4 Easy Tools That Help When Life Feels Stressful (or Totally Out of Control)
The past few years have forced us to think critically about our mental wellbeing, and it’s difficult to process the devastating news cycle and the nuances of your personal life without feeling drained. I’ve found great relief in turning to journaling for moments of clarity when life feels uncertain. At the end of the day, when I have a moment to myself, I open my journal and begin the catharsis of writing it all out. The pages are about daily life or incremental moments that—one day when I read them in totality—may or may not mean something.
When I look back, I sometimes search for a pattern that I may not have seen otherwise, but even if it doesn’t reveal anything, that’s okay too. I value the process of simply moving the thoughts out of my mind and onto the paper, and it’s transformed how I cope with all of life’s surprises. Whether you use journaling or another outlet to make sense of your surroundings, we all have unique ways to cope. Ahead, find four tools to help prioritize your wellbeing.
A few weeks ago, I was making dinner for my family when things got overwhelming. My toddler started throwing food on the floor, and my six-and five-year-olds were arguing about Lego pieces. I looked around and saw toys scattered on the floor, the sink was full of dishes, and across the street, heard the sounds of construction spilling over into our home. I remember slowly backing away from this scenario as I told my husband I needed some time to myself. For the next fifteen minutes, I sat in a quiet area and wrote in my journal.
This made a huge difference in my emotional well-being and how I showed up for my family for the rest of the night.
“Journaling gives us an opportunity to experience the emotional release that comes with expressing ourselves in a raw and unfiltered way,” says Caroline Given, a licensed clinical social worker, and therapist. It can be challenging to process things as you’re experiencing them and journaling offers a chance to see things differently. “There is no wrong way to journal,” Given says. She notes that if you’re a beginner, it’s sometimes easier to have prompts to get started with, which can be found by a quick Google search. Given also recommends journaling as if you’re writing a letter to yourself or someone specific if there are unresolved emotions.
You can find a consistent time to write daily so that the practice becomes a habit. You can also grab a blank notebook and start jotting down thoughts. The goal shouldn’t be perfection, instead, the more raw and truthful the emotion, the more impactful the practice. I love this blank journal from Wit & Delight ($16), but if you’re interested in one with more structure, The Self Exploration Journal ($20) has a new daily prompt to start the process. Suleika Jaouad, the creator of The Isolation Journals newsletter, says that journaling provides relief and an opportunity to harness creativity. Every weekend, Jaouad and her team deliver a new prompt and I eagerly look forward to Sunday mornings because of it.
Given recommends the creative exercise, Morning Pages, from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which involves stream-of-consciousness writing for three pages and placing them in an envelope without re-reading them. “This helps you get into the habit of writing without judging yourself,” she adds. You may have also heard of gratitude journaling, which Given says is a great practice to help reflect. “Research has shown that taking time to intentionally reflect on what or who we are has been one of the most reliable mood boosters studied by psychologists,” she says.
Exercise and Mental Health
Attending a boot camp class at my local gym has made a noticeable difference in my stress levels. When I’m in class, I zone out and focus on the task, whether it’s a set of burpees or running outside. I try not to think about anything other than my sneakers hitting the pavement, and when the class is over, I feel the tension leave my body and mind. Studies have shown that regular exercise can have a meaningful impact on mental health and an overall improved sense of wellbeing. It can also improve memory, relieve stress, improve sleep and boost your overall physical and psychological energy.1
In addition to releasing endorphins in the brain2, physical activity helps to relieve tension in the body and relax muscles. “Hopping on my Peloton, going for a walk outside, or catching a fun class at my favorite fitness studio helps me disconnect from the outside world and focus on my wellbeing,” Meital, 41, a pharmacist in Philadelphia, tells me. “It helps me feel refreshed and ready for the day. I’m a better mom when I work out. I have more patience, and I’m happier.”
Jessica, 32, a teacher in New Jersey, tells me that the gym helps her decompress after consuming news and current events. “I spend a lot of time looking at the news and discussing it with my family and friends,” she says. “The current news has been affecting my mental health and feelings of anxiety and stress, so I go to the gym to decompress or take a short walk when I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
Physical activity doesn’t have to be exclusive to a gym or workout class. Turning on your favorite song and dancing for a few minutes, going for a walk in your neighborhood, or taking a few minutes to stretch are great ways to move your body and improve your mood.
Discovering New Interests
Many of us haven’t taken up a hobby since arts and crafts in grade school, but there are significant benefits to discovering new hobbies as an adult. A 2020 study showed an association between hobbies and a decrease in symptoms of depression. The study found adults taking up new hobbies had a 30% lower chance of experiencing depression. Hobbies are an overall great opportunity for creativity, relaxation, and self-expression.3
“These past few years have required consciously finding ways to unwind. I started playing the piano during the pandemic, which I have not done since childhood,” Joanna, 38, a Philadelphia lawyer, tells me. “It puts me in a different headspace,” she says.
Hobbies aren’t limited to part-time leisure activities, but they can open doors for new learning opportunities and professions. Since the pandemic started, Elina became a certified Botox and cosmetic filler administrator and has found joy in learning something new. “I’ve found learning a new skill and educating clients rewarding,” she says. Finding a new hobby is less about keeping yourself busy, and more about discovering what brings you joy and satisfaction.
Relying on Your Community
While processing emotions can seem like a lonely, isolating process, leaning on your community for support—if you can—is beneficial. “When it comes to mental health, the importance of having a community to rely on cannot be understated,” says Given. However, it’s important to acknowledge that support is a privilege that not many people have. “A support system is a luxury that is not always readily available to many people in our increasingly isolated and divisive society,” she adds.
Still, research supports how vital a sense of community is for humanity. “Humans are not wired to survive in isolation. Not a single person on earth can sustainably meet all of their own needs all of the time,” Given says. One way that Stephanie, 40, a senior marketing manager, copes is being present with her kids at the end of the day. “I put my kids to bed and lay with them while they fall asleep,” she says. “It grounds me and reminds me of what’s important in my life.”
Given says that having a support system to rely on is one of the most significant factors in trauma recovery. “The ability to trust that someone has your back and cares about you is a huge wellness booster and stress reducer,” she says. Joanna relies on her parents to keep her grounded, especially in stressful moments. “When all else fails, I call my parents,” she says. “They’re both very wise, they listen, and help me put things into perspective.”
While identifying that support system may be easier said than done, once you find it, it’s a reminder that you don’t have to experience life’s ups and downs alone. There’s something about being fully present and engaged with the people we love most, and it’s an indication that everything which matters most, starts at home—even if home is only you.