective.
It’s easy to be this way when you’re not a people pleaser. I never hear anyone admit this as a character trait. Instead, people like to wear “people pleaser” as a humble badge of honor, even when that personality quirk is the culprit for crippling stress and anxiety. But, I’ll bear it. I’m not a people pleaser, and even though this gets me in the occasional trouble for being unintentionally inconsiderate, it helps me prioritize my needs. As an only child, I acknowledge I’m good at making space for myself. I’ve been doing it for quite some time.
I’m also an emotional workhorse. When you’re a person who has trouble dealing with and expressing feelings, it’s easy to pile things on and keep moving. I can take a lot, so I do. For the empathetic feelers closest to me, I end up being the rock.
But even though I’m so very chill, make so much space for myself, and have the capacity to carry more than a fair share of the emotional load, I’m still a human being trying to build her life in 2018 –– it’s impossible to avoid stress. So, if I don’t outwardly freak the fuck out…where does it all go?
The short, least gross answer? My digestive system.
Whether you want to call it internalization, bottling up your feelings, going full robot, or even straight-up denial, I’m very good at hoarding challenging emotions and letting them manifest deep inside my body. It’s not intentional; it’s just that because of my nature/nurture (who knows), I’m wired not to outwardly show classic signs of a stressed-out person,
I forget to manage said stress until things get really, really bad.
This just happened to me recently. The things getting really, really bad part.
After returning from a two-week trip, I started experiencing all kinds of digestive distress. I chalked it up to my body adjusting after changing time zones and exotic European meals but after a week of serious discomfort and concerning weight loss, I went to an urgent care. They gave me Prilosec for acid reflux with no real examination. I took it, but it didn’t help. I made an appointment with my internist. She told me I had IBS and gave me a pamphlet on meditation. Still, I was in so much pain. Finally, after needing to see a specialist for several years living with periods of similar, yet less severe, symptoms, I consulted a gastroenterologist. My Celiac test came back normal, and he prescribed homeopathic peppermint pills. Part of me wanted the test to be positive so I could have a clear medical answer to a problem, but no such luck.
The conclusion? This pain and uncomfortableness was a direct result of my brain eating stress for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and turning it into pure, concentrated anxiety. It all checked out. Had I been exercising? No. Meditating? Oh god no. Therapy? I stopped in December.
If I let myself stop for just one second, I would realize this has shaped up to be quite a year so far. After coming off the heels of my wedding last October, I quit my job, started a new job, finally got my period (and subsequent return of hormones) after almost two years going without, decided to get the eye surgery I’d be putting off, planned the biggest trip I’ve ever taken, had my husband leave his full-time job, went on a two week vacation across the world, and came back to a major career crossroads.
It all happened so fast, and and I never slowed down once to really process any of it. In retrospect, I did next to nothing to manage the resulting stress because, truthfully, I didn’t even know it was there. I’m very good at keeping my schedule and brain very busy so I literally don’t have time to deal with any of it.
For some people, stress lives on the surface, and its difficulty to ignore is a constant reminder to fight it. For others, like me, it’s a silent beast that quietly grows, with no apparent signs to stay defensive to keep it at bay. So, we end up hitting rock bottom. And, no matter how much recon at the gym you implement for a week, the compounded effects of long-term stress mismanagement will take some time to unravel. Oh, and recovering gets harder and longer as you get older. Fun! Stress management is at its most effective when used proactively, not as a reactive bandaid to months of self-abuse. I learned the hard way.
Is this you? Probably to some degree, yes. Being a citizen of the world is hard at the present moment. So, here is a list of ways I’m trying to actively manage my stress right now in the wake of my body giving me a brutal scolding from the inside out. You’ll notice I’m avoiding the term “self-care” (oops, there it is), because I don’t subscribe to the surface level, albeit very aesthetically pleasing cult of Instagram wellness. I’m not going to tell you to invest hundreds of dollars in facial snail goo, practice gratitude, be open or take a fucking bath. Those things are nice, but they’re really a pleasant reward for the hard work that really goes into managing stress.
Guys, stress management takes a lot of effort! A lot of this is common sense, stuff you probably already know, or things you could really use as a reminder about.
