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Can I get an amen for any stressed freelancers out there? No? That's ok. We're all looking for ways to lower our stress levels, and 95% of us (made-up statistic) don't follow through on them, myself included.
The biggest reason that most of us don't prioritize our health is that creating healthy habits and sticking to them is harder than not doing it. Plain and simple. So, I'm going to bring you 10 ways to manage stress levels that should be "fairly" easy to stick to.
Read a book (with pages)
A study in 2009 at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It actually outperformed methods like listening to music and drinking tea (although both help). Reading immerses every facet of your mind so that you literally forget to be stressed. Our minds and bodies were not meant to be in fight-or-flight mode 16 hours of the day. We need to forget and think about other things.
Reading checks all the boxes. That study also mentioned that using a physical book gave readers a sense of accomplishment as you can easily feel and see that you're achieving something, even if it's only a chapter at a time. With e-readers, if that little bar on the bottom moves from 15-16%, it doesn't do much for your psyche.
Dig out those old boxes from the garage, dust off an old favorite and take 20 minutes a day to unplug your brain.
Create a habit stack
Habit stacking is a term coined by S. J. Scott in his book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less. It's an incredibly simple concept but if done right can have profound effects on your life.
Habit stacking is broken down like this:
- There are things you do every day, called triggers (brushing your teeth, drinking a coffee, walking the dog, etc.)
- Anchor one new, very short action of fewer than two minutes, with that trigger
- Repeat every day
It's slightly more complicated than those three steps, but you get the overall gist.
An example of a habit stack that I've added to my daily routine is stretching.
Every day I make coffee; that's my trigger. It takes around 2-3 minutes for my coffee to be ready. In that time, instead of looking at social media or my emails, I do three different stretches: Calves, hamstrings and hip flexors. I'm to the point now that if I don't do them, I can tell something is off.
The trigger (making coffee) reminds me that I should do the stretching and a little accountability in the first few weeks goes a long way.
All the routines, all the time
I want to touch on the importance of creating routines for yourself. Building your day around routines allows you to focus on what's important. It also takes out the guesswork of what's important. Having too many choices and decisions freak me out. Doing work triage is my least favorite thing of the day.
So, to battle that I've set specific time frames for things like social media, emails, writing a post, translating (insert your particular job), and searching for new clients/marketing.
Creating those routines and giving myself structure helps me to stay focused on exactly what it is I should be doing. Obviously, my schedules aren't set in stone, but once again, just a little discipline will help you knock off what's important in your day.
Create a food menu
Food and 10 ways to manage stress levels, what else could you want? This is the perfect way of taking the guesswork out of dinner. I don't know about you, but when I go into the kitchen to start making dinner, and I can't decide, out come the snacks. I'm not talking an apple. I'm talking chips and Cheez-its (but only the big ones, they're so much better... why is that?)
Anyhow, walking into your kitchen and knowing exactly what you're going to make every day of the week will free you from having to make the game-time decision and also get rid of the guilt you feel after eating unhealthy snacks. It's a win-win.
I use a dry erase magnetic calendar and whiteboard. Five minutes every Sunday after dinner (habit stacking, boom!) and you can decide on your meals for the upcoming week.
Take a quick cat nap (my favorite tip)
“Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces… Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half.” —Winston Churchill.
Need I say more? If the increased productivity doesn't make you less stressed than the "refreshment of blessed oblivion" will surely allow you to forget everything you have to do. If the man who helped defeat the Nazis, was named the greatest Briton of all time, and won the Nobel Peace prize in 1953 could find the time to nap, I think you can carve out 20 minutes.
Get some vitamin D
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey!"
The positive effects that the sun has on your health are undeniable.
Focus on your breath
This tactic of taking deep full breaths is similar to that of reading. The idea is for you to forget about and "unplug" from daily stressors. If you're focusing on your breath, then you're not focusing on the 38 other things that are tugging at your attention strings.
There's a method I've stumbled across by Dr. Andrew Weil, and it's called the 4-7-8 Method. It goes a little like this:
- With the tip of your tongue placed on the tissue behind your upper teeth...
- Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of FOUR
- Hold your breath for a count of SEVEN
- Loudly exhale through your mouth for a count of EIGHT
- That's one breath, repeat for a total of 4 breaths
At first, you may feel slightly uncomfortable, but I've been doing it twice a day for about two weeks, and it's something I've started looking forward to. Even a short one-minute break like this where I'm not thinking about the clients who haven't paid me has helped me to stay centered.
Sweat it out
You know you should exercise, I know you should exercise, even the 8-year-old boy down the street knows you should exercise. Take a walk, get some fresh air, use the buddy system if you have to.
If you haven't prioritized exercise in your life yet, throwing more facts about the immense benefits and how it might be the most effective of the 10 ways to manage stress levels I won't convince you here, so I won't do that. However, I will share with you my goal of exercise, because I feel like it.
The #1 goal I have with my exercise routine (besides looking good at the beach) is to have the energy to do everything I love. I don't want to wake up in pain or sweat walking up the steps. I want to have the energy and stamina to live a full life, the way I want to live it.
Okay, I'm done talking about exercise, you can tune back in.
Keep a notepad by your bed
If you've never laid awake at night thinking about what you need to get done the next day or that perfect response to the jerk in the check-out line, then you're either superhuman or 12 years old. Either way, congratulation.
One easy fix to that late-night insomnia is to place a notepad (and pen) on your nightstand, so you have it on hand for when that million-dollar idea hits you at 2 AM. A study from Baylor University found that those subjects who wrote down to-do lists for the following day fell asleep faster than those who didn't.
Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, says, "Most people just cycle through their to-do lists in their heads, and so we wanted to explore whether the act of writing them down could counteract nighttime difficulties with falling asleep."
Improved sleep = more energy = less stress.
One thing at a time
This has been a bit of an underlying theme in this article, but it really is the fundamental issue with why we're stressed. I mentioned at the beginning of the article that our bodies are not made to release stress hormones throughout the day. Stress was made as a natural fight-or-flight response to save our lives from actual lions.
Fortunately, that's not something most of us have to worry about anymore.
On the other hand, our ancestors didn't have to worry about traffic, soccer practice, deadlines, schedules, rent, etc. All of these things in our brain cause a similar response to those lions. Obviously not to that extreme, but nowadays we're basically leaking stress hormones throughout the entire day.
Focusing on one thing and centering your attention on it will help to get rid of all the background noise and triggers that lead you to stress out. This is what my 10 ways to manage stress levels are all about.
Andrew is a freelance medical translator, from the States but Living in Spain. He runs Healthyfreelancers.com, which aims to help freelancers in the not-so-professional aspects of freelancing through stress reduction, home office ergonomics and much more!