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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Coping with Stress

Since this month’s habit change is about acceptance, I’ll just say this outright: I am completely overwhelmed by this semester. I love being a teaching assistant, I enjoy being a research assistant, and  I like all of the classes I’m taking. And I’m overjoyed to be working on a project of my own, and I’m excited to be volunteering for things within this really cool community of scholars that I get to be a part of. And it’s way too much. I vacillate between trying to work a 20 hour day (impossible) and doing the thing where I get overwhelmed and can’t get off the couch, and find myself pressing “next episode” on Netflix even though it’s after my bedtime (trashy TV is where I turn when I need to stop thinking. Yes, I do mean Grey’s Anatomy. You thought this was one of those minimalist blogs where we don’t even own a TV? No, sir. We might not have access to TV in the traditional sense, but we’ve got a Netflix streaming account and we are not afraid to use it).

I should probably be doing yoga, or making crafts, or doing something healthy to manage my stress, but instead I have a variety of bad coping mechanisms that I constantly fall back on. I actually get annoyed at all of the blogs that talk about aromatherapy and tea and self care, because in the midst of midterms, that feels a bit patronizing. I have found that in the midst of stress, there is exactly one thing that helps me cope: I talk to my husband. I tell him what’s bothering me (a stats test, at the moment – right now the very words “linear regression” set off a mild panic attack within me). And he listens, and he puts his arms around me, and somehow I know that even if I do fail my stats test, the world will go on, because he will still be here. And that is what matters.

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Actually, this also helps: our cats like to sit on me. They're like teddy bears with a heart beat (Fat George especially). Right now all three are with me on the sofa, and I do find them very comforting. Pets are another form of social connection and love.

This is what I have learned about stress: if you are feeling overwhelmed, watch some bad TV if you need to. Tea is not going to stop the panic from washing over you, although it can be very comforting. Stick to a routine as much as you can, where you keep eating and sleeping and showering and maintain a reasonably clean living environment, because otherwise you’ll start to feel unglued (trust me). No matter how much work you have to do, neglecting the basics will come back to bite you. Do not give up. Ultimately, you’re going to have to say it out loud: I feel overwhelmed. Call a friend (our wonderful friend Amanda, who lives thousands of miles away, is the person who can make me feel alright over the phone. She has this magically reassuring quality). Call your mother (mine makes me laugh, which works very well), or your grandma (I have a very calm, very sweet, tough-as-nails grandma). Talk to someone. It’s not about advice so much as the comfort of connection – there is nothing so reassuring as knowing that you are loved.

This morning, as I sat here working on my stats test writing a blog entry, I told my husband how I was feeling. And instead of placating me or giving advice, he went and got me breakfast from the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, and told me that he loves me. Which gave me the courage to keep trying, to read more of my R Companion to Applied Regression book instead of returning to the saga of Derek and Meredith on Netflix (I can’t tell if I actually like the show or if it’s just the one thing that helps me shut out the panic). There are two more months to this semester. When I called her, Amanda asked me what I’m going to do to make it through to late April. And I said “I’m going to keep plugging away, because I have to. And I’m going to remember to be grateful for my husband! I think that with J, I can make it through anything.”

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In times of trouble, we lean on each other. Also at other times, for our own entertainment, as on this day at the beach when we found an amazing tree and felt the need to take a silly picture!

We humans are social creatures. It is together, through our connections to one another, that we make it through this life.

Strawberry Fields Forever

*Warning to the pure of heart and to the puritanical of speech: I use a bad word in this post. Twice.

This is not a post about a Beatles song. This is a post about depression, titled for the song I associate so strongly with the experience.

Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry Fields Forever.

and this one:

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out, it doesn’t matter much to me.

The bit about apathy – and the bit about nothing seeming real, and most especially the bit about sinking – ring true to me, when I think of depression. But the part about living with eyes closed is what I really find striking. You see, depression is easy to misunderstand. All you have to do is equate it with sadness, as is so perfectly explained in this post. But that’s willfully, woefully naive. In my experience – and believe me, I have a fair bit of experience when it comes to depression – sad isn’t an adequate descriptor. I would say tired, cranky, empty, listless, hungry, broken, apathetic, grumpy, confused, out of focus, and (to quote a Herman Cain parody) “crazy as a shithouse rat” are all equally valid ways to describe my own experiences with depression. Actually, feeling crazy comes a little later, as I start to remember that I do, in fact, have a mental illness, and that some of the things I’ve recently said to my long-suffering spouse might have been a tiny bit unfair. Then I also feel chagrined. Ashamed. Repentant. Which is sort of silly, because it’s not like I grew this thing on purpose, the way one grows an extra long toenail. Depression just sort of appeared. More like a wart. Fellow depressed people of the world, I apologize right now for that simile, which I will no doubt later regret.

I am not, as it may now be apparent, a huge fan of my condition, although I do think it has made me a better person, as it has increased my capacity for empathy a hundredfold. I’m pretty sure it also once cost me a job that I loved, and it has damaged some of my closest relationships, and there have been points where I wondered if it would in the end cost me my life. I’m not sure I’d call it a positive life experience, all things considered. Then again, it has made me realize that I have a wonderful and supportive group of family and friends, and a really great nurse practitioner who specializes in women’s health and talked me into trying Lexapro for the first time, which was life changing (and if you’re like me and don’t like to take medications, consider this: I think that antidepressants saved me. They were well worth trying. And I don’t even like to take aspirin).

But this is maybe the most important point I can make about having depression: when I am actively depressed and yelling and crying and anxious and unable to get out of bed, I feel (quite strongly, actually) that I am being perfectly reasonable. Because in that moment, I don’t see that I have depression. I see that life is overwhelming, that it’s frustrating, that I’m exhausted and sick for perfectly valid reasons. It is a Herculean effort just to go to work, and so I tell you: in that moment, when someone well intentioned and loving says something along the lines of “cheer up,” or “just keep trying,” or “it will get better,” every time someone asks me what I’m sad about, or tells me that I just need to stick to a schedule or take some herbal supplement…I find myself harboring secret hopes that they, too, will someday go a round or two with depression. Not a long round. Certainly not as long as some of mine have been. Just long enough to gain some insight, so that they will never force another depressed person to listen to their well intentioned bullshit again.

You know what does help with depression? An SSRI and an understanding spouse, and probably not in that order. I’ve been fortunate enough to have both of these critical supports in managing my depression, which is a chronic condition that I like to pretend I don’t have. I do this in two ways: by not talking about my depression, and by repeatedly going off my meds. My psychiatrist, not surprisingly, finds this less than endearing. But this is the nature of stigma and mental illness: we all like to pretend we don’t have a mental illness, even though so very many of us do.

and so finally, I leave you with one last line from Strawberry Fields:

That is you can’t, you know, tune in but it’s all right – that is I think it’s not too bad.

Sometimes – and I am so grateful that this isn’t one of those times – it really is bad. But on the whole, my life with mental illness (or, as I like to think of it, the last decade and a half) has turned out alright. Since I’m changing my habits one month at a time, I figured I’d keep the shortest month of the year the simplest: I’m changing a habit of thought, rather than action. I will no longer think of depression as something to be hidden away. I will in fact share it with the entire internet. As my finger hovers over the “publish” button, I’m not even nervous about such disclosure to all of the people I know and many people I really don’t – what I feel instead is hope. Hope that if enough of us claim it, out in the open, without shame and even with humor and good grace – the stigma surrounding mental illness will go away.

For me, this seemed like a good day to step forward and say that this is a part of me. And I am not ashamed.