Browsing the archives for the stress tag.
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A Cure for Task List Avoidance

Techniques

Our culture has a love-hate relationship with task lists. Many of us make them, use them for a while, then eventually start avoiding them, trying not to think about how out of date they’re getting and what there might be on them that we really ought to be doing.

Or we try to do without task lists, using sticky notes and flagged e-mails and calendar reminders and stacks of papers that need something done with them and all kinds of other systems, only to find that there are still a lot of tasks we need to keep in our head, which keep spurring anxiety because when we don’t have time to do them right away, we worry we’ll forget about them completely: parking tickets, birthdays, that leak in the basement, finding out what that weird charge on the phone bill was, getting cholesterol checked …

Some background: all about task lists
I won’t go into a complete discussion of why I think the solution to this is a single, well-organized task list with categories, because I’ve already talked about a lot of basic task list issues in other posts, and I don’t want to waste your time with repetitions. If you haven’t read them yet, though, here are some articles from the wayback machine:

Why Task Lists Fail
4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done
The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper
Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks
My Top 1 Task
Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule
Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List
Useful Book: Getting Things Done
How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty

When things start to slide
But even if you’ve followed my recommendations in these articles, do you ever find that your task management begins to slide–that you start falling back on notes or keeping things in your inbox, or you spawn new areas of your task list into which you throw tasks blindly, or you just try to keep everything in your head? Every once in a while this happens to me, so if it doesn’t sound familiar, my hat’s off to you. If it does sound familiar, though, then I may be able to offer an easy way out. All it takes is a little focus and time; it’s very low-stress.

The key is that a complete task management system relies on a certain amount of faith: you have to have faith that you’re actually going to get to at least some of the most important tasks on your list. If you lose confidence, if you start thinking you’re going to miss something on the list, then you may stop putting your more important items on the list, reasoning that it’s better to be a little flexible about what goes on the list than to risk not getting things done. As soon as you do that, you have a reason to avoid your list, because some of your most pressing tasks aren’t even on it, and this snowballs.

Or it can happen the other way around: you feel a little rushed and jot a few tasks on sticky notes or try to just keep them in memory, and then you realize that your list is no longer reliable and you lose confidence in it.

Fixing task list confidence
What’s the fix? Go back to basics, put your faith in your list, get everything on it, and pay attention to your list regularly. The steps are pretty easy:

  1. Whenever you think of something you need to do (or would like to do) that isn’t on the list, put on the list right away. If you can’t always do that, then you need a different system: it doesn’t help to have a task list that you can’t add to in real time.
  2. Keep a very small number of do-these-soonest items set apart. You can do this by assigning priorities, establishing a “very short-term tasks” category, tagging these top items, or any other means that works for you, but you need to be able to identify your top four to eight tasks. Any more than that and you’ll have a hard time doing the next step.
  3. Put the task you want to get done first at the top of the list. Ideally, put the task in order from want-to-get-done-first on down, though it’s really that top task that’s essential.
  4. As you get tasks done, bring more tasks into the “very short-term tasks” set and keep putting the next task you want to get done first at the top of the list.
  5. Don’t put important tasks anywhere else: just on your list. Between adding tasks, looking tasks up, and crossing tasks off, you’ll be forced to
  6. Visit your task list regularly, so that it never starts getting out of date.
  7. Finally, do maintenance on your task list, re-prioritizing and recategorizing as necessary, checking in on your pending items, deleting items that it turns out you don’t have to or want to do after all. This should be don’t-think-about-it work, which you do separately from actually getting your tasks done (except that if you have some very quick tasks, it’s often more efficient to do them then and there, if you have any time at all, than to keep shuffling them around–even if they’re not very high priority). This seventh step is optional: if you maintain a good “very short-term tasks” group and keep choosing one of those tasks to go to the top, the rest of your task list can be a mess–but it being in good order makes keeping the “very short-term tasks” group up to date much easier.

Worried it won’t get done? Overwhelmed by the list?
This solution solves two distinct problems: anxiety about not getting tasks done and being overwhelmed by everything on your list.

