We can take charge and do even more things to keep stress at bay in the first place, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. “I’m all about prevention,” she says. “There are many ways to set up your life to be less stressful.”
1. Multitask less, monotask more:
“The brain was not evolved to multitask and it can be stressful when we try to do so,” says Carter, referencing a Stanford University study. “At the end of the day, we end up feeling fried.” She recommends setting up a “fortress against interruption” for an hour or two each day when we feel most alert. Put the phone on mute, don noise cancelling headphones and ask co-workers or family members to not interrupt your focus on an important priority.
2. Don’t be a chronic media checker:
Eighty-six percent of Americans say they constantly or often check their email, texts or social media accounts, according to the latest Stress in America Survey. Half of U.S. workers say they respond to every email within a half-hour. Carter recommends instead scheduling a block of time at the beginning and end of each day for the task. During weekends and evenings, disable email and social media notifications. Research shows the more often we check, the more stressed we are. One recent study of British office workers found that checking email almost immediately boosts heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, while refraining causes the stress response to subside.
3. Limit choices:
Making decisions can be stressful, and we are all faced with an increasing number of them every day. To limit a personal decision-making load, get boring. Devise a meal plan that doesn’t vary from week to week (unless it’s a happy creative outlet). Stock the wardrobe with favorite styles of shirts and shoes in different colors. Select and stick with one brand of natural toothpaste or granola.
4. Don’t overthink things:
Ruminating on past events and relationship problems can be a great source of stress in the present moment. If there’s nothing that can be done about it, stop thinking about it. Literally visualize a stop sign when the thought bubbles up.
Idle times, like standing in line, sitting in traffic or showering can allow our brain to rest and recover from hassles. Embrace such opportunities and don’t clutter them up with technology; leave the phone and radio off.
Invest 10 minutes daily to sit still, focus on breathing, visualize an image or stare at an object and try to keep thoughts from drifting. Brain imaging studies published in the Brain Research Bulletin show that “Through [such] meditation, it’s possible to rewire your brain to create a new, stronger circuit that keeps your emotional reactivity under control,” says Dr. Mithu Storoni, who has published a book on the topic.
7. Heighten spirituality:
Whether it’s regularly attending religious services, yoga meditation sessions or quiet walks in the woods, a spiritual practice can be a powerfully effective means of coping with stress and mitigating its health impacts. Duke University research shows that people regularly engaged in a spiritual practice are more likely to survive heart surgery, recover better from stroke, have shorter hospital stays and become depressed and stressed less often. “Spirituality connects you to the broader world, which in turn enables you to stop trying to control things all by yourself,” explains Dr. Roberta Lee, an integrative physician, in her book The SuperStress Solution. “When you feel part of a greater whole, it’s easy to understand that you aren’t responsible for everything that happens in life.”