dealing with stress

Midlife crisis? 3 Ways to Get Unstuck

I'm 43: prime mid-life crisis age. Or is it? Is there such a thing? 

Developmental psychologists study people through the lifespan and while most of the focus has been on the earliest and later stages of life, those of us in the middle are still growing and developing and changing.  That's mostly a good thing.

Self Improvement Thursday: 4 Perks of Meditation for the Chronically Busy

Self Improvement Thursday: 4 Perks of Meditation for the Chronically Busy

Tomorrow is the 1st of May and as you may have heard, I've signed up for Mindful in May, a global mindfulness meditation challenge.  I am committing to 10 minutes of meditation per day for the full 31 days of May.  Yikes!

In chatting about this challenge both on and offline a number of people have said, 'I'd love to do that but I don't know if I could stick to it,' 'I think I'm just too busy,' and 'Good luck finding ten minutes to yourself each day!'  

National Psychology Week: Stressing about money? You're not the only one.

Reporting on National Psychology Week again today - get used to it, it goes all week - and I'm a little intrigued.  Actually more than a little.  I'm really intrigued.  

According to research on stress and wellbeing just released by the Australian Psychological Society, the biggest stress out for those of us aged between 18 and 45 is money.  They asked questions about work and health and family and the economy and the challenges associated with maintaining a healthy lifestyle and yet most of us said that personal financial issues are our biggest worry.

I get that.  Not getting the bills paid freaks me out too and when you're self employed cash flow can be a particularly big issue.  There's no mystery about money worries and the fact that it tends to stress us out ahead of other things in our lives.  What intrigues me about this is the lack of discussion about it.  I can find a thousand articles about how to manage your health, your relationships, your kids.  There are tips on losing weight, giving up smoking, starting a fitness regime, moving house and holidaying with kids.  There's a whole big chunk of the internet dedicated to dealing with wedding-related stress. So why don't we talk about the thing that we claim is stressing us out the most?

My guess is that money stuff is put firmly in the too hard basket.  We kind of assume that unless we can find more of it there really aren't any other solutions and we'll just let the stress associated with it fester away there in the back of the brain where we put all of the other things that we don't know how to deal with.

So I've done a little bit of research on how to alleviate money worries.  You're welcome.

Firstly I've found an article that I think does present some great ideas for dealing with financial stress without being too 'financey'.  It's from the Women's Agenda site and it makes practical suggestions for getting your financial worries under control like 'Decide right now to adopt a positive mental attitude' and 'Consume less and quit keeping up with the Joneses'.

Next is a little App that I have been using for a few months now to track where my money goes.  It's called Toshl Finance and it's available for iPhone and android.  

This is a Toshl Monster, on a unicorn, with a light sabre.

This is a Toshl Monster, on a unicorn, with a light sabre.

The thing psychologists know is that the first step to managing something stressful in our lives is to get a handle on the size and scope of the problem.  Doing something - anything - is better than not doing anything at all and that's where something like Toshl can be helpful. If we keep a log of where our money is going we're in a better position to make decisions about what to do about it.  It's not the silver bullet but it's a start.

Finally I've got my top three suggestions for reducing money worries. I'm no financial expert but these tips are transferable across most of the stressful things in our lives.

  1. Get it out of your head and somewhere else.  There are plenty of financial counsellors available (you can find out more from Financial Counselling Australia) if you've really got some sorting out to do but if you just know you're stressed about money but it's all still a bit vague, get your thoughts and worries down on paper.  Do a simple budget. Write down the three biggest concerns and start making a plan to address them.  It doesn't matter where you start or how far you get.  Just do something to get it out of your head.
  2. Take action!  Keep it simple, make a plan and make something happen.  Are you going to reduce costs somewhere? Or increase your income somehow?  Pick something really simple and put it into place.  When we did this recently I went through the bank statements and found some of those little regular direct debits that you somehow sign up to (I do anyway) but don't actually need or use.  For us it was movie on demand access.  I was paying monthly but we'd be lucky if we watched three movies a year. It was only small but all those little amounts add up and it was a quick win that alleviated the anxiety a teensy bit.
  3. Stick to your stress management wins.  If you find yourself worrying about money - or anything - do more of what you know helps you to stress less.  If it's exercise, do that. If it's talking to friends, do that. If it's movies or socialising, do that.  Keep looking after yourself because that's the best way to defeat any kind of stress.

I'm interested.  Do you worry about money?  What do you do to stress less?  I'm no expert on finances so it would be lovely for us to share our experience and advice.


Self Improvement Thursday: For Parents

In yesterday's comedy moment with Michael McIntyre (here if you missed it) I think I laughed hardest as he mimicked the desperate struggle that takes place when you're trying to get a zip on a child's jacket done up under pressure.  

We've all been there, right?  That's what makes it so funny.  We can identify with it.

But in real life it's not so funny.  At that moment, when you're under pressure and you fumble and jerk and shout at your child to, 'stay still for just one minute can you?' your heart rate is elevated, your muscles are tense, your breathing has quickened and your blood pressure is up. In short, you're stressed.

If you then have to battle to get kids into the car and they nag and whinge at your for the whole trip, and then you have to battle them to get back out of the car and through the supermarket, or into swimming lessons or off to Nanna's, those symptoms and that stress sticks with you.  Your body stays in that heightened state, not getting the chance it needs to reduce the stress hormones pumping around and to return to a situation of (relative) calm and zen.

Some of us live like that - in a perpetually stressed state - for days, weeks, even years, especially when children are small and demanding the majority of our time, but also if there is the additional burden of financial stress, or job stress or family stress.

