The last few weeks have been nothing short of totally insane. Unexpected, exciting, stressful, awesome, etc. etc. But I got dressed ready to conquer the world (or at least my new job) this morning.
This summer I decided to get on the cold brew coffee train. I don’t have an A/C and in the hottest days of the summer mornings can be sweaty even without turning on the stove. I looked up ideas online, but everything sounded rather involved. Instead I just put my usual grounds and water in my french press and let it sit overnight. The results were pretty good! The coffee really does come out less acidic and makes for a great cold beverage in the mornings. But! I was discussing this with my dad and he told me about a neat relatively inexpensive cold brew maker. It’s still a work in progress but I’ve been enjoying some new coffee styles outside my typical dark roast. A medium roast blend turned out really great with this little machine.
Less the Stress: Day 7 – Cooking
Okay, so this is going to be one of those tips we’ll all have to agree to disagree on: cooking as a de-stresser. I’m not a cook. (Also, not a crook!) I like to bake some desserts (as I’ve written about my legendary Susie Cake), but cooking has just never been my thing. Whenever Jeremy comes over in the middle of an ambitious attempt at dinner, the first words out of my mouth are always “I have no idea what I’m doing!” It’s good that I date someone who enjoys cooking. If I could cook once a month or something I’d be happy and feel accomplished. After being a vegetarian for a few years and just never being someone who loved meat it’s not something I cook at home, which limits the creative options. I’ve tried a few things, and they’ve mostly worked, but cooking with meat still weirds me out.
I’m sure many people find cooking to be therapeutic. A few weeks ago I was talking to someone who described cooking a big chili as a very relaxing event. I get that. In theory. One of my best friends, Katie, loves to cook and bake and makes amazing things. And she doesn’t do recipes. I think that confidence in lack of directions combined with a love of cooking makes it relaxing for people. I always try to follow directions, get frustrated, work too quickly and throw things in half-ready. I’m patient in other ways? And I will forever seek out other people to feed me. And takeout.
Less the Stress: Day 6 – Listen to Music
New to the series? Read the first post here. I’d say the basic concept of listening to music as stress relief is that many people believe you’re supposed to listen to classical, calm, therapeutic tunes. I know that works for some people, especially for studying, but that will never be me. The closest I came to classical study music was the soundtrack to Into the Wild by Eddie Vedder. Most of it was instrumental and animal sounds or intonations. I love jamming out to music on my commute, but these days I listen to various comedy and topical podcasts more than anything.
A few years ago I discovered stand up on Pandora. I was in a period of my life where listening to music was not something I was able to do. It felt too vulnerable. Discovering stand up not only entertained me but gave me a nice background noise replacement where I could just listen to someone talk, especially once I got to know most of the bits. As someone who has worked almost exclusively in quiet offices, you basically have to have ear buds in most of the day to entertain yourself. Once I started my job commuting to Vermont I went full-force on podcasts. I’d started listening to a few on road trips but figured I’d need more than music and musical albums entertaining me while driving 2 hours a day. OK, so lets get back to the point here. Music is a great stress reliever. If you’re me, that means belting along to impassioned songs from musicals. Or just a pop song I can’t get out of my head. These days, it’s something I kind of forget about. It’s weird to think about, but in a way I’ve gotten addicted to having a stream of voices in my head (Erm? I’m not crazy. Sure.) I like listening to other people discuss their lives, talk about history, share goofy stories, etc. But sometimes I don’t realize right away that it’s wearing me out. I don’t know if this can be classified as introvert behavior but listening to people talk a lot, even digitally, seems to exhaust my brain or make me anxious if I do it too much. It’s gotten to the point where I have to force myself to switch to music, but the results are always satisfying. I’m better about it now. When I’m scrolling my available podcasts and nothing is striking me, it’s time for a playlist. It’s easy to get caught up in background noise without realizing you’re hurting yourself. Similar to my meditation post, being able to be still and enjoy the quiet is important. Music to me is so powerful and helps me tap into my creative side. I love musicals in a similar-but-different way I love books: it transports you to another world. Except with musicals and music, you’re tapping in the emotion of the voice as much as the words, or even moreso. I can’t NOT tear up belting out Finale to In The Heights while remembering the way Lin looked delivering it live (Do yourself a favor and watch the link). This past weekend I saw “Hands on a Hardbody” from the Park Playhouse production in Albany. I was pleasantly surprised with how good it was – I’m even considering downloading some of the songs. Now that I don’t live in NYC anymore my new musical obsessions have decreased greatly. I miss it.
