When it comes to stress, it’s the little things that matter. A seemingly tiny mishap — such as a lost set of keys — can trigger a tidal wave of negative reactions on an emotional, physical and even cellular level as stress hormones spike.
The flip side of this unfortunate truth is that even small steps can go a long way toward soothing — or even circumventing — the stress response.
We took a good look at the 10 moments during the day when stress is most likely to flare, then asked our Cleveland Clinic experts and reviewed the research, to offer up proven solutions to these tense times. We hope that they help you reduce your daily stress and guide you toward a more peaceful existence.
1. Stressful Situation: Poor communication with your spouse or partner
Feel like you and your partner just don’t connect anymore? Your communication skills are likely suffering from disuse. “We spend an average of seven minutes a day actually conversing with our partner,” says Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. Here, a few ways to get back in the swing:
• Try active listening. It’s easy to blame your partner for 100 percent of your disconnection woes, but everyone in the partnership — meaning you — bears some responsibility for keeping the lines of communication open. To steer your interactions in a more positive direction, Bea suggests active listening: After your partner says something to you, repeat it using slightly different wording, and include a feeling word. For example, say, “You had to deal with one request after another from your boss today, and that made you feel unappreciated.” “It’s a simple formula that takes a lot of practice,” Bea says. The payoff? “It’s nearly impossible to overreact when you’re conversing this way.” Make sure to take turns so that each of you gets a chance both to speak as well as to practice improving your active listening skills.
• Send a signal. “We get lazy in our communication habits, so we forget to listen,” Bea says. To change that dynamic, let your partner know that you want to have a new kind of conversation. Say, “Would you mind if we turn off the TV for a few minutes? There’s something I want to talk about.”
• Create a new habit. Human brains love ritual, Bea says. So create a ritual that fosters true communication, such as having everyone at the table take turns talking about one thing they’re concerned about and one thing they’re grateful for. “Setting aside some time each day where you check in with each other wards off bigger misunderstandings.”
2. Stressful Situation: Focusing on your work
It’s an unwritten rule of the modern age: The more work you have to do, the more you check Facebook. If you’re struggling to be productive at work, consider getting yourself a plant.
Multiple studies have shown that living plants — and even flowers — improve productivity in the workplace. In one study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M, workers with plants in their office environment showed more creativity — thinking up new ideas and approaching old problems innovatively.
Plants that don’t need a lot of natural light and can withstand infrequent watering include the peace lily, spider plant, philodendron, grape ivy, and Chinese evergreen. Allow soil to dry out completely between waterings, avoid placing plants anywhere subject to extremes in temperature (near an outside door or under a heating vent), and occasionally move your plant around the office to give it varying intensities of light.
3. Stressful Situation: Difficult coworkers
Everyone’s got one: an annoying colleague. Whether they’re bossy, passive-aggressive or just plain chirpy, the fact that you spend so many waking hours in their company means your coworkers can have a big impact on your quality of life.
Of course, you can’t change another person’s behavior — you can only change your own reaction to it. That’s why Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health, suggests that you start practicing mindfulness meditation. “When you achieve the ability to notice your internal experience, you can be a witness to your emotions instead of getting caught up in them,” Bea says. Meaning, your coworker’s antics will have significantly less power to wreck your day.
To put the power of mindfulness meditation to work on the job, practice it on your own time first, Bea says. He recommends spending five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night sitting quietly and watching your thoughts arise, allowing them to float away as you redirect your attention to the sound of your breath. “When you practice mindfulness on your own time, you’ll be able to call on those skills instead of getting pulled into the drama at work,” Bea says.
And when you can remain on more neutral emotional ground, it will be easier to be diplomatic with your troublesome colleague. Then you’ll be able to speak to them calmly about any issues — and move on.
4. Stressful Situation: Making time to exercise
It’s 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and instead of heading to the gym for your regular Zumba class, you’re headed to your child’s school play. It’s just an inevitable part of parenthood, right?
Not necessarily, says Heather Nettle, MA, coordinator of exercise physiology services for the Cleveland Clinic. The true reason you didn’t get a workout was because of poor planning. “So many people fail to exercise because they try to set up a regular time each week,” such as Monday mornings or Thursdays after work. That approach is fine if your schedule never changes, but most people have different things popping up each week.
Instead, Nettle counsels that you plan only one week at a time. “When you plan only for the week ahead, you can find time between everything else you have to do.” It’s less intimidating to commit to exercising for the next week, and not the rest of your life. And a weekly plan is likely to make you feel more successful: “Each week you get to reevaluate and set a reasonable goal based on all your other responsibilities.” Feeling good about the exercise you get instead of feeling bad about the workouts you skip — now that’s priceless.
5. Stressful Situation: Stuck in traffic/running late
Next time you’re sitting behind the wheel, staring at a sea of red taillights, knowing that you’ll be late and there is little or nothing you can do about it, try singing.
Singing will keep you from screaming, plus a whole lot more. Studies have found that singing promotes positive emotions, boosts the immune system, and can lower blood pressure. Plus, the car is the perfect place to unleash your inner Pavarotti — the radio is at your fingertips, and you don’t have to worry that anyone else will hear you.
