The same light-hearted, feel-good components that characterize the holiday season—a spirit of generosity and giving, cozying up with your partner, family time, travel, and special traditions—can also be sources of stress. Whether your stress comes from grief, loss, work, financial pressure or challenging relationships, there are ways you can show up for yourself and manage your stress on a daily basis.
First—what is stress? The definition we like to use at Two Chairs is that stress is fundamentally a physiological response that gets triggered when you have to adapt, cope, or adjust to situations. The severity of your response will vary depending on how you perceive your ability to overcome the situation.
However, not all stress is bad. Eustress or “positive stress” is motivating and can help you focus, such as a deadline at work. But typically, stress related to things that feel outside of your control like grief, painful memories, and financial demands, is what we call distress, or “negative stress”. If it goes unaddressed for too long, prolonged distress can have detrimental effects on your overall health.
Stress manifests differently for each person. Just as our mental health is uniquely shaped by biological, social and psychological factors, so are our responses to stressors. Given that it can look and feel different for everyone, it can be tricky to recognize. If you’re not paying attention to your mental wellbeing or taking a chance to slow down, you can easily go days, weeks or even months without realizing its ripple effects in your relationships and work.
No matter how you experience stress, though, we can all agree that it’s uncomfortable, difficult to navigate, and can negatively impact different areas of our personal and professional lives. So how can we get better at managing stress?
The first crucial step toward managing stress is to acknowledge that it’s there.
Once you recognize your stress, the next step is to build or further develop your mental health and stress management toolkit so that you can cope. At Two Chairs, we emphasize the importance of considering what mental wellness regimen will work best for you—and moreover, what coping mechanisms you can realistically fit into your life.
Although “coping” has a negative connotation in our culture, it means to deal effectively with something difficult. Coping essentially means you can handle it.
The third step is to conduct personal research through trial and error to figure out what should be in your toolkit. Below are a handful of clinically-proven techniques that can help curb the heightened emotions that you’re experiencing as a result of stress. On any given day, you may use all of these, just a couple of them, or trade them out for additional helpful tools:
- Practicing mindfulness
- Reframing your thoughts
- Going to therapy
"Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way."
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
Mindfulness has been a buzzword lately, but it’s also extremely valuable. One common misconception is that mindfulness encourages “getting rid” of thoughts, but it’s actually the opposite. The practice of mindfulness is noticing when your mind wanders, and bringing your attention back to whatever present sensation you’re focusing on, whether it’s your breath, surrounding sounds, etc.
If we learn to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, we can identify which ones are stressful, and acknowledge how they feel in our bodies before the stress response sets in.
For example, if you take note of a thought you’re having, like “I feel stressed” without the added narrative of “I shouldn’t be stressed, I should be able to handle it”, it can be a powerful practice in self-kindness and patience. Furthermore, it can stop the physiological response from kicking in.
Studies suggest that over time, mindfulness can enable people “to experience emotion selectively,” and “the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain.” This is good news! It means you have control over how stressors affect you.
There are many ways in which to practice mindfulness. Meditation is the most well-known, but breath work, walking and even eating exercises have been shown to reduce stress and improve mood. We have a mindfulness and intention-setting exercise on our blog that you can do any time, anywhere throughout this holiday season.
Breath is something you always have at your disposal, so don’t hesitate to follow the often-annoying advice you hear in moments of overwhelm to “just take a deep breath”. Diaphragmatic breathing is proven to interrupt the stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When you’re stressed, your inhales are longer than your exhales in order to oxygenate your body for fight or flight. Belly breathing, where your exhales are longer than your inhales, signals to your body that there is not a threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system takes over again.
Reframing your thoughts
There are a wide variety of reframing techniques, including reappraising the situation in front of you, practicing self-compassion, and examining “thinking traps”. These all contribute to how you respond to a stressor in your environment.
A simple way to incorporate reframing techniques into your toolkit is to keep track of your thoughts in a journal. Nothing too elaborate or fancy, just identifying what is causing the stress when it first arises. After that, you can monitor your stress throughout the day or week by writing it down. This will help you to see the patterns that develop, get to the root of your stress, and create a plan that is reasonable.
We all know what we need to recharge ourselves—it’s important not to ignore this. Self-care should never be your last priority. As with stress responses, recharge time looks different for everyone in different seasons of their lives.
For example, people with introverted personalities are energized by having time alone, while extroverts get a lot of energy from being around other people. It’s a spectrum, but as part of your personal research, try to identify what fills you up.
Social connection and building community has been shown to act as a buffer to stress, anxiety and depression (Source: American Psychological Association). Reach out to your friends and make plans. If it’s a safe space, share about the ways stress affects you. By opening up and being vulnerable, you may find that you’re not alone in your experiences, and deepen your connection with loved ones.
In addition to social activities, make time for an enjoyable activity just for yourself every day, no matter how small. Paint your nails, read a poem, water your plants, enjoy a cup of coffee, call a friend, or watch an episode of your favorite show—even a small moment can have a great effect on your joy and happiness.
Another way to recharge is by moving your body. Physical activity is a great outlet and opportunity to connect with yourself while focusing on something specific. Also, you release endorphins when you exercise, which can mitigate the negative effects of stress and give you more energy to tackle the difficult emotional things throughout your day.
Lastly, let's not forget the most basic way to recharge as humans: sleep. Do everything in your power to get adequate sleep. This could be a whole blog post on its own, but to fully understand the significance of sleep, read the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD.
Going to therapy
Therapy faces a lot of social stigma, but studies have found psychotherapy to be effective at improving symptoms in a wide array of mental health challenges. Yes, it’s the service we offer at Two Chairs, but it’s also steeped in decades of research.
You can seek out therapy for a host of reasons, and stress management is certainly one of them. A licensed clinician can help you reflect on and improve your daily life and functioning, either as a preventative measure or when you’re experiencing a crisis.
We serve and support all of our clients through non-judgmental, unbiased spaces for conversation, and put a lot of effort into the process of matching you with a therapist based on your unique needs, goals, and preferences. The relationship and level of trust you have with your therapist is one of the strongest predictors of successful outcomes in therapy.
As you add to your stress management toolkit, remember that something that works for someone else, doesn’t necessarily work for you. Trust your own experience, and lean into the activities and techniques that feel right to you this holiday season.
Reach out for help if you need it. It can be hard to admit that you’re having a tough time managing by yourself, but often times facing the problem head on is the best thing to do.
If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 415.202.5159.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.