Less the Stress: Day 5 – Green Tea
Green tea. What is it good for? War? No, but seriously, this is a contentious issue. If I keep repeating that. Green tea is a stress reliever? I know it’s supposed to have magic powers to make you healthy. And the ones that have caffeine are supposed to be better for you than coffee. But stress relief? Please, tell me more.
Drink Green Tea
Green tea is very soothing—it contains theanine, an amino acid that gives flavor to green tea and also promotes relaxation. It is also thought that theanine is a caffeine antagonist, meaning it counters the stimulating effects of caffeine. So, drink green tea, and avoid caffeinated beverages, since caffeine can worsen the stress response.
First of all, lets look away from the claim from Women’s Health magazine that you can reduce stress “instantly.” Okay, so they make a good point. Green tea without caffeine is calming. For a while I was using green tea with caffeine for an extra non-coffee boost during the day. Plus it does taste great in iced form. However Celestial Seasonings does make several kinds of relaxing teas that mix green tea with other ingredients for a relief. I get that. I don’t know if it falls into the caffeine category or not but my coworker shared with me a green tea that smells amazing (because it doesn’t always, unless you’re 100% on board with grass flavorings), and I found it very relaxing.
Less the Stress: Day 4 – Meditate
New to the series? Read the first post here.
Let’s go all Wikipedia first: Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself.
Meditation is something I’ve heard about in passing conversations lately, but it’s not something that appears (to me) to be proselytized like other fads such as yoga or green juices. I felt very close to Marc Maron during his podcast with Josh Radnor, trying to parse out his meditation practice: what do you do? what do you think? what do you say? how do you start? WTF?! It’s small part of the podcast but it stuck with me. What I’ve gathered is that it’s very personal. You make it work for you however you want.
In researching this I found that Forbes just posted an article about how meditation just a few minutes a day can greatly reduce stress. It focuses on mindfulness, stating, “Mindfulness is a mental practice used to focus attention on the present moment, rather than on the usual ‘chatter’ that’s going on in our heads. It also helps a person learn to not get caught up in his or her thoughts, but instead simply to acknowledge them and let them go.“
“Let them go” — that is the most important goal for me. I get caught up in my thoughts all the time, and my brain even goes on to create insane, weird, or unrealistic scenarios just to make me feel bad or confused or, sometimes, elated. To meditate well you can’t get caught up in doing it perfectly. If you’re in the zone, thoughts may pop up to interfere, but you’re supposed to just acknowledge the thought or feeling as valid and then let it pass. We’re all so prone to getting mad at ourselves for not being perfect or doing something right, or just reacting far too strongly to minor stimuli.
For example, I encounter a lot of stressors while driving. You’d think I’d let it pass because it happens every day, but instead I take it personally. One day an on-coming car flipped me off out their window after I passed a slow car in front of me (and I was in no way close to cutting off the on-coming car, it’s a very long straightaway). And it really upset me. I felt bad like I must have done something wrong to cause someone to flip me off, and at the same time upset I didn’t react quickly enough to return the gesture with a sarcastic thumbs up or something. It’s silly. And a waste of time and energy. Yet all kind of these interactions, thoughts, reminders of awkward encounters, and more, invade our thoughts and we obsess about them. Worse yet, we complain to other people about it. I’ve really tried to stop that, and I ask myself if I really need to share a story or complaint and give it more “air time” in my life.
