How do you deal with stress?
June 23, 2011 11:05 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out how to need less downtime to recover from stress.

After a high stress week or two, I need to spend a day or so in bed, watching movies or sleeping or surfing the internet or eating crap in order to feel sane again. I don't want to go anywhere, see anyone, make any decisions, or be productive.

Example: I had to plan a trip, finish a couple of projects, spend a day working with someone I don't like, and tell someone in a position of authority that I didn't want to do something (always stressful for me). I needed to spend two days doing nothing, hiding in bed, in order to feel up to the task of finishing what I needed to do. My friends were very kind about it, but wondered why I didn't want to go out/what the hell I was doing in bed all day. I eventually got it all done (except for telling the person no, which I've put off for a few weeks, hoping I can avoid it somehow).

It takes up a lot of my time to need so much downtime. How do I recover more quickly from stress?

What do you do to calm yourself so stress doesn't build up, or to recover in a few hours instead of a few days? Is there anything I can do so that I don't have to spend so much time hiding under the covers?

More stuff: I'm in therapy, eat a healthy diet, don't exercise regularly but walk a lot and am height-weight proportionate, not on any anti-depressants or the like, don't have any addictions, etc. I'm in graduate school, so most of my work is self-paced and can be done on my own schedule, and no one really misses me if I'm too stressed out to show up to things.

I tend to do these weird marathons when I have work to do, where I pull all-nighters, often unnecessarily. Also, sometimes I have this weird stress response where I like to run away (like go across town to work for a day) when I have something due.

I'm single, don't like pets, and can't seem to make meditation work for me.

All suggestions appreciated!
posted by 3491again to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Frankly... that sounds very normal to me. In Australia they're called "mental health days" or "sickies", and you take them when you're not necessarily ill, but you just can't manage the bullshit.

I know that when I was at uni I used to be able to smash through study, staying up late writing, while still going to work and socialising, without really having weekends or breaks. Can't do that forever, though.

Remember that in the Christian creation myth, even God spent the seventh day after He'd created the entire world pissing about on the lounge.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:35 PM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

One thing's not clear to me here. Do you feel like it's a struggle to get out of bed, where you really need help coping? Or is it just a predictable, sub-optimal preference for temporarily lowering your stimulation level after a rough week? I wouldn't dismiss the latter's nuisance factor, but it does sound like you may be overestimating how weird you are.

Perhaps you could cultivate a really low stress, non-productive hobby, like watching classic movies or a specific genre instead of just random stuff, to feel like the time is a little less wasted--like you're still aiming at something a little intentional. And rather than meditation, maybe try just a hot bath and whatnot. If you cut this down to a day of downtime rather than two, you're probably doing about as well as anyone I know.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:41 AM on June 24, 2011

For me, the cumulative effects of stress cost way more than the individual effects. If I spend a long time in a stressed out state without any kind of respite, then overall the effect is much greater than it would be if I took time out to de-stress on a regular basis. I can handle a week of high grade stress way better than a couple of days low grade stress if I chill out at least once a day.

Also, I found that if I cut each stressful situation down into several component sections instead of having one large stressful thing, I can handle it better. I can juggle several rocks easier than I can carry one large rock, even though they both weigh the same.

Not being as stressed about the individual things/situations in the first place has helped too. Keeping an eye on my self-talk worked wonders for this. I'm great at working myself up and telling myself that "I can't do X" because maybe I've handled it badly in the past or I don't have any experience or I have experience of it going badly because I can't control someone else's reaction. Finding rebuttals to that unhelpfulness was really beneficial.

For example, I reminded myself that if I have to talk to Sue about $thing, then Sue's reaction to that is Sue's affair. I can't control Sue in any way, so trying to figure out a way to control Sue (which is what I was trying to do, subconsciously) was silly. I needed to save my mental energy for thinking about the best way to put across what I was trying to say. And once I'd found a good (note: not perfect) way to do that, I let that thought go. I know I'll never find a perfect way because perfection doesn't exist. And I know the point at which I have to stop worrying about how good something is, is when something else comes along that is more important.