If you know me personally, you know I HATE working out. I really do not enjoy it. I never played sports. I’ve never understood endorphins. I’ve gone through gym rat phases, but in the past four or five years, I’ve really not made it a priority. Mostly because I don’t like it, and also because I’m perfectly happy with the appearance of my physical body. Without weight or toning motivating me, it’s difficult to get my atrophying ass to my overpriced gym. In fact, the more I stress, the more it manifests in my gut, and the less I feel well enough to go work out or even eat, resulting in unwanted weight loss. It’s an awful cycle I’ve been bouncing around in for years, and it only gets worse as I age. The troubling thing about that is the comments from other people on how THIN I look. Everyone wants to tell me how skinny I am and how good I look. I’m usually pretty honest about it and correct people that I am thinner because I am not feeling well, and my current physiological state is nothing enviable. BUT, exercise is extremely critical to stress management.
As much as I pray to the lululemon gods, I cannot get myself to be a morning exercise person. I much prefer it in the afternoons, which I think helps physically release the stress from that day before I go home, allowing me to truly relax and keep that space free of work-related bullshit. When I exercise after work, I am naturally more inclined to have a healthy appetite, cook for myself, watch less TV, hang out on my computer, and take a hot shower before bed. Those are all stress-relief practices people tell you to do that I don’t even need to consciously do if I work out in the evening. In that way, it’s not that difficult. If I can get myself to the gym, the rest of the healthy habits will domino on themselves.
Being in a regular routine with exercise is super hard, and it’s easy to slip into a bad cycle. There’s never been a better example than me, but pull yourself out and start over when you have a couple rough weeks and don’t beat yourself up about it. Also, buy yourself some new fancy workout clothes, try new classes, and find exercise buddies to help motivate you.
Eating better means different things for everyone. It doesn’t necessarily equate to not binging on fast food. For some people, it means cooking more than eating out, grocery shopping smarter, remembering to take probiotics, or avoiding or limiting things that generally taste good but make you feel like shit like alcohol, coffee, bread, steak and even “healthy” things like soy, corn, or cauliflower. Having any sort of dietary restrictions is annoying and a little eye-rolly (especially where I live in LA), but paying attention to what you put in your body, and trying to stick to things that you know make you feel good can really help. This can also include getting ice cream when you’ve had a bad day because DAMN, ice cream tastes good in the summer and you deserve it. Eating “well” is a delicate balance, especially as you get older and your digestive system starts to flat out reject certain foods at different intervals. I had to stop eating eggs for a year and a half because they were making me feel sick, and now I can eat them in small quantities? The body is weird! I tried going gluten-free for the past week and unfortunately, I felt way better. Is this my forever, OH HELL NO. I love a pastry. But, I’m trying to listen to what my body needs RIGHT NOW to get back on track…which I am using as an excuse to eat a lot more ice cream.
Seek Medical Help
Even if you suspect most of your issues are in your head…let a doctor tell you that. It will help your anxiety to hear from a medical professional instead of spinning your wheels, googling the Mayo Clinic for potential diseases at ungodly hours. I’ve known I needed to see a gastroenterologist for YEARS, but I never wanted to go because I was so sure it was tied to anxiety. It scared me to have a Western doctor listen to my symptoms, and then recommend invasive procedures and pharmaceuticals to ultimately decide I need to chill the hell out. It took three-week-old stomach ache to finally get me in there and I was pleasantly surprised! He was totally nice and didn’t think I needed cameras down my throat or any drugs –– just a hypnotherapist. I am intrigued! But, I have to tell you, even hearing what I already knew from a doctor made me feel A LOT BETTER.
I don’t care if you’re woo-woo or not, I also recommend seeking out alternative medicine. I’ve seen an acupuncturist for two and a half years and found a lot of success for a few different issues. It’s not just getting poked with needles; an acupuncturist will also recommend herbs, diet adjustments, and lifestyle choices. It helps fill in the gaps Western medicine glazes over and is great when there’s nothing to pinpoint other than just not feeling good because it’s a holistic approach.
Use Essential Oils
Damn, these have changed me and I’m not even that into essential oils. Like, there are Mary Kay-style direct selling companies for oils. But, a friend turned me onto a company called Saje that makes portable roller balls with every oil and purpose imaginable. I have a few that I keep in my bag that really helps calm and focus myself when I’m feeling anxious or even distracted at work. They’re nice to use before you meditate and the Peppermint Halo straight up CURES headaches! Just roll some on your wrists and temples and take a few deep breaths. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference, and a nice tool to have in your stress management.
