Because we’re all looking for a little relief these days.
By Deanna Pai
SHOP THIS LOOK
If you’re one of the many who began living the work-from-home life a few months ago, you may not need me to fill you in about how work slowly becomes life. Few people enjoy a commute, but we can all agree that it historically served as a good, concrete indicator of when to start and, importantly, stop work. And without it—or even an office to go to—those edges of the workday have gotten even fuzzier, creating nonstop work. Over the past few months, I’ve struggled not to work through the weekends, made even more challenging by the flurry of work emails on Saturday mornings. (Is nothing sacred?) Now, I spend my nights thinking about the emails I should’ve sent or all the things I could be doing better than I am. And I don’t even have kids!
But there’s an upside to all this: It makes me the ideal guinea pig for my own little self-intervention. After all, I own at least three books from the self-help section, and I’m well aware of all the stress-reduction techniques available via Google. So I decided to test out the best strategies to see what worked for me—and maybe they’ll work for you, too.
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A go-to for the self-improvement set, meditation (or mindful meditation) is well loved for its stress-reduction capabilities. One study found that a weekly 45-minute session led to an increase in calmness, better recognition of stress triggers, and improved detachment from stressors. However, I’d rather catch a snake with my bare hands than sit still for 45 minutes, so I chose to use an app, which does guided meditation in intervals of my choosing.
I’ve been meditating on and off for years now—just three to five minutes at a time—but this time, I manage to do it daily. I don’t know if I’ve stuck with it because a) I want to keep my streak going, as the app helpfully informs me, or b) I love it that much. What I do know is that I love the built-in opportunity to take a deep, calming breath. Usually, my time for purposeful breathing is the hour of yoga I do once a week. What I appreciate most about regular meditation is not that I necessarily feel any more zen, but that I give myself a mental timeout and stretch my lungs in between banging on my keyboard.
Adult Coloring Books
I happened upon a free adult coloring book, which collected dust for a while, until I discovered a study in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping (which, incidentally, is also the unofficial title of my personal journal). It found that 30-minute art sessions—including freeform painting and mandala coloring—led to significant reductions in anxiety. For me, it seemed like a nice way to pass the time on a recent Sunday afternoon. I used a brand-new set of colored pens to fill them in, and at first, it was great.
Unfortunately, this particular adult coloring book was full of mandalas, those floral-like geometric shapes with intricate details throughout. Beautiful, yes. Complicated? YES. I color like the Virgo that I am—that is, carefully and within the lines. After what felt like an hour, I’d only gotten through half of one mandala, and the page was nowhere close to looking done. I started to feel discouraged at seeing all the blank shapes staring back at me; this was going to take me forever, and it was only page one, and don’t I have work to do? Maybe I’ll pick this back up once I’m retired.
Running is the best way to fix my brain, which I learned after joining a Cancer to 5K program for young adults towards the end of my cancer treatment a few years ago. Just three miles or so can yank me out of a mood, boost my energy, and make me feel productive and accomplished. And there’s ample evidence to back it up. One review of existing data theorizes that regular physical activity increases your resilience to stress, while another recent study found that those who exercise regularly have lower “negative affect response,” meaning they’re more likely to remain calm and feel less anxious in response to everyday stressors.
Still, thinking about going for a run and actually doing it are two different things, and for the past year or so, I’ve only run in spurts (think a handful of times a month). So for the past few weeks, I’ve been running about three times a week, and each run is about three to four miles. The benefit is instantaneous: On days that I run, there’s a noticeable shift in my mood afterwards, and I feel more focused, which translates to actually doing work. It’s something that I’ll definitely continue, especially now that I’m back in the groove.
Gratitude journaling is one of those things that even I, a self-improvement aficionado, like to turn my nose up at. It just seems so nerdy and earnest, like the adult equivalent of writing your crush’s name in a heart. But a study found that those who wrote letters expressing gratitude far improved their mental health (measured by a combo of well-being, psychological symptoms, and life functioning, such as relationships) compared to those who wrote about anything.
When I first started doing this, it was too easy to think of all the things I was grateful for—my fiancé, my health, that someone invented crab rangoon before anyone talked them out of it. After a few weeks, it got harder. I’d already written that I was grateful for my fiancé. My parents? Check. My siblings? Check. The feeling of getting into a bed with fresh sheets? Check. My rule of including three things I’m grateful for every day and banning repeats challenged me to think more about all the good things in my life. That meant I had to start identifying reasons for gratitude in the moment and make a note of it for later. Like meditation, that’s become a habit—and a way to check myself when I start to stress-spiral.
Turn Off Phone Notifications
I have some pretty Luddite-adjacent views of my phone. Mostly: I hate it. It’s like having a needy, high-pitched boss in my pocket at all times. And while I try to keep it in my bag or at the other end of my studio apartment, it’s far easier just to turn off all my notifications, which may be good for me in a few ways. A study found that those who turned off their phone notifications felt less stressed and more productive over the course of the day. Though a few felt more anxious about missing important information, those who had a positive experience kept it up even after the study ended.
Now, I have to unlock my phone to see whether I have an incoming Slack DM or text. Finally free of electronic interruptions, I’m never going back; no anxiety-inducing news means no anxiety. Just don’t make me your emergency contact.
Deanna is a writer and editor in New York City. She enjoys reading, hiking, and not moving to the West Coast.