The anxiety is alleviated by identifying that top task. If it really is the thing you should be doing first, then you don’t have to worry that you’re neglecting something more important. By contrast, if you didn’t have a top task, then you might be tempted to pick off the most inviting or easy-looking tasks, or to avoid your task list altogether because of not wanting to face the worry.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is taken away when you just ask yourself simple questions like “Does this belong in my list of very short-term tasks?” and “Which of this handful of tasks should I do first?” Just like going through e-mail or papers, going through a task list can be especially stressful if you look at it as a whole, because no one can do a whole bunch of things at once (see “How to Multitask, and When Not To“). By simply going through your items in the order you find them, you can make individual decisions that are easier and more pleasant than trying to grapple with a stack of decisions could ever be.

Photo by heymrlady

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News Fasting: Is There Too Much News in Your Life?

States of mind

Years ago I read a book that advised going on a “news fast”–that is, not watching, listening to, or reading the news for at least a week.  The idea seemed strange to me: I was listening to the news in my car every day on the way into work and back. If I didn’t keep up with the news, wouldn’t I be uninformed? Wouldn’t I miss important things?

Well, maybe. I mean, if I were an investment counselor, I’d need to keep up with financial news. Almost everyone can use weather reports–though we can get that online without going near any other kinds of news. I certainly need to know something about what’s been going on in politics sooner or later if I’m going to vote responsibly. On a day-to-day basis, though, is news actually doing me any good?

News and stress
I could phrase this question another way: is what I get from keeping up with the news worth the stress it causes me?

Because it’s definitely stressful. I listened to NPR while in the car this morning and ended up turning it off after 20 minutes, because it had already managed to offer me stress-producing material about 1) biased journalism, 2) world overpopulation, 3) declining birth rates (notice how this is in direct conflict with #2 and yet each offers things to worry about), 4) drug shortages, and 5) invasive plant species.

I’m not advocating not knowing about these things. The dangers of overpopulation should (if you ask me) figure into any family planning discussion. There are practices I can avoid, like bringing unchecked fill onto my property, that can help limit the spread of invasive species. Having a sense of how responsible my sources of information are helps me take their statements in a more well-considered light.

What’s the news for, anyway?
Yet on the whole, the news tends to be filled with things to worry about, very few of which we can do much about directly unless we choose to make it a key personal mission. There are some positive stories, but they’re rare. You’ve probably heard the saying “If it bleeds, it leads”: people pay more attention to the news–watch more, listen more, and read more–if something bad is happening. Imagine a newspaper with a huge front page headline: “Everything is fine; not much to worry about!” It might have novelty value, but if it began to happen regularly, people might well stop buying newspapers.

When we listen to something negative on the news, we have three choices: we can do something about it right away, we can ignore it completely, or we can keep it in mind. Since we can rarely do anything about corruption in Afghanistan or declining salmon populations right away, and since ignoring is difficult and seems counter-intuitive when we’ve gone out of our way to get the news in the first place, we do a lot of just keeping things in mind. Does this make us better people? Does it help us make better decisions?

For that matter, are we even necessarily better informed? The news often emphasizes the unusual, the shocking, or the disturbing, making the world seem more extreme and upsetting than it actually is. “Two people fall in love, have minimal relationship problems, and live happily together into old age” isn’t usually news, but knowing that things like that happen is crucial in terms of how we experience our lives. News tends to skew the way we view the world. It’s depressing. It’s stressful.

Less news is good news
So what am I advocating here? Just that if you’re in the habit of listening to, watching, or reading the news every day, you might want to try taking a vacation for a while. Also, when you come back from that vacation, you might consider the possibility of limiting your news consumption on a regular basis.

I’d suggest two weeks. One week probably isn’t long enough to completely feel the effects, and anything longer runs the risk of making a person feel so out of touch the whole thing might backfire.

But old habits are hard to shake off, so I also recommend substitute behaviors.

If you read your news, whether on paper or online, consider introducing more enjoyable fiction and blogs, magazines, or books on topics you care about into your literary diet.

If you tend to listen on the radio, substitute music (which can be a highly effective mood changer), audiobooks, or just thinking about your life, the things that are important to you, and what makes you happy (see Getting Past Our Own Uncomfortable Silences). If you own a Kindle, you can have it read some books aloud to you (depending on the publisher’s settings) by pressing Shift+Sym and using space bar to pause/play. I plug my Kindle into my car’s stereo system and “read” articles, blog posts, and books this way. If you enjoy singing, doing more of that–with or without the radio–is another way to boost mood.