6. Stressful Situation: Anxiety about money
Whether you are fretting about money because you overspend, under-earn or are simply feeling the effects of the Great Recession, we have one piece of advice: Put down the calculator. “Tallying up how much you owe over and over only keeps anxiety alive,” says Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health.
Although you’re only trying to make yourself feel better by determining how much you owe or where the money to cover your bills will come from, you’re ultimately only making yourself feel worse. “The ritual of adding up your numbers makes you feel better for a moment, but it quickly wears off. You’re left feeling anxious again, and you’re compelled to try the same unfulfilling strategy.”
Instead of repeatedly dwelling on your money issue du jour, take another tack: Set aside a certain time each day, week or month when you will look objectively at your financial situation and plan your strategies for remedying them. “It takes a lot of discipline to stick to a scheduled ‘worry time,’ but when you do, you take yourself off the anxiety merry-go-round.”
7. Stressful Situation: Deciding what to make for dinner
Quick — what’s for dinner tonight? If the mere thought of preparing an evening meal causes your stress levels to rise, you’re in good company: A 2011 survey of moms by BetterBathrooms.com found that 5:55 p.m. — prime time for making dinner — is the most stressful time of day.
Dinnertime stress comes from 1) the desire to eat something nutritious (and tasty), 2) little time for prep, and 3) the end of a long day — when stamina and blood sugar levels are usually running low. No wonder it’s so stressful.
Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, the director of coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, offers these two simple strategies to keep you well-fed and unstressed.
First, schedule your grocery shopping on your calendar with all your other appointments. “Folks typically forget to make time to grocery shop, which creates the condition of having nothing in the house,” Jamieson-Petonic says, making it all the more likely you’ll end up eating a frozen pizza or ordering in.
Then, when you’re at the store, focus on buying staples. Here is Jamieson-Petonic’s list of what to have on hand at all times:
Extra-virgin olive oil
Low-sugar pasta sauce
Precut, frozen grilled chicken breast
Frozen fruits and veggies
From this list, you can make the following meals (and even more):
• Burrito bowls with grilled chicken, rice, tomatoes and salsa with frozen grilled peppers
• Chicken noodle soup in the slow cooker — throw everything in the pot in the morning and dinner is done when you get home
• Pasta with olive oil and basil or pasta with red sauce and veggies
• Macaroni and sauce with ground turkey
• Black beans and rice with salsa and veggies
8. Stressful Situation: Leaving the house on time with everything you need
Ever walk into a room and forget what you went in there to get? Science says it’s no surprise: A 2011 study by researchers at Notre Dame found that participants became more forgetful when they walked through a doorway.
If you frequently leave your lunch, wallet, gym clothes or anything vital at home, take a minute the night before to sit down and write a list of everything you need when you leave. Include everything — even the no-brainers, such as your keys and wallet. The next morning, you won’t have to wander through the house trying to remember what you forgot. The stress-free result: You’re more likely to leave on time with everything you need.
9. Stressful Situation: No time for yourself
In our productivity-obsessed culture, hobbies — whether goal-directed, such as gardening, or something a little more amorphous, such as puttering around in the garage — can get short shrift. But it’s precisely these types of nonessential activities that help keep us happy and whole, says Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. “Whatever absorbs your attention and regenerates you deserves a regular portion of your time. It may not add anything to the planet, but it makes you a more fulfilled human.” This “me time” benefits you and everyone you come in contact with.
How to find this elusive “me time”? Bea counsels setting up something regular in your schedule — 30 minutes after the kids go to bed to knit, or Saturday morning trips to the flea market. The ritual of the process is as important as what you do. “Our brains are set up to respond to routine,” he says. Making “me time” part of your established routine will make it easier for you to ignore the things you feel you “should” be doing. If you have kids, speak to your spouse about taking turns so each partner gets a share of restorative time. And if that doesn’t work for whatever reason, get creative. “We all need help from friends, neighbors and family members periodically. Instead of thinking of all the reasons why you can’t take time for yourself, focus that energy on asking for the help you need to make it happen.”
10. Stressful Situation: Tossing and turning all night
Although all the conditions are ripe for sleep — outside it’s pitch black, you’re cozy in bed, and you’ve longed for this moment all day — you can’t sleep. No matter how much you hope sleep will come if you just keep waiting for it, the best thing you can do is to get out of bed, says Michelle Drerup, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center.
“When your mind is going, you get more stimulated as the minutes go by,” Drerup says. Add in the worry of not getting enough sleep and you’re wound up tighter than a spool of thread. When you get out of bed, you take the pressure to fall asleep off the table. “Do something calming to distract you from whatever’s on your mind.” That includes reading for fun (no work-related material allowed), doing a crossword puzzle or listening to music. Only when you feel drowsy should you get back in bed.
No matter how much you’d like to sleep in the next morning, Drerup also counsels waking up at your usual time. “Trying to catch up on your sleep — whether that’s sleeping late or taking a nap — will only disrupt your sleep-wake cycle and make sleeping more difficult the following night,” she says. Instead, push through the day — avoiding caffeine after lunch — so that you are primed for sleep at your usual bedtime.
Kate Hanley is the author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide and founder of MsMindbody.com.