OK. Back to meditating. Everything I read said it’s best to start small first. Pick a daily activity that signals meditation, like brushing your teeth or drinking coffee to meditate after so it becomes a habit. Mornings are good for this in general, but my mornings usually are not. I’m up and running around to get ready and then out the door as early as possible. However, I’ve been changing my morning habits a bit by making cold brew coffee the night before and having breakfast at work. Obviously, the biggest barrier to making this happen is me. I can make time 2 minutes easily, at many times of the day. But I have to want to do that. And I have to stick to the habit, or try to.
I decided to make my signal to meditate after feeding my cat in the morning. Meditating requires silence/calm and I figure the cat will be the least likely to be all up in my space if she’s fed and happy. I’ve been doing it for about a week now, and it’s still kind of a challenge. The first time went by so fast – kind of like when you don’t know what to expect you just jump right in? Subsequent days I’ve found I’m a bit more distracted and have to work hard to focus on my breathing. One morning I was rushing a bit but I still made time to sit down and do it for 2 minutes before walking out the door. It feels like a success, and I want to continue to force myself to take time to just sit down and chill out for a bit. I’d hate to turn into the kind of person that would rather shock myself than sit alone with my thoughts.
Less the Stress: Day 3 – Writing to Reduce Stress
New to the series? Read the first post here.
I’ve always found writing in all its forms very cathartic. There’s probably 15 notebook drafts of the story I wrote in elementary school called “Founders of the Secret Passage” that I started writing with my friend Lauren about searching for hidden places. It’ll be hilariously cringeworthy whenever I dig that one out some day. I loved writing stories, and then essays in high school through my English classes, and then Livejournal and Diaryland, and then of course, blogging and Twitter and whatever exists in the future. These were all things I do in relative privacy despite them being public. I almost never publicize my blog outside of Twitter. I’m not sure why. I think I write very well and I tell interesting stories. But I’ve probably always been too precious about my work. And if I were more susceptible as a kid, I would be an L. Ron Hubbard follower — apparently I submitted a story to some contest unknowingly. True story. I doubt I still have it but I’d love to see what that correspondence looked like.
Anyway. That’s not the point here. (But I love tangents. And parentheticals.) Writing is a great de-stresser in several ways. Writing for public consumption is about external validation. Writing in private is more about clearing your brain. For me, the best de-stress writing is my personal journal. Well, journals. I have a lot of them. When I’m laying in bed at night and the same pretend conversation runs in my head over and over again, I get up and write it down. It gets the words out of my brain and the result is satisfying. I don’t usually go back again to re-read it, but sometimes that perspective is helpful. It offers perspective: remember when you thought XYZ was terrible but then you made it? It also offers a look into patterns: do you write the same way every month and realize something happens consistently that upsets you? Do you write something you think is cool but didn’t share it for fear of judgment? (I do that a lot.)
I wish I wrote more privately. I also wish I took more risks with my writing. As I’ve learned from my podcast obsession (more on that later), pushing all your work out as often as possible is how you find what’s good — not holding onto to something forever. These days I leave out a sketch pad on my table in case the mood strikes me. Lately it’s just doodling but who knows what I’ll come up with next. Writing definitely keeps my crazy in check, and lets me see visually where my issues are coming from.
Less the Stress: Day 2 – Reading
New to the series? Read the first post here.
Reading Rainbow, you guys. It’s the best. Everyone has a different relationship with books and reading. Some people are more academic. Some people (gasp!) hate books. Some people think the answer to life is buying all the self-help books in the world. In that sense, reading as a stress relief is probably only valuable in relation to how you view reading/books. But for me, this is totally in my wheelhouse.
I grew up reading constantly, until sometime around middle school and then I didn’t pick up my reading habit again until later in high school. I used to clear out our library’s sale books at 50 cents or something crazy like that. I’ve gotten stuck in genres before, but usually through recommendations — or lately, the internet — I discover something new that I love. My relationship with books is all about disappearing into a story. I think in the narrators voice, I imagine real life comparisons to the events of the book, I disappear into the world inside the pages.
