Last year, I completely forgot about a scheduled meeting with a professor. He kindly rescheduled, and when I went to meet him I apologized. I said I am usually accountable, but I was stressed out. It was a particularly busy week for me because I was going through two long application processes. Over email he said he had forgiven me, but now his reply was curt.
“There’s always going to be something,” he said. “Keep your appointments.”
It was simple, but it’s been ringing in my head ever since.
Although in the moment I wanted to refute him — no, I’ll be much more relaxed next week once the interviews are over — I knew he was right. It was foolish to think respite was right around the corner. Inevitably, new stressful tasks would present themselves next week, consume my time and put me back into a forgetful frenzy.
Though I had been trying my best to live a healthy lifestyle, that professor made me realize I need to try harder to actively maintain a sense of agency over my ability to manage stress.
I had already been practicing techniques like yoga, mindfulness and meditation to deal with stressful situations. While such techniques are valuable for reducing stress, by merely using them to react to stress I was missing the opportunity to fully benefit from those practices.
When we encounter stress, it builds up in our body. Mounting research has shown that as stress builds up, it has tremendous consequences for our physical and mental health.
Stress is linked to mental breakdowns, unhealthy behavior, job dissatisfaction, accidents, family problems, lifestyle diseases and premature death. Other studies have shown that continuous stress reduces characteristics that make us resilient, like hopefulness and the capacity to forgive.
Although taking breaks when you are stressed can be invaluable for coping with daily stressors, it is extremely beneficial to develop habits that allow you to throw off stress before you feel stressed out. Doing so gives your body a chance to gradually heal from the stress it has accumulated over a lifetime. You will never stop encountering stressful things, but by developing habits that allow you to destress more than you stress on most days, you can become progressively happier, calmer and more productive as your body throws off accumulated stress.
So how can you find ways to reduce stress overall if your life is already jam-packed? Research has pointed to several ways to reduce stress efficiently.
First, you can tailor your workouts to promote stress reduction. While it is well-established that exercising decreases stress, the extent to which this is true depends on how you exercise.
In one study of stationary bikers, 10 minutes of pedaling was associated with increased vigor, a better mood, less fatigue and less confusion. There were progressive improvements for biking up to 20 minutes. Biking for periods longer than 20 minutes, however, caused no additional improvements to mood. Thus, the study recommended breaking up your workouts into multiple 10-20 minute increments throughout the day to get maximum stress reduction benefits.
Another determining factor is the type of exercise. One study of college students found taking a body conditioning class had no significant effect on stress levels, while after a yoga class participants felt significantly less tense, anxious, angry, fatigued and confused than they did before. Swimmers, moreover, reported better moods after their first class but not after subsequent classes. Thus, while regular exercise is essential for muscular strength and cardiovascular health, remember that not all exercise is created equal in terms of stress reduction.
Another wonderful way to reduce stress is by proactively incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your day. Mindfulness, or observing your physical, mental and emotional experiences with curiosity and acceptance, can be applied to almost any activity you do. Choose one activity that you already regularly do, and commit to doing it mindfully from now on. For example, last year I developed a mindful eating practice, so whenever possible I try to put away all distractions while I eat — except talking to people — and focus just on eating. This practice helped me develop gratitude for the food I was putting into my body, and a grateful attitude also helps preclude stress.
For me, the most effective way to proactively throw off stress is by sticking with a regular meditation practice, so for 20 minutes twice a day I practice transcendental meditation.
There are a variety of different types of meditation, and all of them are excellent tools for training the mind. To combat stress, however, some types of meditation are more effective than others. Guided meditations, where you follow the instructions of a voice, are both effective for stress reduction and easily done without training.
If you are looking for even more efficiency, some studies have found that transcendental meditation is over twice as effective for stress reduction as other types of meditation. Learning the technique requires going to a transcendental meditation center to receive personalized instruction. Although this requires an investment in both time and money, there are a number of scholarships and discounts to make it available to everyone who wants to learn. I learned transcendental meditation this July, and in the months since then I’ve gotten progressively happier, calmer and more appreciative of life.
Regardless of which methods you prefer, adopting regular practices to throw off more stress than you accumulate is a wonderful way to maximize your potential as a person.
Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected].