When I was growing up, I thought I was just a “worrier.” It was a cute thing to be, a worried young girl with her face scrunched up in constant, wrinkled concern. But as I grew older and took on more responsibilities, and as life became more complicated, my innocent worries turned into full-blown stress and anxiety.
I worried about my deadlines. I worried about the deadlines of other people. On top of work concerns, I worried about my house and home. Was my relationship happy enough? Did I call home often enough? Were the dishes clean and put away? The stress of everyday work in the nonprofit sector, combined with the emotional, financial, and domestic stressors of everyday life had essentially shifted me into a constant state of turmoil. And yet, when coworkers would ask the casual, “How you doing?” I would always smile and answer, “Can’t complain.”
I couldn’t complain, because then people would know about what was going on in my head and heart. The constant lists I checked and checked again, just to make sure everything was done—from important projects at work to “Swiffer the kitchen floor.” Dusting was on the list. Applying for a side-side-hustle to accompany the side-hustle I already had. Reading my library books. My ability to turn even the most enjoyable, relaxing activities into capital-T Tasks was impressive. Many times, without irony, I have written “Do relaxation facemask” on my to-do list, along with “Finish bottle of wine on the counter.” I should’ve just written, “Stopped being stressed” on the list. That would’ve helped the situation about as much.
This isn’t an essay about how I overcame my chronic stress and anxiety, how I coaxed my partner into being a better helper around the house, or how I ditched my guilt about living 500 miles away from my family. This is not even an essay about throwing away your to-do list. This is about looking your stress and anxiety in its (terrifying) face and dealing with it like the constant it may always be. It's about giving yourself some stress relief in the face of your constant stressors and learning how to relax to support your health and well-being.
Disclaimer: Right now, I feel stressed. I have a full-time job, a part-time job, a relationship, a home, a vehicle, and a student loan payment. Taxes were due last month. Deadlines are approaching. It won’t. Freaking. Stop. Snowing. And on top of all that, Target hasn’t released their spring-scented candles yet, so I’m stuck trying to relax and find stress relief with scents that remind me of Christmas and snowberries. It’s a dark time, y’all. It is literally dark and cloudy, too. I can’t win.
However, as a lifetime liver of Life While Stressed, I’ve developed a few coping mechanisms that allow me to say, “It’s fine; I’m fine,” and actually seem like I might mean it, rather than, instead, bursting with high blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, tension, nausea, and/or stress acne. Sometimes, these methods even help me to actually reduce stress. But we’re not talking bubble-bath relaxation techniques here. Turning my attention to the following three things have allowed me to refocus myself on what is Real and Right for my life. This, instead of flipping again to my list of relaxation techniques…face mask, bath bomb, candles, essential oils, drinking water, drinking wine, exercising, writing a letter…and then adding them to my to-do list, multiplying my Actual Stress by approximately ten thousand. The following considerations are helping me not to necessarily stress less, but to stress smarter, to reexamine the parts of my life that actually need me to be present, consistent, and clear—ultimately relieving stress at least momentarily. Once I’ve dealt with these things, the rest of the to-do list will follow (or it won’t)—and it’ll still be okay.
Take your time. In fact, snatch it. Grab it, steal it, escape with it through the door out back. When I’m in a state of stress, and especially when I’m dealing with the double or triple-whammy of stress, anxiety, and depression all at once, it feels as if I don’t have any time whatsoever. I don’t have time to complete my assigned tasks, I don’t have time to give to my relationships, and I sure-as-hell don’t have time for anything fun or relaxing. I say these words to myself over and over and over again. I budget out my hours and plunge ahead into the day, knowing full well I will ultimately burn out. It will not be pretty. So, lately, instead of letting myself be overrun with the idea that there is no time, I’ve become strategic about taking the time that I need. I force myself to take my allotted breaks at work, and I make sure I savor the entire lunch hour, right down to the minute. And even after I’ve taken my breaks, and I’m staring at my computer screen, unable to deal with life, I let myself take another. For the good of my own mental health (and the good of everyone around me, TBH), I walk myself outside and take a few deep breaths in the hallway. I might even go outside. This helps me remind myself that I am a person, not just a worker. Stress and anxiety can be mental health issues, and I need to take the time to deal with them, just like I would take a sick day or run to the restroom when I’m about to vomit. These days, on occasion, I let myself run outside for a mental-health reset. I take some deep breaths and take my time. Because approaching life as a constant, never-ending to-do list does not help my stress.
When I’m feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed (or all three, wa-hoo!) I feel a lack of ownership over myself. I can’t control my schedule, my time, my goals, or my desires. Life seems to be barreling ahead, and it’s all I can do to ask Jesus to please take the wheel. I give up, stay in bed, let deadlines pass me by. Or, other times, I cope by controlling the wrong things—what I eat, how much I exercise, and what my body looks like. Controlling my body does not help my stress levels. If anything, it makes it all much, much worse. Lately I’ve been focusing on this instead: How does my body feel? What would make my body feel comfortable, relaxed, fed, strong, and ready for sleep? How much sleep do I need to make myself feel capable and energized? What is my body telling me it needs? Sometimes my body is crying out for ice cream. Other times, it needs to take an hour on the weekend and engage in a long run, swim, or workout at the gym. All of these things are equally okay. The more I can focus on listening to my body and giving it what it needs, the less things like hunger, binging, illness, skin issues, and exhaustion will plague my life, holding me in that stress-filled state of mental and emotional pain.
My job, working in outreach for a midsize nonprofit, can be stressful. My other job, writing, can be stressful. My home life, personal expectations, social calendar, and financial situation can all be stressful. But my relationship should not be. It took more than one anxiety-producing, not-quite-the-right-fit relationship for me to realize that the love I want to have, and the love I deserve, is that which I can sink into restfully. I can find solace, peace, and comfort there. I can breathe. Sure, it was always fun to show up at work on Monday with eye-rolling stories about how annoying my partner was. She accidentally colored all my white laundry pink, she yelled at me for something stupid, she broke something out of anger, she lost the tickets to the play. I loved showing off how imperfect, ridiculous, and crazy my relationships could be. It showed that I was resilient! Strong! Able to put up with anything, just like any other woman has to! But somewhere along the line, I got tired, and I got really sad, and then when I stopped being sad, I realized that relationships do not have to be stressful or, on a day-to-day basis, difficult. Fighting with my partner does not help my stress, even if it gives me one more thing that I can control, even if it distracts me, and even if it all happens behind closed doors, away from coworkers and friends.
This isn’t to say that deep breathing, meditation, candles, salads, 5ks, and face masks won’t help your stress. They could! But those are stress management techniques, only there to help me calm down and find rest within the moment. In order to truly reframe my life as one that is not proudly, righteously Stressful (as the myth of the American Woman would allow us to believe is virtuous) and instead calm, focused, and hey—even happy—I need to keep taking my time, my heart, and my body for the precious, invaluable gifts that they are, and I need to treat them as such. This is not easy. I’m still working on it, and I probably always will be. From a young age, I was taught that being worried, busy, and even stressed were signs that I was Doing Life and Succeeding. But as I’ve let myself take a second look at what “success” might mean for me, stress has looked more like something that slows me down and distracts me, pulls me from claiming my time, my body, and my love as my own. I want those things. I need them. Slowly but surely, I’m working towards them. Without a to-do list to slow me down.