If your news mainly comes from the television, consider watching less television and spending the time instead with family or friends, reading or listening to music, or engaging in projects that leave you with a sense of satisfaction and meaning.

I’m not sure there is a perfect balance of taking in the news and staying clear of it. Even though news is often stressful, it’s occasionally enlightening or uplifting, and even when it’s stressful, sometimes that stress has a purpose (see The Benefits of Feeling Bad). Still, getting large amounts of news on a regular basis seems as though it would enough to increase anyone’s stress levels. If you’re a daily news consumer, what’s it doing to yours?

Photo by matsimpsk

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Four Ways to Fight Depression

Techniques

Last week, a reader e-mailed me about a struggle with depression: while this person was working, good moods were possible, but at other times depression would creep in. Here are some suggestions that came out of that discussion.

In terms of immediate help, here are some things that might be especially helpful to try but that require at least a little time and effort.

First, walking somewhere beautiful–by a stream, in a park, in a quiet and beautiful park of town, or anything like that, especially near water and in natural places–can quickly make a difference in mood. It’s a calming practice that allows time to think, but it also gets your body moving and puts you in an environment that will tend to lift your spirits. I know it sounds so simple that it’s almost silly, but the research suggests this is an unusually good way to change your mood: see The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise .

A second approach is to get out and do something with people you enjoy spending time with, or to find a group that does something you enjoy (www.meetup.com is a good place to look). The moods of people nearby us affect our own moods, so that just spending time with happy people can help us be happier. (See Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.)

It seems that you can get some similar benefits sometimes with a pet (especially a dog or cat), if you enjoy pets, and I’ve certainly experienced pet-driven happiness myself.

Third, volunteering can be an enormous boost to mood and feelings of self-worth: there’s a different feeling to doing something good that you don’t have to do and don’t get paid for. Anything from donating blood to volunteering to shelve books at a local library to helping out at a fundraising event for a local charity can offer these benefits. Alternatively, you could just reach out to people you know, helping them with a difficult job–moving, for example.

A fourth thing that I can think of takes very little time and effort, although it will probably also sound silly: make yourself smile. Surprisingly, making an expression as though you have an emotion can set off the same neurophysiological reactions you would have if you actually have that emotion, so that a fake smile can become a real smile. See Using Body Language to Change Our Moods.

Each of these approaches is a short-term fix that reflects a long-term habit that can help mood: exercise, time in nature, time with friends, a sense of helping others, and a conscious effort to encourage positive emotions all can help create happiness as they become more habitual.

If you find that short-term approaches like this aren’t helping, a good cognitive therapist really might be able to open up new doors, provide essential support, and cultivate habits that support lasting happiness. I’d like to be sure to mention that I’m not  a licensed therapist myself, and this shouldn’t be construed as professional or expert advice.

Photo by tanakawho

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Meditation Mistakes

The human mind

You could make a good argument based on research that meditation is one of the best things we can do for physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and general happiness. Meditation focuses attention, relieves stress, increases the ability to cope with problems (including chronic pain), improves sleep, and provides a welcome reality check.

Popular, but not popular enough
So with that in mind, it’s a little surprising that so few people meditate regularly. According to this handy page from the National Institutes of Health citing a 2007 U.S. government survey (“Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults and children: United States, 2007“), only 9.4% of adult respondents had meditated at all in the last 12 months–and many of those 9.4% surely don’t meditate regularly. On the one hand, this is a huge number: for instance, based on that figure it seems likely that the great majority of U.S. residents, whether or not they’re aware of it, know someone who meditates at least every once in a while. On the other hand, meditation seems to benefit virtually anyone who gives it a good try, so the fact that so few Americans do meditate regularly is disappointing.

Some ideas as to why people don’t meditate
I imagine one major reason many people don’t meditate is that it still comes across as being foreign or New Agey, creating a barrier for people who aren’t comfortable with those labels. About those of us who have at least tried it, I began to realize recently when reading one woman’s account of her meditation experiences that many of us just don’t feel like we’re good at it.

