By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2017-12-30 11:44:24
»»» New ways to cope when feeling at the end of your rope. Some of the School Nutrition articles that bear my byline I write because I have to—the topic is too nuanced to assign to one of my freelancers or I don’t have sufficient time to help guide a subject matter expert who isn’t a professional writer. But there are some topics that I eagerly and enthusiastically reserve for myself. This is one of them. The resulting irony is classic. I opted to write an article about stress-relief strategies at one of the busiest times of the year. I had optimistic visions of heeding my own advice in order to gracefully juggle my deadlines for the article, the issue, holiday activities and travel preparations. Ha! As most of my closest family, friends and colleagues could have predicted, I’m stressed to the max trying to stretch time—and stretch my physical and mental capabilities when fueled by insufficient sleep, excess junk food and non-existent physical activity. It would seem that, in this case, I’m certainly not practicing what I preach. So, you’re probably thinking, this is a rather unconventional approach to offering advice about tried-and-true stress management techniques, right? I’m sharing this honesty as my introduction because I want to assure you that, when it comes to the very real challenges of managing stress: I get it. I’m not offering you a set of rose-colored glasses (“Follow these tips and serenity will be yours!”) or raising unrealistic expectations. Stress management is hard. It takes practice. It means making difficult choices. But it works—and I can say that with confidence, because throughout this magazine production process, I’ve been smiling. I haven’t snapped at anyone or broken down in a puddle of tears. I’m taking things one at a time and conceding to Plans B or C (or D) when I must. I’m managing my stress. And I’ll manage it even better next time because I have written this article and reminded myself of techniques and tips that I’ve found very helpful in the past. (And because it’s a new year and I’m all about resolutions!) So, let’s get to those suggestions now. In no particular order of effectiveness or value, I present seven strategies for relieving the symptoms of stress. 1 KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL. There’s nothing like a little perspective to help cast a new and positive light on today’s worries and woes. When I’m on a streak in following through with this practice, I make time each morning before work or errands to open a small book of blank pages and record five things for which I’m grateful. These might be profound (“for the ability to truly marvel at a sunset”) or superficial (“for the writers of This is Us). They might be somewhat generic (“for a job I love, a roof over my head, heat in the winter, my health”) or they might be super-specific (“for the phone conversation I had with my BFF where I laughed until I cried”). Some days, I could fill multiple pages with lengthy lists. Other days, I struggle to come up with anything—but I’ll at least note that I’m grateful to have woken up, still breathing! The specifics don’t matter. It’s the practice of doing it every day—and the commitment to coming up with a required number of items. In diverting my focus away from the stressor du jour, I give it less power over my happiness, while reminding myself of all the reasons life is good. 2 COLOR TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT. I’m a total advocate of the adult coloring craze, but I understand if you’re skeptical. Give it a try. I never would have set out to do so myself, but my introduction was at a workshop where participants were given 30 minutes, some mosaic-type templates and a bevy of markers, pencils and crayons—I was hooked! Part of the appeal is the meditative act of coloring. The only decisions to make are which colors to use or whether to go with the fat-tip marker or the fine-tip pen. You can’t rush the process too much—it takes the time it takes, depending on the level of detail or size of the coloring sheet you’ve selected. The physical act is rhythmic, which makes it soothing. Psychologists note that coloring books work like other mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, in turning down the “volume” for our sympathetic nervous system. It can slow down heart rate and respiration, loosen muscles and still stimulate the brain. Some consider it “therapeutic without being therapy, meditative without being meditation, artsy without being art.” I would suspect that another part of the attraction lies in the opportunity to create a visually appealing result, despite a complete lack of artistic skill. It takes us back to when we were children, blissfully confident in and proud of our artistic endeavors with crayons, clay or dry macaroni. Don’t we all long for those days before we had the capability to compare or criticize? 3 FIND A FURRY OR FEATHERED FRIEND. Most pet owners are ardent advocates of the stress relief found in animal companionship. Whether it’s the mesmerizing purr of the family feline or the warm weight of a pup snuggled tight to your side, their unconditional trust and love are soul-nourishing. Their innocent pleasure in your company—and in batting around a crumpled-up piece of paper—is a welcome contrast to the complex problems, decisions and relationships we encounter every day. There’s scads of research affirming both physiological and psychological benefits to interactions with animals. These include decreased heart rates, enhanced levels of endorphins associated with happiness and well-being, as well as decreased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Don’t have a pet? Borrow one. If you can’t own a pet because someone in your household has allergies, volunteer at an animal shelter, offer to walk dogs for home-bound senior citizens in the neighborhood or make sure others know that you are available to make pet-sitting visits to cats and dogs whose humans work long, late hours or travel extensively. (These are win-win scenarios, because volunteering is, in its own right, another reliable stress reliever.) If you don’t have a pet because you travel extensively or find that ownership carries its own stressors, consider being a temporary foster “parent” for animals still seeking their “fur-ever” families. Many rescue organizations are always seeking foster homes to keep dogs and cats from over-crowded shelters. Want even less of a commitment? Offer “respite care” to these foster parents, so that you are taking the animal for only a short period of time. I have a family member who “cuddles puppies” for an organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs. Three or four days with their sweet—but often exhausting—companionship is just what she needs to get a quick fix from pet therapy benefits. 