3 Tips to Stay on Top of Stress

STRESS! We all know that feeling of being overwhelmed, tense, jittery, tired, frustrated, etc. It's that time of the year where several factors converge to make things pretty stressful. Finals and the holidays are on the horizon. Sports are in full swing, some of them are in playoffs. If you live anywhere near me it's COLD (which is honestly the most stressful part for me...). There's a lot going on in our lives. 

With all of these factors being in full swing our own well being (or sanity) is at risk. All of those other things are grabbing for our attention so intensely, we forget that we have to take care of ourselves so we can survive and thrive through all this stress! So here are 3 tips to help you thrive through all this stress!

1) Do one thing every day that is FUN! 

I get it: "But, Erin, I don't have any time to have fun with all of the things on my plate!" Ah, but you do. And quite frankly, you need to spend some time having fun. I'm not talking about taking a week-long vacation to Hawaii (but if you have that as an option, DO IT!). I'm talking about little things every day that make us smile or giggle.

During graduate school, I worked 12 to 16 hours daily (I did A LOT of work outside of what was required in school, mostly research related activities...). So it's safe to say I was pretty stressed. Because I find random things amusing, I had a sparkly pink hula hoop sitting behind my couch. If you know me, I am NOT into things that are sparkly or pink (that was part of the amusement). Every day amidst studying, I'd pull out the hula hoop in the middle of my living room and start hula hooping. I'd typically burst out into laughter thinking, "Who does this?" Well, me, because it made me laugh and feel better about the huge amount of work I was doing during the day.

If you need any help finding fun things to do, I'm sure our resident expert, Fromm, would be happy to help. Although, it may involve playing a lot of fetch...

If you need any help finding fun things to do, I'm sure our resident expert, Fromm, would be happy to help. Although, it may involve playing a lot of fetch...

This can take hundreds of other forms: watch an episode of your favorite TV show (any Seinfeld fans out there?), watch videos of babies laughing (I dare you to not laugh) or dogs doing random things (like chasing an ice cube), volunteer doing something you enjoy, listen to music that makes you feel good, read a chapter of a good book, do something nice for others, etc. The possibilities are endless!  And remember, it doesn't have to take much time. Actually, it's better if it's short so you can still give good time to the other stuff, too.

2) Get good sleep.

Athletes should aim for the upper recommendations for their age range. For example, college student-athletes should aim for 10 to 11 hours of sleep in a 24-hour time span.

Athletes should aim for the upper recommendations for their age range. For example, college student-athletes should aim for 10 to 11 hours of sleep in a 24-hour time span.

Sleep is incredibly important. We need it for good brain functioning, physical performance, and emotional stability. Another surprising finding? One study found being awake for 24 hours impairs cognitive and physical performance as if you were legally drunk! So NO all-nighters people! Most people also don't realize student-athletes need more sleep than the typical college student. Check out the photo for sleep duration recommendations.

I cannot tell you how many student-athletes I work with are getting significantly less sleep than recommended, so getting good sleep is high on my priority list to help them perform better. 

We also need to get quality sleep. What's your bedtime routine? Most of us think that's only for kids, but it's for adults, too! It helps prepare our bodies and brains for a restful night. Many student-athletes have difficulty shutting off their brains once they hit their beds. Right before bed can be a good time for meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, gentle yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) training. Put your phones and tablets away. The light from both can be too stimulating for our brains and keep us awake. Not to mention if you come across something that triggers some emotion (anger, anxiety) for you. Our brains function more like a dimmer switch (slow transition to off) than a light switch (on/off). Make sure you take time to turn it down slowly.

It's also important to make sure your environment suits your sleeping preferences. Do a survey of your sleep environment. Are you physically comfortable? Is it quiet enough (or too quiet)? Is the temperature right? I sleep with background noise (a fan) and the room needs to be a bit cool (but not cold...there's a fine line). 

3) Have good interpersonal outlets

Social support is incredibly beneficial for helping us manage stress. The buffering hypothesis posits that social support has the potential to alleviate psychological responses to stress that have a negative impact on health and well-being. What researchers have also found is that it is our experience (or perception) of the support that matters. Basically what's important is that we FEEL supported by others, not necessarily that they are supportive. 

These supportive interpersonal outlets can take many forms. Within sport, it may be your teammates, coaches, or athletic training staff. Outside of sport it may be friends, family, a spiritual adviser, or a psychologist/counselor. Take some time to have coffee or lunch with them and let them know they matter to you. I find that scheduling a regular "date" can be helpful. For example, a close friend and I meet the first Friday of every month for brunch, coffee, or dinner. Occasionally we have to reschedule, but because it's already on the calendar we take the time to make sure it happens!

Whomever is your outlet, it's important you feel supported and heard. Sometimes, especially when those close of us are also going through stress (hello finals week and the holidays!), it may be difficult for them to be available in the manner you need. That's okay!  It doesn't mean they don't care about you, it can sometimes be hard for others to be available for us when they're also going through their own things. 

Trained psychology professionals are always a good source for interpersonal support and guidance. One of my athletes described the process best. She talked about how during the week her "bucket of stress" would fill up with various things, some big, some small. Once a week, we would meet to discuss these things and how to manage the stress effectively. During our conversations she noted that she was emptying her bucket. Leaving my office with an "empty bucket" lead her to feel as if a weight was off her shoulders and made sure her bucket would never overflow and spill messily onto the rest of her life. 

So there you have it!  3 tips to manage stress. Of course, there are many, many more. This hopefully gets you started or at the very least reminds you to take care of yourself during busy times!

Dr. Erin Haugen is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport/performance psychologist located in Grand Forks, ND. She specializes in helping college student-athletes excel in sports and in life. She is a former basketball player, current triathlete, and loves dogs.


Disclaimer: You should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice tailored to your situation. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.