That’s certainly been true of me sometimes. I’ll start meditating, and then I’ll have a thought about something, interrupting the meditation. Rather than letting the thought go, I sometimes tell myself to stop having thoughts, then chastise myself for getting into a mental conversation about thinking, then rebuke myself for chastising myself, then realize that the rebuke is a thought and tell myself to stop having thoughts. (I’m not even exaggerating.) While meditating, a person can easily feel distracted, taken by surprise by unexpected feelings or realizations, uncomfortable, unsure, or silly.

Why meditation problems are not a problem
The freeing thing to realize–or at least it’s a real help to me–is that there’s no need to be perfect at meditating for it to be helpful. It’s also likely that everyone else who learns to meditate has many of the same problems to one degree or another. Certainly, a monk who has been meditating hours per day for decades is probably going to be a lot better at the practice than you or I, but there’s no reason to believe such people didn’t originally have many of the same meditation issues that crop up for me or you, or that these issues completely prevent us from experiencing the benefits of meditation. Even poor meditation has a lot of good effects.

For more information on meditation, you may be interested in other articles on the subject on this site like “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation” and “15-Minute Online Guided Meditation from Kelly McGonigal.”

Photo by JS North

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How to Have a Good Day: 6 More Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

In a previous article, “How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before,“ I talked about ways to help make a day go well through preparation. In my last article, “How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning,” I continued the discussion by talking about things that can be done in the morning to help improve the rest of the day. This third article offers more strategies to improve a day by handling the morning well.

  • Do one constructive thing early on. Accomplishing something worthwhile, even if it’s a small thing, tends to give a boost in self-confidence and optimism, especially if it’s a task that has been lingering or that has more impact that something its size normally would.
  • Keep an eye out for broken ideas. “Broken ideas” or “cognitive distortions” are patterns of thinking that do more harm than good; you can read about them here. By reminding ourselves to be aware of our own thoughts and being vigilant for broken ideas, we can head off emotional problems and distractions.
  • Be prepared to face trouble. Any day can potentially bring trouble: unexpected expenses, illness, things breaking, people not coming through, and so on. Since trouble can’t be eradicated from our lives, it helps to be of a mind to face it. When we’re distracted, unprepared, or in a bad mood, it’s often difficult to steel ourselves to tackle problems that arise, and instead we may tend to avoid, make bad compromises, give up, or struggle unnecessarily. Reminding ourselves to do our best to take problems in stride will help lower stress and increase our ability to fix issues that come up.
  • Meditate. It’s true, meditation takes time, and it’s not easy, at least at first. But meditation has proven itself valuable again and again in studies and human experience in terms of aiding focus, lowering stress, and increasing happiness–which makes it a very useful practice for first thing in the morning. For more on this, see my article “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation.” Yoga can have similar benefits in the morning, and even beginners can benefit through use of tools like yoga DVDs.
  • Exercise early. Exercise ups metabolism, improves mood, and increases immediate physical well-being (even if you’re a little sore from the workout). It also starts the day off with a constructive accomplishment, which as we’ve already discussed, has its own good impacts.
  • Use music to your advantage. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys adding music to other activities rather than being distracted by it, you can take advantage of music’s ability to make a noticeable impact on mood and emotions. Memories and associations, rhythms, the act of singing along (if you’re inclined), and other aspects of music give it a direct line to the parts of our brains that regulate emotions. For more on this, see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

Photo by Roshnii

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How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

Some days can be one problem after another; on others, everything seems to be going out way. While there are steps we can take to troubleshoot a bad day while it’s happening (see “Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“), we can also help encourage good days. In my last article (“How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before“), I offered some steps we can take at night to help make the next day as good as it can be. Today’s article continues the topic with steps we can take in the morning.