4 SOOTHE THE SENSES. We can respond both positively and negatively to the stimulation of our senses. A cacophony of sound—overly loud television or video games, sirens, harsh voices, loud laughter, construction or traffic noise, etc.—can raise your stress levels, often without you even realizing the cause. I’ve long thought myself impervious to this—as I’m rarely distracted by such sounds, I’ve considered them as white noise. But it wasn’t until I experienced some unintended periods of pure silence (which my younger self would have not been able to abide) that I realized how much the sounds of city life were contributing to my fundamental stress. I’ve found that it’s okay, upon occasion, to choose to start my morning without turning on the news and have enjoyed the benefits of intentionally muting my music from time to time. What’s in our line of sight can also have an effect on our stress levels. We may feel “blind” to the longstanding presence of clutter at home or work, but it could be taking a toll. I know that when I make the time to simply collect all the papers on my desk into one (still disorganized) pile, I’m infinitely more able to focus and organize my thoughts and activities. It makes me feel so much better and I’m more positive about tackling the next thing on the list. Taste is a more complicated sense to soothe. As my colleague Dayle Hayes notes in her reflections on page 34, stress hormones really do increase the appetite, so cravings are natural physiological responses. But I find I often need to guard against that “I’m-craving-something-but-I-don’t-know-what- it-is” sensation that drives me to repeatedly try to satisfy a mystery taste and always come up wanting. (“Nope. Chocolate wasn’t it. Let’s try chips.”) I’ve learned that I’m not actually craving a particular food, but responding to the unsettled anxiety of stress. A better solution is to satisfy hunger pangs with moderately nutritious foods and recognize that anything else I’m desiring is probably a false craving, and I’ll have greater chance of satisfaction if I seek a non-food distraction or comfort. How can touch impact our stress? Well, the inventor of sweatpants certainly understood that we’re much happier when casting off clothing that constricts. But that’s just one of many examples. My favorite is found in the salon. Sure, a relaxing mani/pedi is always a treat, but what I love best is getting my hair washed. Lying back and letting someone else’s strong hands massage my scalp with thick lather and the steady pressure of the hot water rinse…well, I’m de-stressing just thinking about it! If you have a willing partner at home, you don’t even have to pay for the benefits of this hair therapy! Finally, smell may be one of the easiest senses to satisfy in a soothing manner. From lighting a scented candle to heating some potpourri to baking a batch of bread—these simple acts can elevate your mood and subsequently cast away your cares. (Just be mindful that what’s pleasant to you may be overpowering to colleagues or family members. Don’t expect them to suffer in silence—and stress—while you wait for a complaint. Ask if the scent you’re using is acceptable.) 5 BEAT THE BED. Yes. You read that right. Much of the strategies we’ve discussed address a more general, pervasive sense of stress. But what about those occasions when you are unbelievably frustrated, agitated or just plain mad as heck?! My, admittedly, counter-productive default in these situations has been to pick a fight with a loved one, because, well, they’ll still love me when the smoke clears, right? (Maybe.) But a long-ago therapist taught me a much better tactic: Take a tennis racket or baseball bat and just whale on your poor, innocent bed (it can take it, don’t worry). This is akin to all those movie scenes where the angry or put-upon hero heads to the gym for a few intense rounds with the punching bag and all the bystanders look on with grave understanding. When beating your bed, the physical exertion alone releases tension and stress—and it’s much faster and more expedient than having to change into exercise gear and mingle with the gym rats. 6 TURN OFF THE TV AND READ. As the long-time leader of our SNA staff book club, you’d think this would come completely naturally to me. But TV is a hard habit to break. It fills the silence. I can multi-task during commercials (at least that’s what I tell myself). I just want to “relax and not think.” I have all the justifications down cold; but, in my heart of hearts, I know that TV is the junk food of my personal self-soothing activities. It doesn’t really work to reduce my stress. Don’t get me wrong—there’s fantastic, high-quality entertainment available on television today that I thoroughly enjoy, but too often I’m defaulting to bored channel surfing because it’s easy. I always know when I’ve watched too much bad TV—it makes me feel exactly the same way as when I finish the bag of chips. But I never feel that way after a few hours with a good book or magazine. Those always make me feel satisfied. Sometimes I’m left charged up and enthusiastic, other times, happily reflective—but never, ever more stressed or depressed. 7 COMMIT TO COPE. As I noted at the start of this article, strategies like the ones I’ve described are undeniably effective, but they don’t necessarily come naturally. In some ways, it’s easier to stay stressed—to just keep doing what we always do, hoping for better results. (That’s been called the definition of insanity, by the way.) Every day, we face innumerable choices—including how we are going to manage the stress that is an inevitable consequence of 21st century life. How will you choose to act? I hope you find the strength and commitment to choose wisely. Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition and SNA staff vice president of Communications & Marketing and resolves to take better advantage of these and other strategies in 2018.
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