Stress is a normal part of life. At times, it serves a useful purpose. Stress helped you to get this far in school and headed towards a successful career. But if you don't get a handle on your stress, it can seriously interfere with your work, family life, and health. Our message to you? Relax. You deserve it, it's good for you, and it takes less time than you think. Following these tips can take you from “take a pill” to “chill” in less than 15 minutes.
Humans have been meditating for centuries. It’s free and is has no side effects. A few minutes of this practice per day can help ease anxiety. Solid physiologic evidence has shown that meditation alters the brain’s neural pathways in a process referred to as “neuroplasticity”. You can effectively rewire your brain to look at life and its associated stressors differently.
It's simple: Sit up straight with both feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Focus your attention on reciting -- out loud or silently -- a positive mantra such as “I feel at peace” or “I love myself.” Place one hand on your belly to sync the mantra with your breaths. Let any distracting thoughts float by like clouds.
2. Breathe Deeply
Even when you’re stacked up with patients, you can take a 5-minute break and focus on your breathing. Sit up straight, eyes closed, with a hand on your belly. Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling the breath start in your abdomen and work its way to the top of your head. Reverse the process as you exhale through your mouth. Focus only on the sensations of air moving into and out of your nostrils. This simple trick counters the physiologic effects of stress by slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure.
3. Be Present
Mindfulness is an extension of meditation. It compels you to be present, to pay attention to things in your environment--even if just for a few minutes. Notice how the air feels on your face when you’re walking and how your feet feel hitting the ground. Enjoy the texture and taste of each bite of food. Pay close attention to the smell of fresh coffee brewing, or even something as mundane as the hissing of the autoclave or the sound of the air conditioner. This is an extension of meditation, and is incredibly powerful.
4. Reach Out
You are a leader by the very nature of your job, and leadership can be lonely. Remember that your social network is one of your best tools for handling stress. Talk to others -- preferably face to face, or at least on the phone. Share what's going on. You can get a fresh perspective while keeping your connection strong. And remember that it is always preferable to lean on friends, colleagues, family, and counsellors than it is to lean on staff or patients.
5. Tune In to Your Body
When you get home from a busy day, take some time to mentally scan your body to get a sense of how stress might be affecting it. Lie on your back, or sit with your feet on the floor. Start at your toes and work your way up to your scalp, noticing how your body feels. You can focus on those tight traps in your shoulders and get them to relax. You can ease that tightness in your lumbar paraspinals or the achiness in your feet. Allow the muscles to your hands to relax: their work is done for the day. As you breathe, imagine that fresh oxygen is flowing into those body parts, nourishing and relaxing them.
Physical therapists rely on modalities such as heat and acupressure to treat tense muscles. You should too. Place a warm heat wrap around your neck and shoulders for 10 minutes. Close your eyes and relax your face, neck, upper chest, and back muscles. Remove the wrap, and use a tennis ball or foam roller to massage away tension. You can place the ball between your back and the wall. Lean into the ball, and hold gentle pressure for about 15 seconds. Then move the ball to another spot, and apply pressure. If you’re fortunate enough to have an understanding significant other, that works too.
7. Laugh Out Loud
It is said that laughter is the best medicine. It lowers cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, and boosts brain chemicals including endorphins and dopamine, which help your mood. Lighten up by tuning in to your favorite sitcom or video, or chatting with someone who makes you smile.
8. Crank Up the Tunes
Listening to soothing music can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. You can create a playlist of relaxing songs or nature sounds like the ocean or rain. Many online websites have these canned soundtracks for meditation. You can focus on the different melodies, instruments, or singers in the music. You also can blow off steam by rocking out to more upbeat tunes, dancing, or singing like no one is watching!
9. Get Moving
Exercise is a cheap psychotherapist, and in fact numerous controlled clinical trials have confirmed the efficacy of exercise in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. You don’t have to run in order to get a runner’s high. All forms of exercise, including yoga and walking, can ease depression and anxiety by helping the brain release feel-good chemicals and by giving your body a chance to practice dealing with stress. You can go for a quick walk around the block, take the stairs up and down a few flights, or do some stretching exercises like head rolls and shoulder shrugs. And it’s free.
10. Be Grateful
Gratitude is powerful medicine for the worst events in your life. Even when things are difficult, you still have all of your skills, your friends, your knowledge, your family, your patients, your support staff, your means of transportation, and a home. Gratitude for the small victories in life helps to stomp out stress and improve your outlook on life. It helps keep challenges in perspective.
Keep a gratitude journal—or running list on your smartphone--to help you remember all the things that are good in your life. Use these notes to savor good experiences like a child’s smile, a successful patient case, a sunshine-filled day, and good health. Don’t forget to celebrate accomplishments like mastering a new knowledge factoid at school or a new hobby. Take care of yourself, doctor-to-be. Then you can be more present for others.