  • Set aside some time to think. It’s often inconvenient to try to make time in the morning, especially when it means getting up earlier, but doing so is powerful. When we don’t have time to think about what’s going on, we generally act on habit, so that bad habits–like being late, eating poorly, or avoiding stressful responsibilities–can often start a day off on the wrong foot. Our brains have developed to take cues from the world around us and interpret them to predict the future, so that a few bad habits first thing in the morning can set the stage for a downward spiral. By contrast, starting off with a few good choices provides encouragement, happiness, and self-confidence.
  • Remind yourself of your goals. Whenever we want to move forward with a goal, it’s worthwhile to keep that goal in mind as often as possible. If you’ve ever had the experience of making a strong resolution, keeping it for a little while, then forgetting for a few days or weeks when something else came up, you probably remember coming back to it later to feel completely derailed. Reminding ourselves clearly and explicitly of a current goal first thing in the morning helps keep our focus and mental efforts on that goal.
  • Remind yourself of immediate payoffs. Although major goals are by definition long-term, a good goal usually has short-term payoffs as well. Examples include things like feeling physically better when not eating junk food or finding things that are needed while organizing, but progress on any goal also can have the effect of increasing self-confidence, relieving stress, and generating a sense of accomplishment. Reminding ourselves of these immediate payoffs provides a reason to care about our goals even when the long-term results don’t feel important, as sometimes happens when we’re wrapped up or emotionally involved with other things.
  • Be willing to let go. Sometimes the first step in increasing happiness is being willing to surrender things we’re upset about–to stop focusing on upsetting incidents or self-defeating thoughts. As ridiculous as it sounds, I sometimes picture things like this floating away from me as helium balloons. Corny or not, an approach like this gives me a way to separate from what’s bothering me. Consciously committing to doing this when necessary through the day–and starting with any trouble that may already be brewing in the morning–can relieve stress and aid focus.

There’s more we can do in the mornings to encourage the day to go well: I’ll take up the other techniques in my next post.

Photo by OldOnliner

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Two Top Tools for Reducing Stress

Handling negative emotions

 

The ridiculously cheery song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” offers advice that may be a little hard to follow sometimes. Sometimes we’re not prepared to let go of fears and anxieties, feeling that we need them–occasionally, we may even be right. But even when we’re ready to stop worrying and be happy, letting go of stress is easier said than done.

To help reduce stress, there are many useful approaches described on this site, including meditation, mindfulness, emotional antidotes, a brief walk in a natural setting, and more. However, there are two especially effective, immediate approaches that have both been shown to greatly reduce stress, although both take some effort.

One is social time: if you’re spending most of your time alone (or perhaps with people it’s hard to be with), spending a lot more time with people you like can help enormously: see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.” E-mailing, time on the phone, and even time working with others in the course of your job can “count” toward your total. People who get in at least six hours of some kind of social time per day report being happy and relatively free of stress. See the article for more details.

The other option is idea repair: noticing and fixing thoughts of yours that encourage you to feel anxiety or frustration over time. By learning to recognize and remake these thoughts, you can make immediate, dramatic changes in your stress level. The thoughts are likely to come back again soon, but then you just repair them again, and over time they stop coming back as much until they go away completely. I recently posted an article covering the most useful idea repair articles on this site, which may be a good place to start if you’d like to take this approach.

Of course, you could work on both social time and idea repair, but people tend to be much more successful when they focus on just one thing at a time. Trying to add too much to your obligations at once can be a little overwhelming, and the last thing most of us need is something else to stress about.

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Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time

States of mind

In other posts on this site, I’ve talked about ways to stop having a bad day, for instance through music, idea repair, and emotional antidotes. In their recent book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Tom Rath and Jim Harter of the Gallup Group (the organization whose research on strength psychology I talk about in my recent post “Should We Maximize Our Strengths or Minimize Our Weaknesses?“) offer a way to greatly increase our chances of having a good day: increasing social time.

According to Gallup’s research, socializing matters. Six hours a day of social time, according to Rath and Harter, greatly increases our chances of having a good day–that is, feeling happy and thriving. “When we get at least six hours of daily social time, it increases our wellbeing and minimizes stress and worry … each hour of social time quickly decreases the odds of having a bad day. Even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day to 10%.” (Emphasis is theirs.) Social time seems to have a powerful effect on stress levels, even for introverted people.

Six hours seems like a lot, but apparently what helps us in terms of social time is to simply interact with other people in some direct way. Among kinds of social time available to reduce stress, Rath and Harter include talking on the phone and exchanging e-mail. Time spent communicating with other people at work seems to count just as much as time at home or elsewhere.