Stress doesn't just have affect us physically, either.  Recognise any of these?

  • Getting agitated and frustrated easily
  • Feeling overwhelmed, anxious or moody
  • Feeling crappy, lonely, worthless or down
  • Avoiding other people?

Or these?

  • Constant worry or racing thoughts
  • Forgetting stuff and feeling disorganised (more than usual) 
  • Having a tough time focusing on tasks or jumping from other task to another
  • Feeling pessimistic and like nothing good will come of anything

Are you?

  • Eating too much or not eating at all (or very little)
  • Procrastinating
  • Drinking too much (alcohol that is)
  • Biting your nails, fidgeting, jittering or pacing?

These can also be signs of stress which affects our emotions, how we think and how we behave.  

So what do we do about it?

The first thing I do is try to notice when I'm stressed.  Tussling with kids zippers is a good sign, so is losing my cool with the kids over little things that are not really their doing.  My stress tends to manifest in my neck and shoulders which I find creeping up towards my ears, with the muscles in my neck, upper back and jaw getting sore.  

Look back at the lists above and figure out where your stress hides out.

Once you are in the habit of recognising your stress signs you can do something to chill out rather than letting that stress hang around with you all day.  My quick go-to for de-stressing is stopping, staying still, closing my eyes, taking a deep breath and lowering my shoulders back down.  It's quite therapeutic and only takes a few seconds.  Try it now.  I'll wait.

OK. What else can we do?

I wrote some de-stressing tips here a little while ago.  You might like to read those.    

I've also discovered a great list of '52 Proven Stress Reducers' for Parents from the Child Development Institute, a US resource for parents.  I like the following:

  • Procrastination is stressful.  Whatever you want to do tomorrow, do today; whatever you want to do today, do it now.
  • Relax your standards.  The world will not end if the grass doesn't get mowed this weekend.
  • Say 'No!' Saying 'no' to extra projects, social activities and invitations you know you don't have the time or energy for takes practice, self-respect and a belief that everyone, every day needs quiet time to relax and be alone.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify.

You can read the full list here.  Everyone will find at least one useful tip, I bet.

It's time now for me to pack a swimming bag, do some dinner preparation, return some messages and order more coffee pods.  Ticking things off the to-do list is a stress reducer and where would we (I?) be without coffee?

Four tips for stressful moments

I went to the dentist yesterday.  Yay me!  I'd put it off for the better part of two years and eventually decided that I could procrastinate no longer. No dental drama, just my mother's voice lingering somewhere in my mind, reminding me of the importance of regular dental visits.  Daughter's guilt, shall we say?

I'm not an anxious person by any means but there is nothing like having a couple of people with sharp implements, a noisy suction machine that finds every sensitive spot on your gums and some electrical grinding tool poking around in your mouth to get the heart rate going.  I knew I was in for at least 30 minutes of this and that there could be a fair bit of discomfort, if not pain, involved so I decided it was time to practise a few relaxation techniques. I also decided that this might be a good opportunity to share some of these tips with you, as my second instalment for Mental Health Week.  

So here are my four top tips for dealing with stressful moments in order to keep yourself mentally healthy:

  1. Remember to breathe.  Sounds a little silly.  How can one forget to breathe?  But pay attention the next time you're dealing with something stressful or difficult.  Are you holding your breath?  I know I do, and I certainly was in the dentist chair yesterday until I noticed and made a conscious effort to breath out and then in again, and then out and then in again.  Breathing is, as you'd know, important for all kind of bodily functions and this includes allowing your muscles to relax.  There are all kinds of clever breathing techniques used for relaxation that you can investigate here and here but at the very least, just make sure that you are continuing to breathe during your stressful moment.
  2. Be on the lookout for muscle tension.  Even if you are breathing in and out as your should you may well still be tensing different muscles in your body when you're stressed.  This is a normal response.  It's your body's way or preparing to flee when it's feeling under threat.  But it's not really helpful in most circumstances and if it stays that way for too long things get sore and tired and you can end up in a lot more discomfort later on.  Also, being tense tends to exacerbate our experience of pain so it's not good for the dentist chair or any other kind of possibly painful procedure.  So when you're faced with a stressful situation, do a quick mental scan from your top to your toes, looking out for the parts of you that you might be tensing up.  For me, it's almost always my neck and my shoulders which end up around my ears if I don't watch out. While lying in the dentist's chair I also discovered that I had my hands gripped together so tight that I was risking blood loss.  Notice the tense bits and let them relax.
  3. Distract yourself. I wrote yesterday (here if you missed it) about the importance of reducing your distractions and being in the moment, but that was in the context of pleasurable experiences.  Being in the dentist's chair, or dealing with any other similarly stressful moment, is not the time and place for being in the moment.  Distraction in these cases can be good.  You kind of want your mind as far from your body as possible - unless it's really required to focus keenly on what's going on like a difficult driving manoeuvre or abseiling down a steep cliff.  Music can be a great distraction as can thinking about something pleasurable. Even thinking about your to-do list or dinner plans can be helpful.  I mentally drafted this article as a good distraction and, as it turns out, a productive way to use the time.
  4. Repeat. Despite your best efforts to enact steps one to three, you will inevitably find your attention drawn back to the stressful situation you find yourself in, your muscles will tense and you may find that you've stopped breathing again.  This is when you need to bring your awareness back to your body and what's going on, repeat the steps again, and then let the mind wander.  It worked for me.  I hope it works for you.