3 Quick Tips to Manage Stress: No More Clutter!
Stress can be overwhelming, which belies its general approach: it creeps. It builds up around the edges of your life, at school, at your job, in your relationships. Because of its slow accretion, it is all the more surprising when it comes crashing down. Its mode of attack makes us want to fight back using broad gestures, like whole new exercise regimens, new cities to live in, new relationships. While any of these might be valid, you are treating the crash while ignoring the creep. I will be talking about other ways to deal with the slow infiltration of stress in other hubs (including my treatise on relaxation breathing), but for now, let's keep it simple. Let's clean house.
Tip 1: Unclutter Your Environment
This is for those of us who let our personal spaces get... a little out of hand. We might let a few empty bottles pile up on the counter, a few dishes build up in the sink, a few odds and ends accrue on the desk, until things are officially messy. While we might do some cleaning here and there, it's more of a "shuffling" process, and it's usually pretty short-lived. If this sounds like you, I'd like you to try an experiment. If you tend to spend a lot of time in one place (your desk, let's say), take a good look at it. Now, close your eyes, and imagine it clean and organized. Imagine sitting at that desk, and how it might feel to spend time in this alternate reality. Is it nice? Did that give you a bit of motivation? Because this experiment isn't through until you've tidied up. As an act of good faith, I'll clean my desk right this instant.
Back. I'm not trying to brag, but I may have even dusted. Once you've tried this experiment, check in with yourself: does the space feel more inviting? Less chaotic? Do you think that you can maintain this level of organization? Crystallize this feeling of an organized desk, and refer back to it the next time things start getting out of control. Maybe apply it to how you might feel about cleaning that sink of dirty dishes...
Tip 2: Unclutter Your Mind
On a scale of 1-10, how often do you experience persistent, unwanted thoughts? Do you have difficulty banishing busy brain activity as you try to go to sleep? Do you sometimes slip out of the current conversation, tune out of the movie that you're watching, or otherwise miss out on a shared experience because your brain has gone to past events or to planning the future? This is called "rumination," and it is commonly found in those with high anxiety. Notice that I don't say that one causes the other; the direction of causation is hard to determine, and it is likely that they are reciprocal. If this is the case, then reducing rumination should help with stress, if not eliminate it entirely.
How to unclutter the mind? Start with a simple exercise. Next time you're walking outside, take a moment to enjoy the day. No planning for the future, no thinking about the day thus far; simply notice the sounds around you, the sights, and the feel of the ground beneath your feet. Your brain will wander, maybe in as few as 5 seconds, away from the present moment. If you catch yourself losing touch with the present moment, don't be angry with yourself. Indeed, this is the essence of the exercise. While beholding the current moment is important, stress-relieving, and enjoyable, noticing that you have reverted to automatic thinking is the key skill that this exercise develops. You now have a choice: return to the present moment, or continue with the alternative that your unconscious mind presented you. The more often that you work with this skill of mindfulness, the easier it will be to unclutter. To learn more, check out the book linked above.
Tip 3: Unclutter Your Life
This one isn't easy, but there is an easy guideline to get you started: If something needs to be done, and it can be accomplished in under two minutes, do it now. Seem simple? Maybe useless? Consider how easy it is to sweep these two-minute tasks aside and do them later. Think how they build up until they're 10 minute jobs (cleaning the desk) or 2 hour ordeals (organizing an office). Now, think about the conditioning that has gone into this: you have been giving yourself tiny rewards for years, every time you sweep these tasks aside (You: "I'll do it later." Your brain: "Doesn't that feel better?"). It's time to undo that conditioning by experiencing the rewards you get each time you accomplish a two-minute task. Much like mindfulness concept mentioned above, this is a skill. Once you get into the habit of doing these two-minute tasks as they become available, it will become easier and easier. The final component will be noticing the cumulative effects: are there any big jobs that you used to have to occasionally do that are now just done? This idea was taken from the book "Getting Things Done," linked above.
This is just the beginning, but I would like you to imagine how enlightening the effect of uncluttering can be. If there is a final straw that breaks the camel's back, what would it be like to remove a few straws here, a few straws there? Would the metaphorical camel's back eventually be unburdened? Be kind to yourselves, everyone.