Managing stress (and exams!) the healthy way

One more day of comps to go! I’ve stopped stress eating (possibly because I depleted our entire household stock of sugary and fatty foods…) and have spent the past few days trying to do a better job of coping. Spoiler: I’m still having stress dreams and doing a totally imperfect job of coping. That said, I have found a few things that work for me, and that have helped me survive this overwhelming week:

  1. Take comfort in ritual: I’ve been following a pretty strict bedtime routine to manage my anxiety before I fall asleep. My bad habit is to stay up too late trying to study, feel panicky and then not be able to sleep. Or I binge watch Netflix (why, oh why, is it sooo easy to just hit the “Play next episode” button?!). My better habit, which really does work, is to set a time (11:00 pm) to take a shower, put on my PJs, make a cup of tea, and read a chapter of a novel in bed. Works like a charm. There is comfort to be found in ritual, and I’ve been seeking it of late.
  2. Drink tea: I’ve been sticking to herbal tea after noon to cut back on caffeine so that I’ll feel more sleepy and less stressed in the late evening. I find a hot cup of tea very soothing this time of year. I stocked up on some new tea at the local market right around the start of comps, and it’s been a good replacement habit for my usual bad choices and comfort foods.
  3. Read fiction: I heard a radio story about an anxiety study where half the subjects used medication and therapy to manage anxiety, and the other half used medication, therapy, and reading fiction. Guess which group did better? Reading is one of the best ways to manage stress. It also promotes healthy brain function (and may decrease the odds of dementia later in life), helps people fall asleep, and is FUN. Right now I’ve finished Colin Meloy’s Wildwood (loved it) and moved on to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which I’m loving even more.
  4. Take breaks: In the midst of comps, it may seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve cut back on studying. I do better if I take long breaks to be social, go for a walk with the pup, or read a book. I think my recall is better if I study this way than if I try to cram.
  5. Go outside: I ride my bike to and from campus every day, and it’s the highlight of my day. It guarantees me 40 minutes of exercise outside in the sunlight, and I am so enjoying the fall colors and weather on my daily ride down the tree lined bike paths and streets of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. So lovely, and it never fails to decrease my stress and change my mood. I think it’s also an energy boost on the way to and from work – it’s been a great thing to do for comps week, because I arrive for my exam each day with a dose of fresh air and sunlight in my system, and that helps me power through four hours in front of a computer.
  6. Keep a fishtank: This one’s a bit less general than my other suggestions, but it really does work for me. I keep a 30 gallon planted tank with 3 Australian rainbows and 3 platys. It’s right across from the couch, where I sit and study. Any time I get stressed, I watch the fish swim for a bit. It’s incredibly soothing. That’s why dentists keep them in their waiting rooms! It really does calm the people waiting to see the dentist. If you’re not up for keeping fish of your own, try a visit to a local aquarium if you’re having a super stressful day.
  7. Do something creative: I’ve been working on a children’s book for ages, and it’s no coincidence that I finished it this week. I worked on it late at night when I absolutely couldn’t sleep, and it was the perfect stress reliever to help me calm down, feel better, and finally get to bed. I also like to cross stitch, paint with watercolors, and take photographs. Doing something creative takes my mind off the things I’m anxious about, because I become focused on making something with my hands instead.
  8. Look at favorite photos from happier times: When I’m sad or stressed, sometimes I flip through our photo albums and scrapbooks (or my own Facebook or Instagram photos). Looking at photos of myself laughing and enjoying life with my family and friends helps me remember what matters, and that whatever is stressing me out or making me sad in this moment, it too shall pass. Looking at photos also reminds me that life is good and I have a lot to be grateful for – it’s a definite mood booster.
  9. Talk to someone. I tell my husband when I’m super stressed, and he usually talks me down by reminding me that as long as we have each other, everything will be alright. He also rubs my shoulders or gives me a hug. There’s comfort in talking about how I’m feeling, and in knowing that he’s listening. I also try to be more social when I’m stressed – last night we went to trivia night with our friends, and it felt wonderful to take a study break to have a beer and laugh and catch up with our friends! (We tied for third place, by the way – not too shabby!)
  10. Get help: It’s also a good thing to go talk to a professional if you think your anxiety might be higher than usual, or really interfering with your quality of life. I went to see the good people at student counseling last spring, and they were very nice and very helpful. They had all kinds of helpful resources to suggest, like support groups and counseling and medication. For me, the anxiety turned out to be from trying to manage my ADD and grad school without medication, and I decided to start taking Adderall again and to implement a system for organizing my life. The student counselor and the psychologist I saw for an evaluation helped me understand that I didn’t have to do it all on my own, and that it was okay to take medication to help, at least for this season of life, and they helped me come up with a system for organization that works for me.
  11. Use a system to stay organized and on track: A lot of my stress was coming from difficulty staying organized. I would forget things, like paying a bill or reading an article for class, and then I’d be super stressed out about it and feel like a bad student/wife/grown up. I use this planner to plan each day and track tasks and goals (it’s been life changing and magical. I’m in love with it!). I bought and use a Post-It brand wall calendar to communicate with my housemates about plans, schedules and tasks. The wall calendar especially helps with sharing a car, so we can see when one of us will be out of town and plan accordingly. I have this Ortlieb bike bag, and I I pack it every night before school/work the next morning, with everything I’ll need for the day. Project 333 has helped me keep my wardrobe minimalist and manageable so I don’t have to overthink what to wear. Finally, we do a thing at our house called 20 minute clean up. When the house is messy beyond control, we set the microwave timer for 20 minutes and tackle as much as we can. It helps get things back to a manageable chaos, and it’s more fun cleaning together than alone. I’m always amazed at how much 2 or 3 people cleaning together can get done in so short a span of time!
  12. Follow a rhythm: I made a list in the back of my planner of what an ideal day’s rhythm would look like – with breakfast, set hours for work and school tasks, set times to walk the dog and eat dinner and clean up the house, and regular hours for sleep. I try to stick to that as much as possible, and I think it helps me manage stress and stay on track. I’m better at living a more intentional, balanced life when I follow it. I was a bit afraid of becoming too rigid and boring, but I think it gives a general framework to my life with rhythm and routine, which has actually helped me be more relaxed and to enjoy my life.

This week of all weeks, these things have all helped me to manage my stress! What about you all? I’d love to hear what works for you!

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