Take 5: Stress Management Tips for 2014

Among the most common New Year’s res­o­lu­tions is better stress man­age­ment. But that’s easier said than done. We asked Chieh Li , an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences ’ school psy­chology pro­gram , for a few pointers on how to suc­ceed in stamping out stress. Li has prac­ticed and researched school psy­chology for more than 30 years, but, as she put it, it’s not what she says that makes her an expert on stress management—it’s how she lives her life. She’s been med­i­tating daily for more than two decades and couldn’t care a smidge whether her purse has gone out of style. Why does that matter? Read on to find out.

1. Take five (minutes that is)

One of the sim­plest things you can do to reduce stress in your life, Li said, is to take five min­utes out of your day to do absolutely nothing. For some this might mean sit­ting cross-​​legged in the Sacred Space chanting “om,” while others might find con­tent­ment in sit­ting qui­etly on the couch lis­tening to music. Have a hard time sit­ting still? No problem, any repet­i­tive activity—jogging, for example, or swimming—works, too. Just make sure to let your­self “zone out” for a few min­utes each day. “There’s a nat­ural healing mech­a­nism in the body,” Li said, “but modern life is so busy, we don’t give it a chance to do its healing.”

2. Make a budget…for your time

This is a big one for stu­dents, Li said. Often the most stressful times of the year—midterms and finals, for instance—seem to creep up out of nowhere. But if you take a look at your syl­labi and sched­ules at the begin­ning of the semester rather than the end, you can start to budget your time right from the get-​​go. Pro­fes­sors can help with this, both for their stu­dents’ sake and their own, Li said: Spacing out assign­ments and exams not only gives stu­dents an advan­tage but also helps manage the work­load of those grading all that mate­rial. Doing this can also have a pos­i­tive impact on your health, Li said, since sleep and stress are directly linked to an impaired immune system. Ever wonder why you get the flu as soon as exams roll around? Talk about stress.

3. …and one for the money, too

It’s no secret that finan­cial wor­ries are a major source of stress for the vast majority of humans with a heart­beat. But just as with time man­age­ment, a little plan­ning can go a long way. Sub­tract your expenses from your income and the remainder is the money you have to play with. Haven’t much left over? That’s okay. Having fun doesn’t have to cost a lot. And nei­ther does giving. One of the most mean­ingful gifts Li ever received came from a young stu­dent who didn’t have enough money to buy her a card. Instead he wrapped a col­orful, hand-​​written note saying “thank you” into a tiny package for Li to open and enjoy. Years later she still remem­bers it.

For more tips on money man­age­ment, see our Take 5 on finan­cial fit­ness from ear­lier this week.

4. Be flexible

That hand­made note­card taught Li an impor­tant lesson: We have to be flex­ible in the way we view the world and what we expect from it, our­selves, and those around us. The pur­pose of giving a gift or a card isn’t to spend a lot of money, but rather to express our grat­i­tude, care, and love for another. It’s easy to get trapped in the images that tele­vi­sion and the media tell us are ideal, but there are mul­tiple ways of doing things, Li said. Being flex­ible allows us to see the heart of a matter and find those other oppor­tu­ni­ties. The same goes for many of the stressful rela­tion­ships we encounter on a daily basis. Col­lab­o­rating with a team member who sees things dif­fer­ently from you? Try to see things from his or her per­spec­tive and you’re likely to find the common pur­pose that unites you.

5. Quit comparing

Although often neglected, Li said, this is per­haps the most impor­tant thing you can do to min­i­mize stress: stop com­paring your­self to everyone around you. Between all the new mobile devices, runway-​​worthy fashion trends, and even our own bodies, we are con­stantly com­paring what we have with what we want. The person next to you on the tread­mill is run­ning at a faster pace, your room­mate just landed a co-​​op at a For­tune 500 com­pany, and your best friend somehow received the newest iPhone before it was even released. But keeping up with the Joneses is only stressful if you care about the Joneses. “Often people neglect what they have, they’re so eager to get what they don’t have, and then live in dis­sat­is­fac­tion,” Li explained. Start paying atten­tion to what you do have—a healthy heart, a job at a fun-​​loving startup, and a best friend—and you can start to free your­self from the stress of striving, Li said.