Get A Pouch
Get a cute little bag or pouch and put all the shit you need to feel comfortable inside of it. Mine is basically a mini CVS with a zipper, carrying Advil, Immodium, digestive enzymes, gum, hand sanitizer, essentials oils, lotion, and lip balm. But you know what, it makes me feel a lot less anxious to have all those things with me at all times, even if I hardly ever use most of it.
My internist literally sent me away from my recent appointment with a handout on meditation for my IBS. Meditating is nothing new to me; my parents have dabbled in Buddist practices my whole life. I knew it was probably time to reactivate my Headspace subscription. Meditation is a difficult thing to remember to do because it doesn’t take very much time. For some reason, it’s harder to carve out 10-15 minutes than a whole hour. Even though you feel AMAZING after you do it, it’s tedious to even think about. I’m not really great at meditating, and when I’m not good at something, I tend to not want to ever touch it. I recently sat down to meditate while home alone. I got comfortable, applied oils, and during the very short session, my landline, which never rings, rang twice and my cat bit my leg for no apparent reason. Not very relaxing.
But, doctor’s orders, right? We live in the 21st century, which means we don’t need to head to the mountaintop in the search for Nirvana. There are lots of meditation apps at our disposal to help, and you can literally do it anywhere. I just did one in a movie theater parking lot because I arrived too early. Many of them are free, but I keep coming back to Headspace because it’s guided and there are lots of different types of meditation packs to try, which helps me from getting bored. I’m currently toggling between the Basics, Stress, and Creative, and trying this new thing where every day I don’t make it to the gym, I do a meditation session.
I’m not keeping up with this very well…yet! It’s all about intention, baby.
Book A Massage
Get a monthly massage. There are plenty of no-frills spots whose prices won’t put you out until rent is due. It can be a hard thing to justify spending money on, but it’s so necessary. If you’re one of those anomalies who doesn’t like massages, get over it. Sorry, they’re objectively wonderful.
Subscribe To Therapy
I’m no stranger to talk therapy (and maybe soon to hypnotherapy!). My parents had me see a therapist when I was five-years-old because I was a raging playground bully. She must have been extremely Freudian because all I remember is playing with toys and her asking my thoughts on penises and vaginas. I very reluctantly went again when I was eight years old because of anxiety, and I most recently went back for a year and a half. I stopped seeing my therapist, who I loved because I got a new job and couldn’t make it to her part of town anymore. Besides, I felt like we had reached a natural stopping point. It’s funny because when I left she said, she understood taking a break when you feel better, but why wait until things are broken?
Dr. Woo was right! Taking time off was definitely a mistake. If you’ve never been to therapy, or it’s been a while, I highly recommend going. You won’t even know how much it is helping until you suddenly feel so much better. And, most health insurance will cover it if you find someone in-network. I searched Psychology Today and found one, and it only cost me my $20 copay per visit. Though remember, you might not find the perfect fit right away. It’s ok to shop around.
Make To-Do Lists
Making lists and then crossing things off is a great way to not get overwhelmed or let things linger on your plate too long. Sometimes the longer we put off paying a bill, rescheduling a dinner you bailed on, or even getting a car wash the harder and scarier it is to face them because of guilt. One way to proactively mitigate anxiety is to make sure you stay up to date and on top of your shit. Also, physically write these lists down. No Notes app. Get yourself a planner, fun notebooks, or cute little list-centric stationary and makes some damn lists. I literally have about five list pads on my desk right now. The act of writing will not only help you remember but putting a physical list somewhere you will look at is more effective than hiding in your phone.
I am terrible at this. Committing to investing the time and money in vacations is really difficult for me. My family never went away when I was growing up, so I never quite developed the palate for adventure. Even though I usually need to be shoved into it, I’m trying to be better about getting away, even if it’s just for one night. Even if it’s a staycation and I never leave the city. Being outside your home and day to day grind, even for a small chunk of time, has the ability to restore you. I haven’t taken my husband’s advice to book small trips through the year ahead of time yet, but maybe you can.
There is no right way to manage your stress, but there is a wrong way, and that’s deciding to ignore it. Stress and anxiety won’t ever go away unless you make a proactive effort, and that in an of itself can feel stressful because someone could literally make it a full-time job to be truly chill. Just remember, you don’t need to let feeling bad be your new normal, you’re never going to do all the right things 100% of the time, you can restart your journey as many times as you want, and rose gold everything and bath bombs are pretty, but they’re just accessories to help you do the real work.