Small Habits That Decrease Stress

There is a whirlpool of self-care tips and tricks that consume the internet. Facial toners. Body toners. Hair masks. DIY foot scrubs. Bath bombs. Year-long gym contracts. Masterclasses. And what do all of these have in common? They a) take too much time, b) try to sell you something, or c) they do nothing for your being.

Self-care is probably the most simple, and yet most difficult, thing we can do. As college students, we can’t afford to spend huge amounts on product. We’re either working for food or working on homework. There’s not time to become the ultimate philosophical gym-buff ideal that keeps popping up in ads everywhere. 

The secret here is that self-care doesn’t require toned abs or a new book every week. It doesn’t require hours and hours of time, nor does it have to be intense. A whole day, once a week, could even be too much. Self-care requires small, consistent amounts of intentional time that exercise three areas of wellness: physical, mental, and emotional. Let’s take a look at reasonable ways to apply these to our everyday lives.

Physical: The Foundation

Do Not Click Out. This is not a sermon on how we should all aim to be runners with toned arms and the ability to do five hundred push-ups. I describe physical health as the foundation because this is the vessel in which we are forced to reside and function in. If we want to succeed in any area, we need to keep the machine running smoothly. To do that, we give it maintenance when necessary.

Does that mean we go to the gym for three hours a day? No. Do we go to the gym three times a week? Nope. Do we go to the gym at all? No, not if you don’t want to.

You can get those exercise-derived endorphins from home, without breaking a sweat or spending a buck. There’s this magical area of exercise called Pilates, which only calls for your body and a chunk of clear space on your floor. As someone with very little extra time in my day (and severe anemia) I spend maybe thirty to forty-five minutes doing Pilates, but you don’t even need to spend that long.

Find twenty minutes to spare, and start with two sets of fifteen. Do leg circles, leg raises, butt bridges, and crunches. For arms, I mix in some yoga—I “walk the dog” for the length of my favorite two songs. Then I roll my shoulders, stretch it out, and call it a day. No lifting, no sweating, very little soreness. The goal is to work out the tension in your body from a long day of being on zoom, sitting at a desk, or standing stiffly at your minimum-wage job (you keep promising yourself that you’re going to quit). 

Food: The Fuel

Again, this is not a sermon on buying everything organic and cooking at home. (That is, of course, ideal, but what lucky soul has time for that?) Food isn’t the enemy. Fast-food isn’t the enemy. The amount of food isn’t even the enemy. The enemy is the kind of food we choose.

I had many semesters where I woke up at 5:00AM to go to work, where I chased a room full of toddlers and sang the alphabet for six hours straight. Then I went to class and workshops that lasted well into the afternoon. Meal prepping is great, but when you’re always working on deadlines and trying to get enough sleep, it’s not always feasible.

The compromise? Order clean fast-food. Instead of fried nuggets, go for the grilled sandwich or the jumbo salad. You can order two or three and I will still applaud you. Calorie count is a tragedy on physical and mental health—focus on what you eat, not how much. Our goal in eating well is not losing weight but avoiding inflammation.

Here’s where I get on my soap-box. I have IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease). If I eat anything that I have a sensitivity to, I end up in pain. It also causes me great anxiety. Doctors often refer to the gut as the Second Brain! Your neurons exchange information with the gut more than any other place in your body. The biggest problem with greasy food, in my opinion, is the effect on your mental and emotional health. If your gut is in distress, so is the rest of you.

This hypersensitivity forces me to eat in accordance with my body. While most people don’t have the same consequences physically, they do mentally. The first question a good psychologist will ask you about is your eating and exercise habits. A healthy body won’t cure anxiety or depression, but it can give you the foundation to fight it.

Intellectual Gum: Something to Chew On

It’s incredibly comforting to know that intelligence is linked to stress. You can’t overthink unless you’re a thinker. Between classes and customers and our dwindling bank accounts, there’s plenty to become hyper-focused on and fuel our fear and insecurities. But what if, instead of using our spare time on fruitless worry, we find healthy distractions?

When trying to curb a panic attack, or plain boredom, I turn on a podcast. I let it play in the car or in the background while I’m tidying up my workspace (which is another lovely thing to do for yourself). Pick a topic that is different from your field of study—we don’t want to encourage burnout. My recommendations are Planet Money, Dear Hank and John, or The Anthropocene Review, for their thoughtful, witty, and personal commentary. Having a productive, yet pressure-free, place to put our mental energy keeps burnout and boredom at bay. It can also be a supplement for social interaction, if you have an isolating schedule or are social distancing. And like I said, I play this stuff in the background. There’s no need to make time for it; you simply incorporate it into already-existing habits.

Rest: Please!

Perhaps the nicest thing we can do for our brains is to turn them off for a while. Allow yourself one to two episodes of your favorite show that you can watch mindlessly, and then turn off screens at least thirty minutes before it’s time to lay down. If you have insomnia, try out some yoga or Pilates, but stay away from tech and avoid doing any work.

The only thing that I would recommend making time for is sleep. Budget at least eight hours a night, even if you lay there awake and limp for the first hour. There will always be exceptions and last-minute assignments and parties, but as a habit, avoid the grind. Moderation will always beat mania in the long run. Sleep is not for the weak; it’s to help you survive the week.

Sierra Montgomery

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