“Put your first things first.”
It’s one of my favorite lines, and one I’m very sure my kids are tired of hearing by now. For them, it means getting ready for school before they worry about where their lost toy is. Or, it means eating their dinner before asking what’s for dessert.
When it comes to managing our stress, however, many of us are just like our kids. We worry about the small things – the tips and tricks – while ignoring the foundations that are the real secrets to building a calmer, peaceful life.
I believe there are three essential foundations for a more relaxed and resilient life – sleep, moving your body, and eating and drinking well. But, how do you go about establishing each of these foundational habits into your life?
Without a doubt, sleep is a central pillar of maintaining that sense of calm so many of us crave. When I find that things aren’t going quite right in my life, it’s always the first place I look. Have I been sleeping enough? Have I been sleeping well?
We’ve heard for years that the optimum amount of sleep for adults is seven to nine hours per night, yet according to the CDC, almost a third of us are getting less than six hours per night. And the news is worse for women, who are more likely to suffer from insomnia and daytime sleepiness than men.
Our chronic sleep deficit makes it difficult for us to perform daily tasks, and maybe more importantly, it significantly hampers our ability to regulate our own emotional responses to outside circumstances. The result? We struggle to manage our already full to-do lists and calendars. We find routine chores almost impossible. Our amygdala (often called our “lizard brain”) kicks into hyperdrive and we perceive the normal hiccups of life as serious threats to our well-being and survival.
But there’s no way I can get more sleep.
I hear you, and I’ve definitely been there. But it’s a matter of priorities. What are you saying yes to that results in you saying no to more sleep? Email? Television? Laundry? Ask yourself if those things are really more important than feeling rested, energized and equipped to tackle your day. Are they worth sacrificing your sense of calm for? I’d bet the answer is no.
If so, commit to get at least 15 minutes more sleep every night for a month. Set a bedtime for yourself and stick to it. Keep track of how you feel. Notice how your life changes. Are you able to handle mishaps and interruptions with more grace? Are you more creative in how you approach problems with coworkers or family members? Do you feel more energized throughout your day?
Move Your Body
Making even light physical activity a part of your daily routine can have major impacts on your ability to manage your stress level. Yet, almost a quarter of Americans do not devote any time to physical activity. Our main excuse?
We don’t have time. (Sound familiar?)
But, the benefits of physical activity can’t be ignored. Moving your body throughout the day helps you sleep better, age more gracefully, and maintain your executive functions (responsible for decision making and behavior control). It may help to prevent dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and a number of forms of cancer. And, because it releases endorphins and helps to flush stress hormones from your system it can go a long way toward easing your stress and anxiety.
Most of us assume that these benefits are reserved for the marathoners or gym-lovers among us, but this just isn’t the case. Even brief periods of movement can brighten your mood and strengthen your body. So, find something you love – walking, yoga, cycling, playing soccer with your kids – and make it a part of your daily routine.
Eat and Drink Well
I’m far from a model of healthy eating, but even I know that what we eat and drink provides the fuel for our lives. If we fuel our bodies well, we are more likely to feel well. We are also more likely to avoid the guilt and regret that often follows a period of eating particularly poorly.
But, too often, we deal with our stressful lives by indulging in low-quality food, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. We justify these indulgences as “treats”, but they do nothing to relieve the strain of our hectic days.
That being said, I’m not a big fan of strict diets, which usually don’t last and can be stress-inducing on their own. Rather, I suggest striving for small, incrementally better choices throughout your day. For instance, if your typical snack involves potato chips, consider switching to air-popped popcorn instead. Love sweets? Try a square of dark chocolate or berries
As often as possible eat food in its natural state – fruit instead of juice, raw or steamed vegetables instead of fried. Aim for moderation and focus on how you feel. If you pay attention, your body will tell you when it’s being given the wrong fuel to keep it running at its best.
Our busy, hectic lives are probably here to stay. But, that doesn’t mean the stress that accompanies them has to be. Put your first things first by focusing on the foundations that lead to a calmer life – sleep, moving your body, and eating well – and begin to take the first steps to thriving.
I’d love to hear from you. What do you consider the must-haves for a peaceful life?