I liken my coping abilities to a jug of water. When the jug is full, I can cope, but I have to use water from the jug to cope. The jug fills at a specified rate and there's not much I can do to make it fill up faster. If I empty the jug, it's going to take a long time to fill back up again. When I can do, though, is influence how quickly the jug empties by having a stress holiday of sorts, to allow more water to flow in to replenish what was lost. At least once a day, I have to do some de-stress exercises such as jogging or playing with my dog or sudoku to give the jug a chance to fill. Doing this means I can stave off a meltdown for a while longer, but the debt must always be paid in the end. There's no way around that that I can find. If I empty the jug, then it has to refill, kinda like your two days spent in bed. You're better off not wasting your water in the first instance. And when supplies get lower is when you start to panic, which just makes things ten times worse. The less water you have, the more water you need to cope, paradoxically. Any time spent not stressing, the jug is filling.

The kind of stress I'm under will have an effect on what kind of holiday I need to take. If it's physical stress, such as something causing a rush of adrenaline (I tend to fiddle with things if I'm under this kind of stress) then I need to do some kind of physical activity to burn the adrenaline off. Jogging or trampolining work well for this. But if it's mental stress where I'm worrying about a deadline or talking to Sue, then I find that setting a plan in place to handle the situation works better. If I have a deadline coming up, I might work out how much work I need to do every to meet the deadline. If I have to talk to Sue, I might rehearse what I'm going to say to her.

For me, a lot of stress is about control. If I have little control over a situation, I'm more likely to get stressed out by it. So then I have to take control over what I can control, and just leave the rest to flow as it will. Creating a list of what I have to do, when I have to do it and maybe how I have to do it really helps. It puts me back in the driving seat and I know that I can refer to the plan if I start to veer off course. I can see which rocks I'm supposed to have in the air at any one time and throw them up, or catch them as they fall.

Those marathons you pull are draining all of your water. Quit doing that. Work out a plan where you spend X time on X days of the week working on X project. And then stick to that plan. Maybe work one out now for something big that you know is coming up. Then try this new method for that particular project and see how you get on.

The crossing town thing is a natural response to stress. It's called the "fight or flight" response for a reason. A lot of the time it's a habituated response, though. You did X behaviour once, and it worked, so lets do that again. Maybe try having a plan as a habituated response instead?

Regarding meditation, are you trying to learn how to do it when you're actually stressed? That's not the best time. Have a go at doing it before you need to do it, so you're practised and know how it works when you need it. When your jug only has a few ml of water in it is the worst time to do pretty much anything other than just survive.

Finally, on reading how you cope with stress makes me wonder if you're introverted? If you are, you'll handle stress in a very different way to someone who is extroverted.
posted by Solomon at 12:51 AM on June 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm an introvert whose job required me to be an extrovert in continual high stress situations. Literally every week was like that and until very recently, every weekend was much like yours - just in recovery mode. I've pretty much figured out that in that situation, I can manage one social outing with friends a weekend. More than that, it starts to feel stressful and the act of interacting felt like work. And then I'd go back to the office feeling like I haven't had a break.

I never figured out a way around it, I put it down to being an introvert and needing a certain amount of downtime/quiet time to recharge. I never viewed it as a negative either. I guess what I'm saying is that maybe this is who you are?
posted by Jubey at 2:18 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

For me there are two parts to this - stress causes you physical responses and the stress hormones can float around your system for a long time unless you use them up by intense physical activity......the idea was that you could outrun your attacker or fight and kill them as opposed to being killed....not entirely helpful these days. So engage in some more strenuous exercise regularly but particularly when you experience a lot stress. I know it's the last thing you want to do but it will help your body deal with the by products of those stressors.

The second aspect is your preferences and what you find stressful as a result. Are you introverted? If so you will probably need alone time to recover mentally from stress. So if you need to have low stimulus time at home in bed so be it. I love to spend time at the weekend pottering around in my PJs for a few hrs enjoying the fact that I don't have to be anywhere or do anything specific.....But like your friends I am surprised at how much time this is for you - 2 days alone time to recover from one stressful week seems a lot.

