April 24th, 2023
Stress Protective Habits
In America’s modern hustle culture, the baseline has become stress. People might not always use the word stressed. They instead say they are so busy, they haven't slept in days, or quote a 60+ hour work week. All of this adds up to the same thing: I’m stressed, I’m run down, I’m lonely and I’m not sure how long I can keep this up because important things like health and relationships are slipping. So rather than wait until we reach the tipping point and find ourselves reaching familiar, or brand new low points, let's get proactive with stress management.
There are two parts to stress management. One is to reduce the stressors. The second is to grow your stress resilience. This is where stress-protective habits come into play. Stress resilience doesn’t mean finding a way for the stress to just not affect you. Instead, it’s similar to working out. If you suddenly need to run a 10k race and you’ve only developed the running skills for a mile, you are going to have some problems. Similarly, if your stress level is high and your recovery skills are only ready for a smaller level of stress you are going to burn out. However, if we help you strengthen your stress resilience, you won’t get injured as often and you’ll have a plan for how to care for yourself during high-stress times.
For stress-protective habits, think about one activity to relieve each type of stress: emotional, mental, and physical. That means naming at least three different activities, one for each category of stress. Please think of more if you’d like! If you start thinking of eating or sleeping, get more specific and tie it to the kind of stress you want to relieve. What is the activity and for what kind of stress? Is it eating a meal that holds a particular emotional space for you? Wonderful! That sounds like eating a meal would help relieve your emotional stress. Is it going to bed early because you’re tired? Figure out if this works best for mental or physical stress. Then choose a third activity, like running or walking that would address the remaining type of stress.
Of the three or more activities you name, make sure at least one of them should tone your vagus nerve. If you haven’t heard of the vagus nerve, don’t worry, but do go read some about it. There are long lists of how to activate your vagus nerve online, but I’ll list a couple of my favorites. I love a facial cold plunge. The cold itself and the regulated breathing act together to really ensure you are waking up your vagus nerve. Another is singing or laughing. Sing along while driving, cleaning, or cooking (easy to work into a busy schedule), or set up time to hang out with a friend who always makes you laugh. The muscles around your vocal cords will stimulate the vagus nerve.
Now that you’ve named three stress-protective activities with at least one that tones your vagus nerve, begin to practice using them so that they become habits. When you feel stressed, notice if it’s emotional, mental, or physical stress. Check your list of stress-protective activities that you’ve named for that type of stress and give it a try. The more you try it, the stronger the habit will be. And with stronger stress-protective habits, the more stress resilience you will have.
Lastly, if you are having a hard time thinking of how to address any of the types of stress, consider talking to someone. That could be a professional counselor or it could also just be a loved one. They might know activities they themselves like or even ones that you do without realizing it. Authentic social connection is one of the most important and stress-protective things we can do. So embrace the connection, you might find yourself feeling better already.