Want to Reduce Your Stress? Try This Powerful Challenge.
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
September was National Self-Care Month. I deliberately waited until October to publish this piece, as self-care should not merely be prioritized one designated month of the year, but rather something we need to prioritize every month, and even every day.
Let’s use a bucket of water as an analogy for our levels of stress that we each carry with us everywhere we go. In this bucket, we all have a baseline level of water that is contingent on the stressors in our lives. For example, when we are on vacation and care free, we may have only 20% of our bucket full at baseline. When stressors happen — like a flight home gets cancelled or the rental car gets a flat—while we may be upset, we may be able to handle it and tolerate with relative ease and grace, as we have 80% of our capacity left to deal with the situation.
If, however, our baseline water level in our bucket is at 95% full, because our child is not feeling well, a work deadline is approaching, we had a conflict with a friend and our to-do list is simultaneously piling up, we have a minimal reserve left to cope. At a 95% baseline, even a small water droplet added to the bucket—like our food order being wrong, or our children wanting “one more book” before bed, or our partner saying something in a less-than-ideal tone—may overflow our bucket. When our buckets are overflowing, that’s when we may have a disproportionate reaction to a situation, may be short, irritable, yell, cry, frazzled, and anxious. Our abilities to focus, concentrate, and problem-solve are highly reduced and surely our interpersonal relationships may take a toll. We certainly are not at our optimal level when our stress is this high. So what should we do?
Self-care strategies are all the strategies we use to:
Keep the baseline water level in the stress bucket as low as possible; and
“Scoop out” the water as the levels increase (which they inevitably will), leaving more room in the bucket (aka bandwidth) to tolerate other stressors that will inevitably come our way.
Often times when we think of self-care, we think of the luxuries of self-care—massages or tropical vacations or moments or pure quiet. While, sure, those are truly wonderful forms of self-care (how great it would be to jet off to a tropical island every time we were stressed and overwhelmed!), they may not feel realistic to implement in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Thankfully, there are so many powerful and effective self-care strategies that we can be doing daily that don’t require a whole lot of time or money, yet can have a very significant impact on ourselves (and I assure you that the people around you will thank you too!).
For today, I want to focus on one strategy that may make a big and powerful change in all of our lives….. Silencing and putting your phone down for 30-60 minutes each day. “Really?!” you may be thinking. “That’s your great words of wisdom for me?” Yes! Well, we all know theoretically this may be a good idea—below, I am going to give you the reasons why and more importantly how you can do this! Afterall, this can be hard to actually implement.
Silence & Put Down Your Phone
It’s no secret that most of us spend most of our days attached to our phones in some way. Like Pavlovian dogs, each time a buzz, bing and ding goes off, we look to see what it is. While we may tell ourselves that we will not respond during certain times, the mere knowing that there is something waiting for us to respond to because of the alert is raising the water level in our bucket. When we are on our phones—mid-text or mid-email—everything happening around us (our kids trying to talk to us, a pedestrian passing in the street, the Starbucks barista asking us our order) can seem like a disruption and interruption (water level is rising), and likely our response is going to be in kind.
Each time we check our emails, there may be something for us to respond to or something else added to our to-do list, and our bucket’s water level is rising.
Even when we go on our phones for pleasure—to check the most recent Facebook and Instagram posts, our water levels are rising; we see hot topics of debate in our feeds and picture perfect moments of other people’s lives that we need to actively give ourselves a reality check on. We may see something cool or interesting and then need to figure out how to do/accomplish/buy this thing. While some of these things may be inherently positive and motivating, I would suggest that in some way they are contributing to water levels rising within us. There is an inherent level of stress, thinking, and emotional response that comes with it all.