Most great writers say that reading as much as you write is key to getting better. These days with life being so busy I don’t find myself with afternoons to spend reading new books for 3 or 4 hours. Most of the time I manage 10 minutes before falling asleep. However, I did recently get myself a library card so I can check out books (and DVDs!) for free. I used to buy books more but that’s wasteful and unnecessary. I am totally a re-reader, but only with a select few books. I’ve read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories about a thousand times — they were my default subway books in NYC in between new books. Junot Diaz is also another great for re-reading with both his short story books and the one I’m reading above (just finished actually), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
If I were making a scale (shit, should I make a rating scale for these tips?) I would put reading at about 95% effective for stress relief. Whether it’s a classic or a young adult easy read or a memoir, falling into someone else’s story for any period of time relaxes me greatly.
Less the Stress: Day 1 – Get a Pet
New to the series? Read the first post here. One of the common de-stressors you hear about involving playing with an animal. Having a pet is known to reduce blood pressure and help you relax. Of course, I was feeling the complete opposite of those feelings the day I took home Sabrina while she screeched in her carrier and tried to bite my hand off. Two weeks after moving into my Albany apartment, I impulsively brought a cat home.
I had been planning to get a cat, but the actual adoption happened so quickly I felt like maybe it was a mistake. When the cat hated her carrier and my car so much I was certain she hated me. But then I got her home, and we started to get to know each other. This cat is the best of both worlds: she has all the pluses of a cat, and she also think she’s a dog. She’ll growl at strangers near the door, and she absolutely must follow me even if I walk to one room to get something and immediately come back.
Playing with a pet is a great stress release. You get to be silly and run around and you have this lovable furball that just wants you to love it back. It’s pretty easy. And coming from my place of stress, it’s really helpful to have an animal in the house. I’m prone to anxiety and depressive episodes, and realizing that no matter how grumpy and laden I feel I HAVE to get up and feed the cat definitely helps with perspective. Oh, you’re sad about that dumb thing at work? Someone’s purring and wants to play. Oh, you’re stressed out about something you can’t control? Go throw a pretend mouse around and enjoy just how happy it makes your cat — for HOURS.
Additionally, in the last few months I’ve started volunteering at the Petsmart in Latham via the Hudson Mohawk Humane Society. Every week I work a shift with another woman and we chat and get to know the cats and meet potential adopters. It’s a great way to spend some time caring for cats in need (and trying not to get to depressed about all the surrenders with BS reasoning), and getting to talk cats for 2 hours. The good stories are endless.
Sometimes I feel like I should have given myself more time to have the freedom to be selfish and not worry about a pet, but more often than not I adore my kitty cat. And to be perfectly honest, I think keeping my cat alive has been easier than any plant I’ve ever owned (more on that later).
It’s new series time! Feel free to roll your eyes at me, as I know I tend to pick up new hobbies or trends and then let them fall to the wayside. Here’s the breakdown: throughout the month of July I’ll be posting about something that have been recommended for stress-relief. Topics will range from common ideas that have stuck with me, tips from curated lists online, and offbeat ideas crowd-sourced from friends. (And yes, I originally tried to plan this out for EVERY day of July… but plans, man. So the posting may be sporadic but I have a list of at least 15 ideas!)
I’m a stressed out, anxious person a lot of the time, and I’m also a hyper aware, empathetic introvert. Life can feel way too much sometimes. Add in the fact that I commute about an hour each way to work on a two-lane road (i.e. getting stuck behind trucks or slow drivers and plotting Frogger-style passes) and sometimes my stress levels become absurd. I HAVE STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT ROAD ETIQUETTE, OK?! There have been more reports lately that stress-related health problems are on the rise because our stress response as humans is the same whether someone is holding a gun to our face, or if some asshole just cut us off in traffic. That’s a problem, obviously. Another report states that some people’s brains are more wired to be stressed vs. stress resistant. Hooooray!
I may never fully relax on my commute, but if I can make my life more relaxing outside of that I see that as a bit of progress. Like my month of giving thanks for Thanksgiving series, hopefully this month of testing will produce a tactic or two I’ll stick with long term for stress release.
Because clearly I am #tooblesstobestressed. Hashtag I’m sorry. Hashtag no I’m not.