For more than a year after I graduated from college, I had a recurring dream in which the school called to notify me that I had forgotten to take a final exam and had been given my degree in error. In the dream, I discover with horror that I never actually graduated. I am then forced to quit my job, leave New York, and return for another semester.
Unfortunately, panic-inducing dreams aren't the only way I internalize stress when I'm feeling overwhelmed: During stressful periods, I also struggle with a laundry list of health complaints, including insomnia, poor digestion, shallow breathing, and breakouts. Eventually it dawned on me that the best way to change my body was to change my mind -- practicing mindfulness and actively choosing not to be stressed actually worked. I started sleeping and breathing more easily. The final exam dreams went away.
Admittedly, I still have a long way to go in tackling the more deep-seated anxieties and insecurities that often cause me stress. But I am slowly beginning to let go of some of the "small stuff" that add unnecessary anxiety to my life. Here are seven things that I'm no longer stressing over.
1. Quitting A Raw Food Diet.
In a recent attempt to purify my diet, I started eating almost exclusively raw foods: big salads, tons of fresh and dried fruit, nuts and not a whole lot else. Although I notice improved digestion and energy, ultimately, it was just too rigid for me -- I had to admit to myself that I don't have the time to sufficiently prepare balanced meals with such limited ingredients, and I wasn't ready to build my lifestyle (and social life) around it. As much as I hate being a quitter, especially when it comes to personal resolutions, I realized that no diet was worth forgoing so many things I love to eat -- and potentially developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
But instead of stressing over my raw food failure, I've decided that you don't have to eat an all-kale diet to be healthy. I've incorporated more fresh fruits and greens into my meals, and that's enough -- sometimes, it's better to do things in half measures.
2. Being "Bad" At Meditating.
I've been practicing meditation for years but have always felt that I'm somehow failing at it because I have a hard time quieting my mind. I remember participating in a half-day meditation at Green Gulch Zen Center when I was 17 and struggling the entire time to force the "inner peace" that I thought I should be experiencing. Since then, I've continued to practice meditation -- and to frequently criticize myself for not being very good at it.
But earlier this month when I was moderating a panel on stress management at the Harvard Forum for Public Health, mindfulness research pioneer Ellen Langer said something that really stuck with me: "The mindfulness practice that works is the one that you do." And she's right: You don't have to maintain a strict twice-daily routine (or be able to magically clear out negative thoughts) to become more mindful. Just a couple minutes a day of focusing on your breathing can make a difference. My practice must be working, because I've learned to stop judging and simply appreciate my own effort to be more present every day. Meditation, I've realized, isn't about being good or bad at it -- it's just about being.
3. My Morning Coffee Ritual.
In another attempt to purify my diet and become healthier, I've repeatedly attempted to give up caffeine, and then stressed over my inevitable decision to return to it again. But the minor benefits of going caffeine-free -- slightly more natural energy and lower sugar consumption -- just don't outweigh the simple joy and comfort of drinking a warm cup every morning in my favorite mug or enjoying a dark roast from the organic cafe downstairs from my apartment.
4. My Relationship With My iPhone.
I'll be the first to admit that my phone is nearly always by my side. Working in online media, I'm constantly connected. But writing about stress reduction and mindfulness, I'm also acutely aware of the negative impacts of 24/7 connectivity. I often feel torn between the conflicting needs to be plugged in at all times and also to unplug and recharge. At this point, I've accepted that technology is central to my lifestyle, and instead of stressing about how it might be destroying me, I've decided to try to use technology to become more mindful. In addition to sleeping with my phone far from my bed and keeping it off the dinner table, I de-stress using GPS for the Soul, get daily meditation reminders from The Mindfulness App, and unwind with guided meditations from Headspace.
5. My (Slightly Embarrassing) Horoscope Habit.
I know, I know: In all likelihood, planetary movements have no actual bearing on the daily events of my life. But still, I check my Elle Astrologer app almost as much as Facebook, and I love reading my daily "forecast," regardless of how frivolous it may be. (For the record, I also keep all of my Chinese cookie fortunes.) It's OK to have a few silly habits.
6. Being An Introvert.
Growing up, I always felt insulted by being called shy or told that I needed to "come out of my shell." But after years of worrying that enjoying time alone made me a loner, I've gradually come to realize how untrue that equation is -- and learned to appreciate the many benefits of having an introverted personality type, like self-awareness and independence. Being introverted doesn't make me antisocial; I love going out and meeting new people, and I really enjoy public speaking. But at the end of the day, the way I restore my batteries and gain energy is by being alone -- and a little alone time is not worth stressing over.
7. Using The Nap Rooms.
One of the many perks of working at The Huffington Post is being able to use the two nap rooms in our New York office (Napquest 1 and Napquest 2). But my entire first year on the job, I was afraid to use the rooms for fear of seeming lazy and unproductive. One particularly stressful day, I finally decided to sneak in when nobody was looking -- and I then spent the full 20 minutes stressing about the work I wasn't doing. But having personally experienced many of the health benefits of napping, I'm a big advocate of taking a quick refresher to boost your creativity and productivity. Now, I regularly book nap room sessions -- and I don't bring my work stress with me.
For more by Carolyn Gregoire, click here.
For more on stress, click here.