This may not necessarily be good news for those of us whose work tends to be solitary. For instance, full-time writers or computer programmers may find it difficult to find six hours a work day in which to communicate and be social, since only a small amount of the time in either of those jobs (especially non-book research for writers and meetings for programmers) can be social. Most of the work in those and many other jobs gets done alone, and communicating with other people while doing it makes it next to impossible to be productive.

This suggests that it’s especially important for people whose work is solitary to go out of their way to find social time if they want to be happy and reduce stress. Living with someone you like rather than living alone seems an especially important step. Other possibilities include dinners with friends, exercising in a social setting, having lunch with others instead of alone, and increasing communication with family and friends.

Photo by MorBCN

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18 Ways to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Habits

Author and fellow Codex member Elaine Isaak posed this question:

So as I was tossing and turning last  night, it occured to me that the one area where I’m not sure I *can* effectively apply my willpower is in getting a good night’s sleep.  I can’t WILL myself to sleep the way I might will myself to get up on time to start writing or to go to the gym.  I wondered if you have come across any research that tackles this, or have any tools to suggest?

I have to agree with Elaine on not being able to will ourselves to sleep by sheer determination, but fortunately I do know of a number of ways to get to sleep and to sleep better, based on research. Understanding that serious problems with insomnia are worth seeing a doctor about and that these recommendations are not professional medical or psychological advice … here they are:

Long-Term Habits

1. Plan your schedule so that you can get to sleep at a decent hour and still be able to wake up if you want to. If there are things you need to do before going to bed, do them earlier in the evening to make sure they don’t push your bedtime back.

2. Figure out how much sleep you actually need by keeping track of how much sleep you’re getting each day and whether that turned out to be enough. This may change over time, or under different circumstances (such as in stressful periods or with more or less exercise).

3. Get on a steady schedule with your sleeping hours. Staying up late on weekends or going to bed at different times every night, for instance, can sometims interfere with your body’s attempts to establish a natural sleep schedule.

4. You may need to make your bed an environment you associate mainly with sleeping (and, if appropriate, sex). Take activities like reading, using a laptop computer, or watching TV out of bed if your bed doesn’t feel like a place that naturally relaxes you.

5. On mornings when you don’t have to get up right away, if any, don’t sleep in for long periods, as this may tend to muck with your ability to sleep that night. More sleep isn’t always better.

6. Take steps to make sure you have the physical comfort you need, to the best of your ability: a firm, comfortable mattress; good ventilation; a comfortable temperature; etc. For me, one of the most relaxing features of my bedroom in summer is a fan pointed at the bed. You may also find it more comfortable to use a non-illuminated bedroom clock, although this is admittedly inconvenient if you are up in the middle of the night and want to know what time it is.

Daily Habits

7. Watch out for caffeine and consider cutting it out for a little while if you’re having sleep problems. Remember that in addition to regular coffee, most sodas, black/green/white tea, and chocolate contain caffeine, and that even decaf coffee and decaf tea contain some caffeine–just a reduced amount. Other stimulants to be careful of include ginseng and nicotine.

8. Exercise during the day! Be active! Regular exercise contributes to very good sleep.

9. Watch out for alcohol: while it can help you fall asleep more quickly, it also can cause sleep problems. According to MayoClinic.com, “it prevents deeper stages of sleep and often causes you to awaken in the middle of the night.”

10. Don’t eat or drink a lot late in the evening. Either can cause physical discomfort that keeps you up at night or that can interrupt an otherwise sound sleep.

Before bed

11. Stretch, either doing yoga or basic stretching techniques. Stretching will release tension and improve blood flow.

12. Before bed, steer clear of things that might stir you up, like watching television, reading a suspenseful novel, or taking on stressful tasks. Relaxing activities will help settle you down so that you can sleep more easily. These can even include things like picking up and cleaning around the house to set things in order, or gathering things you’ll need the next day. The relative mindlessness of these tasks, the mild physical activity, and the way this prevents you from having to worry about getting things done in the morning are all conducive to good sleep.

