Do you ever notice that some mornings we wake up feeling like we could handle anything?
Other mornings, we’re not sure how we’ll get through breakfast, let alone a whole day? What is this about?
Some days, simple things can completely throw me off my game. Other days, difficult challenges feel invigorating.
I know it happens to everyone. But how do we make sense of this?
I’ve often used the analogy of a coffee mug (though when I’m talking to kids, it’s a mug of hot chocolate). I like to think of my capacity to cope with stress like having my own special mug waiting for me in the cupboard of life. Some mornings, I wake up to a 32-ouncer; other mornings, I’m lucky to find a thimble.
When I wake up to a thimble, any little bit of stress feels like it’s too much. But when I wake up to find my 32-ouncer, I feel I can take on the world.
In my “personal mug” analogy, stress is the liquid that pours into that mug all day long. It’s a random blend of things that are bitter (like my Wi-Fi glitching right before an important meeting) and things that are sweet (like cuddle time with my dogs). The bitter and the sweet can come in many forms—there are always all kinds of challenges and delights.
But overall, it’s a balance in the flavours that keep my days interesting—the sweet gives me things to be grateful for, while the bitter offers me challenges to rise to.
Over time, too much of either makes it not right—too much “sweet” can be a bit boring because it’s not challenging enough, and too much “bitter” is exhausting.
The rate at which all the stress pours into my mug is the third part. Some days it’s a slow, steady drip. It’s predictable, manageable, and within my ability to cope.
Other days, it’s like a tsunami. If I’ve got my 32-ouncer on a slow, drip day, and then I’m going to be bored.
But if I’m stuck with a thimble on a tsunami day, I’m completely anxious and overwhelmed and might be ready to call it a day by 8:00 a.m.
Ultimately, if there’s not enough of that “just right bittersweetness,” life is boring; too much, and it’s a hot anxiety-provoking mess.
So what’s a slightly anxious, working mom to do?
Well, if I’ve learned anything from my experiments with managing my anxiety, it’s that deciding to boost my stress-busting skill set is key to living a less anxious life.
Below are the three key strategies it involves:
1. Learn to manage stress levels throughout the day.
This is like scooping out the excess stress—using a spoon or sometimes a large ladle—to avoid the big, messy spill throughout the day before it’s too close to spilling. This means things like:
>> Making sure my seating and positioning are comfortable. I now have a sit/stand workstation that’s adjustable. Somehow, not spending too much time either sitting or standing feels right for me—I think I need the change and the movement between the two.
>> Learning to pace myself. Focusing on one problem at a time and scheduling breaks at 45-minute intervals was a hard one to commit to, but so worthwhile. My brain needs to focus deeply without interruptions as much as it needs breaks.
>> Eliminating interruptions during focused periods—turning off notifications on all my devices and keeping my phone out of sight really helps. I also close my office door, but if you don’t have a door, a “Do Not Disturb” sign may also work.
>> All my breaks are active, which means I move. Walking my dogs is the simplest way for me to make this happen, but I also have a yoga mat, a Hula-Hoop, and a jump rope handy.
>> Limiting social media. This one has been hard, at times. I now try to use it intentionally and only at scheduled times of the day.
>> Taking visual breaks. Because I’m now on a computer so much, I make it a point to take visual breaks to look away and give my eyes a chance to shift focal length at regular intervals. This helps decrease how tired my eyes feel at the end of the day, and I’ve noticed that my neck and shoulders feel less tense, too.
>> Keeping in touch with colleagues is harder these days, but finding ways to connect during breaks is possible by texting or scheduling socially-distanced walks.
>> Learning healthy communication and assertiveness skills was a hard one for me. Nothing quite adds to stress like feeling like a doormat—this one is still a work in progress.
>> Eating healthy meals on a regular basis has become easier the more I do it. I’ve also decided that “treats” aren’t banned—I just need to have them in moderation.
2. Intentionally plan to make sure there’s some “good stress” to sweeten the inevitable bitter stuff of life.
It’s all about balance. This means:
>> Taking time to do things I enjoy. If you’re not sure what you enjoy, try completing an interest inventory and see what speaks to you, then get out there and try things. I’ve managed to take classes in things I likely won’t become an “expert” in, but I would enjoy the class, anyway.
>> Spending time with people I enjoy being with. Now I do game night with my daughter, dinner at my mom’s, and a socially-distant nature walk or Zoom cocktail hours with friends—it’s invigorating.
>> Doing things I enjoy and feel committed to doing with a sense of meaning and purpose. Fortunately, I get this through my work as a therapist. If you don’t have this experience in what you do to make a living, make time for this in your home, or volunteer life—purposeful, meaningful activities are the real stuff of a good life.
>> Dusting off the hobbies that got set aside because I was too busy commuting. Getting back to playing my harp and piano has been fun and grounding. Try getting back to a hobby or leisure activity that is fun for you and helps develop a skill you’re interested in mastering—for the sheer joy of it.
>> Cultivating meaningful friendships outside of work has not been easy, but I have intentionally joined a couple of online networking groups and met people who have a great sense of humour and shared values (my screening criteria).
3. Learn to make yourself a more reliably bigger mug so you can cope more consistently on a day-to-day basis.
Wouldn’t it be great to wake up to a 32-ouncer, every day? These are some of the things I’ve tried:
>> Mindfulness meditation for just 10 minutes a day. It’s akin to being a bystander and just noticing the flow of stress—whether bitter or sweet—instead of holding my cup under the faucet to let it all pour in.
>> Exercising for 30 minutes a day. It helps me sleep better, which makes everything else go better.
>> Getting good quality and quantity of sleep. Explaining this one would require more than a bullet point, but suffice it to say—and the research proves—that exercising, spending time with friends, eating well, meditating, and doing meaningful things in your day will all help improve sleep. I top that off with a consistent, restful bedtime routine, and I’m able to wake up refreshed most days.
>> Laughing—out loud. They say humour is the best medicine. I don’t care if that’s true or not, but I enjoy a good laugh.
>> Remembering that all my feelings are perfectly acceptable—including feeling angry about anything (even this pandemic). It’s all the behaviours—what I say and do when I have big, uncomfortable feelings—that I need to control, so I don’t give myself a big hot mess to clean up.
>> Taking time to take care of myself. For me, in addition to everything else, it meant scheduling all my medical, dental, and vision checks in advance. And because I know that every good therapist needs their own therapist, I have that covered, too.
>> Finding time for a short daily ritual to be consciously grateful for both the delights and the challenges that the day brings, every day. Because without the challenges, what would there be to learn?
In the end, I know that I can’t control how fast stress pours into my mug, but I can control how skilled I am at managing the stress life sends my way.
Do you want my hard-won advice? Start with managing those influxes of stress, intentionally balance the bitter with some sweet, and work on increasing your coping capacity.
Even when you’ve done all of this, remember that you will have good days and bad days. On mornings you haven’t slept well, don’t expect a “good” day—accept this as part of the ebb and flow of life with self-compassion and kindness.
Acceptance of life as it is while developing our skills to cope with it, well, that’s the best thing anyone can do.
In the end, it’s all about living the best life we can with this one precious life we’ve been given.
In hopes that it’s not too bitter; and not too sweet.