See if using up your stress hormones as intended helps reduce the downtime you need. If it doesn't you need to work out how you get more downtime into your routine. And why you spend so much time doing stuff that stresses you. People can be full on busy and feel energised by it, too, if they are things they love to do. So perhaps what you spend most of your time doing at the moment requires you to do primarily things you don't enjoy and hence it's more stressful. Some people just need to pace themselves more than others and we're not all best suited to do all things.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:27 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

As an introvert this sounds very normal to me.
posted by mleigh at 3:50 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

For meditation, sometimes there are days when I really need to unwind, but I'm too frazzled to meditate on my own. Check out Meditation Oasis in the iTunes store. They're free. I like some of their recordings, and others I feel meh about. Download them and see how you feel about them. Some are very short, others are a bit longer.

I definitely agree that times of stress are not easy times to "make it work" with meditation. There's a reason people often meditate in quiet rooms with super soft gentle music. It minimizes distractions. You're working toward being able to meditate on your own with a very full brain, on a busy street with an ambulance roaring by, but most adults don't start with that skill.
posted by bilabial at 4:54 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is my life. I don't think it's a bad thing. I've just figured out that every week I need one day to myself -- if that means I skip going out with friends on Sunday afternoon, so be it. I think some people just aren't cut out to on 100% of the time.
posted by AmandaA at 6:32 AM on June 24, 2011

I eventually got it all done (except for telling the person no, which I've put off for a few weeks, hoping I can avoid it somehow).

It doesn't sound like you're using that downtime to recover from stress at all, because you're slacking to procrastinate/avoid doing unpleasant things rather than to process them after the fact. Avoidance as a coping strategy really doesn't work, because after couching it for a day or two you still have the unpleasant task hanging over your head.

As others have said, it's pretty normal for an introvert to need some downtime to recharge after a lot of interaction. So don't procrastinate on the unpleasant tasks. If you can get the stuff done before you flop down on the couch with junk food and bad movies, you will feel really good & luxurious & rewarded doing it, instead of what you're feeling now -- stressed about the act of relaxing.
posted by headnsouth at 7:14 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the thoughts above that it's not abnormal for someone, especially an introvert, to need a lot of downtime. I am really into Elaine Aron's work on the "highly sensitive person" (which you may or may not be), and she emphasizes that sensitive people really do need a lot of downtime to recharge--it's a biological imperative. I know that if I don't get my time alone to stare at walls I quickly turn into a mess, and it's true of some other people I know. I don't think there's any way around it, unfortunately. I totally agree with headnsouth--try building the relaxation time into your schedule so that you have that to look forward too, rather than relentlessly flogging yourself and then flogging yourself some more while you procrastinate.
posted by indognito at 8:22 AM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is me.

For instance, right now I'm coming off a 10-day work marathon (full-time days and freelance work in the evenings) plus getting my affairs in order before I move abroad. It's 8pm, I got home 30 minutes ago.

I've had 2 gin&tonics, put my shorts on, and am writing this from my bed. Tonight, I will eat popcorn, watch a film, have some more alcohol and do as little as humanly possible.

I don't consider this a waste of time. I know myself well enough that I can do this without guilt because my efficiency is predicated on this sort of downtime: always alone, mostly in bed, either reading (books, mefi, longform journalism), watching something (tv series, films) and having a drink or two. Or three.

If I have a lot of stuff that needs to be done in the evening after a full day of work (I work in the service industry; as more or less an introvert, it's pretty taxing to be nice and sociable all day), I have a 2-3 hour nap, then wake up and get on with it.

You are not weird. Learn to embrace your downtime: you should know in your bones that you wouldn't get anything done anyway, and lounge freely.
posted by flippant at 11:00 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The key is to break away from the stress in a constructive way.

You're missing what at university we called The Quadrifecta: three beers, a back rub, sex, and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep. Since those aren't always readily available when needed, I'd say get some different form of light exercise (perhaps a swim), go for a therapeutic massage from an LMT (see if there's a Massage Envy franchise nearby), have a unique meal, and get some sleep. If you're restless, take a few milligrams of melatonin, which mimics what the brain does to induce sleep.
posted by Itinakak at 12:41 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

My first thought reading this question was "You sound like an introvert!" There's nothing wrong with being an introvert and needing down time to recuperate, unless the extraverts in your life try to make it wrong. If you haven't read Caring for Your Introvert it's a good place to start. I also think highly of Elaine Aron's books, as recommended by indognito above.
posted by Lexica at 3:30 PM on June 24, 2011

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