We’ve all had those days (OK, weeks) where we just can’t shake the stress. Whether it’s work, life, love, or a combination of all three, there’s plenty for us to toil over. Except, sometimes the way we handle the heat just makes matters worse.
“It’s emblematic of our culture to expect full performance at all times, sometimes 24 hours a day,” Kelly Brogan, M.D., Manhattan-based holistic psychiatrist and author of A Mind of Your Own, tells SELF. That leaves us all frazzled and panicked, and in our attempts to always deliver, there’s plenty of room to self-sabotage.
Next time you’re feeling the heat, perform a quick self-check to see if you’re guilty of these habits that can ultimately make your stress levels soar even higher.
1. Blowing things way out of proportion
“But what if [insert imaginary disaster here] happens?!” If you’ve got a habit of jumping to the worst-case scenario and panicking about the “what if,” that’s called catastrophizing. Brogan says we do this because oftentimes we don’t have a fundamental trust in the universe that things will turn out in our favor. Fair enough, but that’s no reason to start freaking out about something that hasn’t happened—and probably won’t. “We feel like it’s every man for himself, which is a fearful and anxiety-inducing state to be in.” To stop the deluge of what-if’s before it starts, Brogan recommends simply pausing for even just three minutes before reacting to what’s causing you to worry. Maybe disconnect completely from the situation and go for a walk. Even if it makes you panic at first, “the truth is you’re tricking yourself into thinking you have all this time you can walk around and do nothing. It begins to send your nervous system that signal, so you relate to urgency and stress in a new way”—that is, by staying calm and present in reality.
2. Skimping on sleep
It may seem reasonable to give up a few hours of shuteye to cram more work into your day. But running on fumes is likely to make it even harder to push through a stressful schedule. “So much of what happens during sleep is critical to the way we regulate our inflammatory responses and critical to our hormonal systems,” Brogan says. If you’re missing out on this reset time, it can impact your stress hormone levels. So while it seems like a good idea to pull an all-nighter and get a stressful task done, it’s actually likely to leave you feeling more stressed the next day. “We have a very specific and personal pattern of stress hormone fluctuation every day,” Brogan explains. This pattern tells our body when to relax and when to become alert. “Under conditions of chronic stress, physical or mental, you can disturb that pattern,” which in turn can disrupt your sleep. Combined with self-imposed sleep deprivation, you’re likely to end up in a vicious cycle that leaves you exhausted and frazzled.
3. Relying on take out
Your body and brain need healthy, nutritious meals to run efficiently. “Eating convenient food can only make life more complicated and difficult,” Brogan says. The foods you may reach for when you’re stressed (read: fast food and comfort food) usually aren’t the healthiest. “Blood sugar has a very intimate relationship with cortisol, it sort of yanks on it, so every time you’re eating sugar and spiking insulin, it’s a stressor to the body.” Over time, a poor diet can also lead to things like obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses—not exactly low-stress problems to worry about. Instead, focus on eating less processed sugar and more lean protein, fruits and veggies, and healthy fats like avocado, nuts, and seeds.
4. Obsessing over stuff that already happened
Some people tend to ruminate, or obsessively think about something that already happened and why it went wrong or what they could have changed. It’s essentially stressing over the past—which won’t change history. It’ll just leave you stressing for no reason. To train your brain to stop, Brogan recommends meditation that takes you out of your head and gets you focusing on body and breathing instead. “I feel passionately about kundalini yoga because it gives you so much to do. It works even if you don’t feel like it’s working,” Brogan says. Just 10 minutes or less can work. Here are a few ways to get started.
5. Loading up on caffeine
For the endlessly tired, stressed, and overworked, caffeine is the ultimate crutch. Why slow down when you can just slug back a few mugs throughout the day? Answer: Because you’ll never face the real underlying issue. The more you cover up with caffeine, the longer it’ll be until you finally get sufficient sleep or take a step back and give yourself a day to chill. “The other shoe unfortunately almost always drops,” Brogan says. If your stress levels are through the roof, put down the caffeine drip and give your body what it needs before you crash.
6. Reacting immediately and freaking the eff out
When something doesn’t go your way, and you’re already on edge, it’s easy to freak out. Except, what follows is usually catastrophizing or ruminating, or any other mental spiral that leaves you 10 times more stressed than you were before. Employing one of Brogan’s techniques—pausing, disconnecting, and meditating—will help you manage these situations better. Instead of reacting right away, taking a few minutes to mindfully process the situation will help you keep a level head instead of adding to an insurmountable pileup of stress.
-By Amy Marturana