By putting our phones on silent and putting it down for 30-60 minutes each day (the range is to try to pose a realistic expectation), you force yourself to be more present (lowering water levels): to not add something to your to-do list for just a moment of time, to not have to constantly think of what to write back or say to someone, or when you will schedule something. Putting down your phone takes away a momentary push-pull in our lives of wanting to be present in what we are doing, while also not wanting to miss out on what others may be doing (lowering water levels). Moreover, putting down your phone, especially before bed, has significant positive impacts on our sleep which naturally also lowers the water level.
I challenge you to put down your phone consistently for 30-60 minutes per day and see if this helps reduce your baseline stress levels. When you do so, do you feel like you have a bit more capacity to cope with other things in your life?
Strategies to Help You Silence Your Phone
While this may sound good in theory, actually silencing and putting your phone down consistently may feel hard to implement. Here are some quick tips to help you try to put this into effect:
SCHEDULE WHEN YOU WILL SILENCE THE PHONE: Any behavior change we want to make will only happen if there is a plan. Plan for when you will silence your phone in your day and schedule it! Set a reminder in your phone (ironic, I know!) to remind you that it’s time to shut it off.
START SMALL: If the idea of silencing your phone for 30-60 minutes feels overwhelming and unachievable, start with a small increment of time, e.g., start with 10 minutes per day and after you feel comfortable doing that, add 5-minute increments of time.
KNOW IT MAY BE HARDER BEFORE IT GETS EASIER: The idea of silencing your phone may actually feel pretty stressful—what if I miss something? What else will I do? How will people respond if I am not as responsive as I usually am during that time? Like any behavior change, it takes doing it consistently over time to get over the initial stress of what the change will be, and onto the other side of experiencing the stress reduction of doing it. As you get more comfortable, you may see that it may be easier than you imagine.
PLAN AN ALTERNATIVE BEHAVIOR: How will you use the time when your phone is not the focus of the hour? Will you actively plan to do something else during this time that is mood lifting—a hobby? Reading a book? Or will you plan to do this during a time you want to be more present in your life—at a meal, at a child’s activity or while trying to get something accomplished?
FIGHT THE TEMPTATION: Initially, you may be tempted to forgo the scheduled time. We may think that we are missing something very important or that we just need to “check one more thing” (it’s never just one more thing!). If we really think about things in our lives that need us to be absolutely responsive within a 30-60 minute window, there aren’t too many (I recommend putting emergency call numbers on your list of people that can break your phone silencing feature, so you don’t need to check for this purpose). When you truly practice putting your phone down, you see that you don’t NEED to be as instantly responsive as your brain may be well-trained to think. During moments of temptation, try telling yourself things like “I may WANT to respond/check my phone, but I don’t NEED to” or “I will be able to check everything when the silence is up, let me enjoy not having to do so now.” Talking back to the temptation is one way to help ward it off.
WRITE IT DOWN: During your silence time, thoughts about things you may need to do or things you want to look up, may pop into your mind. Rather than needing to hold them in your brain until you’ve picked up your phone again, write them down on a piece of paper. When you are back to your phone, your list will be right there. You’d be amazed how with the postponement of time, we realize that we may no longer even feel the need/want to look that item up anyway!
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU ARE GAINING, NOT WHAT YOU ARE LOSING: Whenever we “take away” something in our lives, it’s easy to focus on missing it. Instead, try to mindfully focus on what what you gain from being off of your phone—what it feels like to be present, to give yourself permission to not to respond immediately. Remind yourself of WHY you are doing it—to try something to reduce your stress and increase your capacity to handle whatever may be on the phone.
While we can’t control the stressors that may come into our lives, we can control the way in which we cope and deal with them. The lower the water levels are in our buckets of water, the better we will be able to handle what comes our way. Together, I challenge you to try a strategy to help keep our baseline levels of stress as low as they can be given the circumstances of our lives, and use the self-care strategy of silencing your phone to help scoop out the water as the levels begin to rise. I challenge you to try this for 1 week and see how it feels!! I look forward to hearing your feedback!
Dr. Stacey Lessans
141 East 55th Street, New York, NY 10022
1025 Northern Blvd, Manhasset, NY 11576