I have quite a bit on my plate. I deal with a reasonably large amount of stress. I have a whole boat-load of obligations to myself, the people in my social circles, and to my school and work. It is not a unique situation. However, the methods I have found to help mitigate my stress and keep my head screwed tight have changed my outlook on how I take on challenges. I thought I would share.
My stress management is broken down into three categories:
Organization refers to the tools I use to keep my schedule straight. The perspective piece pertains to certain rituals I do that helps me to find clarity in my daily life and in times of challenge. Finally, reflection is a check-in. It is when I ask: What has worked? What hasn’t? What can I do to make this better?
I use a three-part system to keep track of everything that needs to be done. The first piece is a weekly planner. I bought a cheap one at the dollar store that had several lines for each day on which to write. I use this to keep track of every assignment, every appointment, every social obligation, or favor I need to do. It goes with me everywhere and I refer to it constantly throughout the day. I have tried digital calendar systems, but for me, it works better to have it all laid out on paper.
The next piece of the puzzle is my dry erase board. I bought a blank calendar-lined dry erase board from a surplus store in Northampton, Mass. It is magnetic with about a 2×2 inch square allocated for each day. I use this to write down due dates or important events. In addition to the daily planner, this is something I can stick up on the wall and see at a glance how the week or month is looking. By not needing to flip through pages, deadlines no longer sneak up on me.
This seems like a lot, but there is a final crucial step in how I stay organized. I also utilize a post-it note system. Every day I write a to-do list of what needs to be done. This is my master list. When I sit down at my desk I will take another post-it note and write down three to five things I want to accomplish while I am working. As I finish each one I cross it off the list. There is something so deeply satisfying about crossing a completed task off the list. By using post-it notes I am able to break down my wall of tasks into reasonable bites.
Despite my best attempts to keep everything controlled, I often get overwhelmed. I am the sort of person who operates best when I have systems and structures set in place to be sure that I succeed. I have go-to activities that I find best help me come to clarity when it comes to problems I am facing. Life is a balance between the good and bad. Even when faced with a tough problem, there are ways to constructively use the negative energy to create something positive.
The negativity journal: This baby gets some use. The negativity journal is a big, fat, black book I write in when I cannot stop my brain from picking away at a problem that is bothering me. In it, I hash out all my feelings, emotions, and ideas. It is a stream of consciousness writing… often completely illegible or carrying on for 20-odd pages. The negativity journal allows me to channel my negative energy in a way which does not infect those around me. When I am finished, I pick up a highlighter and go back over what I have written. I highlight anything positive I have said about myself, anything positive I have to say about the situation or any constructive solutions I have presented to solve the problem. Look for the “ah-hah!” moments. These bits and pieces of positive thinking are refined and sent over to the positivity journal.
The positivity journal: The positivity journal is full of positive affirmations and tools I can use to deal with issues. The positivity journal is significantly smaller in size than the negativity journal, and so forces me to write as clearly and concisely as possible. The point of this exercise is to take away a useful lesson from the challenge I am facing and provide a guide for how to deal with a similar problem in the future. By the time I begin writing in the positivity journal I am in the right frame of mind to make decisions about a tough situation because I have hashed through all the emotions, barriers, and possible solutions in the earlier writing exercise. I also use the positivity journal as a place to write when I am feeling good. On the first page, I have written a few prompts: I feel grounded when… I feel good when… When I am stressed I should… A happy memory was when… I visualize… I use these prompts when I am having a particularly positive day or I have done something productive to improve my overall happiness.
Letter writing: I write a lot of letters. I write letters to family members, I write open letters to my problems, or I write letters to an earlier or younger version of myself. Most of the time I do not send these letters. There are exceptions of course, but the point of this exercise is to say everything I need to say to find clarity or closure. Letter writing is great in times of conflict with a significant other. Many times, I find that when I am getting angry at my partner, it is not him who I really have a problem with. It is, in fact, something in the environment or something to do with the situation. By writing letters (which often begin in the negativity journal…) it is another way to pinpoint those “ah-hah!” moments. It also prevents me from clogging up his voicemail, clogging up his text inbox, or having stressful/unproductive/non-directional conversations that contribute nothing positive to the relationship or situation. We give off energy that physically affects the people around us. I want my energy to be constructive, not destructive. Being positive is a choice.
Reminders to relax: Disengaging from a difficult situation is tough, but it needs to be done. I set certain markers that signal the transition between work and recreation. When I turn on my wax warmer, plug in the Christmas lights, turn on my Himalayan salt lamp, pull out my knitting projects, put on my soft gray pajamas, put on running shoes, or crack open some light reading… the time for worry is over. Finding time for yourself is equally important as finding time for everything else in your life. Toiling away for hours on an assignment to get a certain grade is never as important as your own mental health.
Reflection is a little more abstract. It is a personal check-in of sorts. Whenever I have been using a new tool for a while (I started leaving a few minutes early for class recently to cut through the greenhouse on my way. I wanted to be somewhere warm and green before sitting for over an hour in a tedious environment) I ask myself some questions about how it went.
- How am I feeling? Is my overall happiness improved?
- Is this working?
- What are my other options? Have I tried any of those to solve my problem?
- What do I do next?
And one final important question:
- Is there anything I can do at this exact moment in time that would make me happy?
Usually the answer is “Yes, I want to go for a walk/ watch a movie/ call my mom/ have a few minutes of quiet.” So, I go do that.
Finding a positive outlook on things sometimes means slogging through a whole lot of negative emotions. Change or challenge or a problem are not necessarily a bad thing. They are sometimes opportunities for growth and experience. There is a lot of joy to be found in sadness when you channel that feeling into something positive. I am so lucky to feel the full range of human emotion when it comes to times of great change. Yes I am sad today, yes I am angry today, but I am also so much more than that.
I had a conversation with someone late last night who said, “How are you coping with X, Y, and Z? You shouldn’t be happy. You should be falling apart.” Well of course I am happy, every day I wake up and choose to be that way. Being a happy person does not mean you cannot be sad sometimes, but wallowing in my sadness provides no benefit to me. It poisons my energy and makes me difficult to be around. Isolating myself with my problems seems like a great way to spiral into hopelessness. No thanks.
Anything can be a beautiful experience when you approach it with the right frame of mind.