When I was in school, one of the best things about spring was the break. After months of being stuck indoors studying, there was nothing I wanted more than a chance to get out and let the newly warm sunshine melt away my tension. But after I completed my studies and became a surgeon, it became harder and harder to find time to take a breath. That’s why every year I make sure to remind myself to take a little “spring break,” even if I can’t go anywhere or take time off to do it. And for the sake of your mental health, I urge you to give yourself a spring break this year, too.
Americans are notoriously bad at handling stress. According to the 2013 Stress in America poll from the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults say that managing stress is extremely or very important, but only 36% report they are doing a very good or excellent job doing so. This is particularly alarming since stress is incredibly common and has been shown to impact job performance, relationships and the body. More than two thirds of Americans report experiencing emotional and physical symptoms of stress, including feeling irritable or angry, a lack of motivation or energy, depression and upset stomach. But even with all this evidence, many Americans do not think that stress significantly impacts physical or mental health.
Take a vacation. Even if you can’t always make the cause of your anxieties disappear, you can give yourself time to not worry about them. Work is a major concern for Americans, with nearly 70% reporting that it is a major stressor. If you have the chance to take a day or a few off, this could be a good time – in fact, Americans on average tend to not use all their vacation days. One study from 2011 showed that over half of Americans had an average of 11 unused vacation days at the end of the year. And if relaxation isn’t enough of a motivation, taking a vacation has been shown by multiple studies to lower risk of heart disease and premature death, and improve sleep quality. So even if you take a “staycation” where you enjoy your own home and city, don’t let your vacation days go overlooked.
Treat yourself. If taking a vacation or a trip isn’t an option for you, try to find moments throughout the day to find some serenity, or set aside your lunch break or your day off for some no-stress time. Treat yourself to a favorite meal or activity with or without a friend, and try not to focus on the things that are stressing you out. Something that gets you physically active can be particularly effective – over half of Americans say that exercising or walking helps ease stress, and 73% say playing sports is excellent or very effective. Yoga or meditation are also proven stress-releasing activities that may also help lower blood pressure.
Breathe. Even if you just have a few minutes, take a minute to pause. Deep breathing is one technique that has been shown to help ease stress – and you can do it anywhere. Find a quiet spot and breathe in through your nose, feeling your belly (not your chest) slowly rise, before breathing out through your mouth. With your hand, you should be able to feel your belly rise about an inch with each breath. Do this for at least five minutes, or as long as you feel that it’s helping you. If you can get outside first, this is also a great calming way to soak up some spring sunshine and boost your vitamin D, which helps keep your mood up.
Find support. Sometimes you may need some help managing your stress. Visit a mental health professional if you find that you are having trouble managing your stress or if it is consistently negatively affecting your ability to function in your day-to-day life.
Keep reading for more shortcuts to conquer your stress.