13. Consider meditation, for instance body scan meditation, in which you focus your attention on each part of your body in turn and allow it to relax. Meditation can help still mental chatter and create a serene state of mind.

14. Ask a romantic partner, family member, or friend to give you a massage in the evening. This is an excellent means to rope someone into giving you a free massage, so don’t miss out.

In the moment

15. If you find yourself kept up by specific worries or general anxiety, try idea repair, journaling, or talking things out with someone who cares about how you’re doing.

16. Soft earplugs are great if you’re having trouble with noise. There’s a picture of the kind I like in this post.

17. If you’re obsessing about making yourself sleep, you may want to get out of bed, go sit on the couch, and read a book or listen to music or watch a movie that you’ve already seen, turned down low. These kinds of activities can engage your attention in a more relaxed way that may allow you to fall asleep more easily. Just make sure to have a comfortable couch.

18. In bed, listen to low music or a relaxation CD. Like the tactics mentioned in the previous item, this can help relax you when your mind is overstimulated.

Photo by babblingdweeb

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Fighting Anxiety with Hopelessness

Handling negative emotions

Pema Chödrön

Buddhism is a rich source of insights about emotions and emotional states. While I don’t know that we can fairly call the centuries-old Buddhist tradition of investigation into the human mind a strictly scientific approach, it really is a rigorous tradition that builds its conclusions on direct experience. So I offer today’s post, based in Buddhist teachings, as food for thought.

American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart, offers an unusual route to living a happy life: embracing hopelessness. My initial reaction to this idea was extreme doubt, but hearing her point of view, I began to see the value of the idea.

To get a sense of what she means, let me give the example of my fear that everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Being interested in how things fit together–societies, supply networks, and so on–I often think about how easily something I’m used to having could be cut off. For instance, this past winter during a storm, we lost power at my house. This should not have been a big problem, especially since we have gas heat. Except that I found out that the gas heat system is dependent on electricity to run, so we had no heat or power. And the water is dependent on an electric pump, so we had no heat, power, or water. And our phone is through a VOIP service, so since we had no Internet due to having no power, we also had no phone. And of course with the refrigerator not working, I was concerned about most of our food going bad.

The power came back on after not too many hours, and my son and I had other places we could go if the outage went too long–and since it was winter, at worst I could put our perishable food outside. Still, it’s a little sobering to realize that one break in a cable can mean losing Internet, power, phone, heat, water, light, food, and more. And for years I’ve been a little bit concerned. What would happen if there were a really bad economic situation, or a plague, or a war, or something else that interrupted some of the ways that food, power, water, and other necessities get to us? How would I keep myself and the people who are important to me safe, sheltered, and fed?

Hopelessness doesn’t solve this concern, but interestingly, practicing it made things better. You can’t make anything completely safe, hopelessness says. Stop hoping that you can prevent every bad thing from happening if you just scramble hard enough. Bad things will eventually happen. Eventually, too, we’ll all die.

If you’re not feeling happier yet, I don’t blame you–but when we think about it, giving up the idea that everything will ever be perfect or absolutely safe allows us to let go of a lot of unneeded anxiety. “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself,” says  Chödrön, “to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on … if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Stress and anxiety are a result of struggling with fears and things we want to avoid. If we don’t struggle, if we accept that bad things will sometimes happen, then the stress and anxiety lessen or disappear, because all we have to deal with is the moment right in front of us, and the moment in front of us usually isn’t so bad. Think of your situation right now, for instance. You probably have things you need to do, things you’re worried about, things you can think of that might cause trouble. But if you focus on how things are with you, right in at this moment, you may find it surprisingly easy to feel that everything’s fine. You are probably not in any great amount of pain. You’re alive. You have the ability to think about things that make you happy. Things could be worse.

There’s a limit to all this, though, at least if you ask me. I see value–real, lasting value–in moving toward our goals, in making progress, in striving for things. Hopelessness is absolutely not about striving: it’s about letting go. There is even value in negative emotions: see my article The Benefits of Feeling Bad. But striving for things is living in the future, and by my reckoning, there are times to live in the future, times to live in the past, and times to live in the present. When we need to come back to center, to marshall ourselves, to let go of things long enough to get our bearings again, then hopelessness and living just in the present moment can be just what we need.

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