Annie Maguire

@anniemaguire

Lifting the weight off your shoulders: 6 natural ways to relieve stress

For the last ten years, I’ve had chronic back pain that would randomly flare up from time-to-time. For the most part, the flareups were easy to ignore as they would go away almost as quickly as they arrived, but in the last six months, the pain got so bad that I couldn’t even work.

When I began having trouble breathing, I went to the doctor and found out I have scoliosis as well as bulging discs in my neck and back, causing muscle spasms around my heart and lungs.

It was at that time that I took a hard look at how I was treating my body — not my drinking habits or sleeping patterns, but the way that I was working, which was the main cause of my stress, strain and pain.

Now, as a freelance writer, taking time off to recoup is not an option, however, continuing to work and add stress to my body and mind is also not an option, either.

So, what’s an independent professional (with lackluster insurance) to do?

Create a stress relief routine

For me, that’s yoga…every damn day.

I started going to yoga classes at my gym, signed up for classes at a local yoga studio, dusted off my yoga mat at home and even got a book on yoga to “deepen my practice.”

Being committed to a daily stress-relief routine will ensure that no matter what’s going on in your life, you have dedicated “x” amount of time for your mind and body to rest and rejuvenate.

One thing that helps me to stay on track is signing up for classes in advance, so I feel obligated to go and am less likely to bail at the last minute.

The other incentive is avoiding pain. If you’re someone who has chronic pain or stress, know that your stress-relief routine is your safety net and being dedicated to it will only serve you in the long-run when say, an important deadline comes up or you have a busy week ahead.

Here are some ideas for your own stress relief routine:

  • Yoga
  • Running / walking
  • Meditation (morning and/or evening)
  • Listening to soft music with your eyes closed
  • Reading
  • Stretching
  • Deep breathing

Get the stuff you need to support your routine

When it comes to building your stress-relief routine, your mind is going to try and think of all sorts of ways to get out of doing it.

But if you get all your ducks in a row (like getting the supplies you need, signing up for classes, etc), you’ll have fewer excuses to opt out and more reasons to keep yourself on track.

Here are some of the things that helped me:

Getting a new yoga mat — I found this really colorful mat that I love looking at while practicing yoga. It’s also new and clean, so I feel refreshed when using it.

Finding yoga videos specifically for me — I did a search on YouTube to find a bunch of scoliosis / back pain videos that I keep on hand for when I need to do a quick 20–40 minute routine. The videos are free and if you do them enough, you’ll likely come up with your own variations. Here are some of my favorites: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3

Meditation music — if you’re trying to de-stress, having music you can get lost in is super helpful. This is my favorite 3+ hour mix.

Incense — this may sound hippy-dippy, but having a scent to burn while I’m trying to de-stress is a key incentive to get me going. I like to burn Palo Santo wood, which puts a nice cedar smell into the air while I’m doing downward dog. Get your own here.

Adjust your working conditions

Whether you have a healthy spine or not, sitting at a desk all day is not good for anyone’s body. For me, sitting at a desk was making my back slump and putting an incredible strain on my neck and upper back.

Having a desk (or space) that puts your computer / screen at eye-level (or slightly above) and a place to rest your hands / arms, is super important for relieving stress from your body.

Standing “desks” — Luckily for me, my bookshelf is a tall space with multiple, evenly-spaced racks, which allows my laptop to be at eye-level with my head and the shelf beneath it allows me to comfortably rest my wrists and hands while typing.

Look for spaces in your own home or workspace that can be easily converted into your own standing desk; sometimes the most unexpected places can become your favorite spot.

L-shaped “desks” — When I’m tired of standing, I go over to my L-shaped couch and sit upright with two vertical pillows behind me to support my spine and neck. I then allow the bottoms of my feet to touch (almost cross-legged, but diamond-shaped) and put two pillows on top of my legs, which prop up my computer at eye-level. I have two pillows on either sides of my arms, which support my elbows from slumping down and pulling on the muscles in my neck as I type. I also try to push my back straight up and into the pillow when sitting, so my neck is fully supported, not craning forward, as I work.

See if there’s a couch or area in your home or office that will allow you to sit upright, but in a way that supports your upper body, including your head, neck and arms.

Leg support — Another thing I’ve found to be helpful in relieving stress from my body is using a prop (like a stiff, vertical pillow that goes from the bottom of your spine to the top of your neck) on the back of my chair, finding a resting place for my arms (usually on the table), and a resting place for my legs (usually on another chair in front of me or slightly to the side.

Keeping your entire body supported while you sit should help to relieve any pain or discomfort you may be experiencing while working.

Find someone to talk to

If your mind is stressed out, it can easily manifest itself in your body starting with your neck, jaw and shoulders (ever woken up with a sore jaw? You’re clenching your teeth at night from stress), so getting some mental clarity is super important for overall pain relief.

A simple option (especially for freelancers with crummy insurance) is TalkSpace, an online therapy platform that pairs you with your own therapist, who you can speak with as often as you like for $100 / month.

I signed up and so far, so good. Even if I don’t have time to talk to my therapist every single day, just knowing I have someone there I can reach out to if I’m feeling stressed out and/or overwhelmed, truly does help.

Do something non-work related

Sometimes when I’m super stressed out / in the most pain, I want to keep on working to just “get it done,” or perhaps I feel so overwhelmed I don’t believe I can take a break.

But the reality is, if you don’t take breaks, you’re only hurting yourself and probably the output of your work, as well.

Try not to wait until you’re in pain / freaking out to take breaks; the more regularly you do it, the more your body will thank you.

Here are some of my favorite non-work related things I do to relieve stress:

  • Doing a quick stretch or yoga routine on my mat at home (or going to a 1-hour class)
  • Picking up flowers and arranging them in vases
  • Watering my plants
  • Running an errand
  • Watching an episode of a show I enjoy
  • Taking an hour to read or lay down
  • Sitting down in a sunny spot inside or outside
  • Write something non-work related (like this article!)
  • Meet up with a friend for coffee, lunch or a happy hour
  • Cooking for myself or others (or looking at recipe books)
  • Laying down with my eyes closed for 15 minutes

Be mindful

This sounds so easy, but being super aware of your body and stress levels is the first step toward reducing stress.

For example, when you’re sitting at your desk, pay attention to how your neck and spine are positioned; is your neck craning forward while you’re working? Do you get excited while typing and begin to sit forward in a slump instead of sitting relaxed and upright? Is your tummy coming forward while you sit and type, or is it pulled in, helping your neck and spine stay straight?

When you’re feeling stressed, are you skipping meals and having too much coffee? Are you allowing worry to manifest inside your chest?

Are you even breathing?

Paying attention to all of these little feelings, movements and placements of your body will ultimately add up to more comfort and less pain before, during and after you work.

Now your turn!

I’ve let stress rule and ruin my life for many years, but I’m finally in a place where I can be committed to living a more stress-free life both with work and in my personal life.

I invite you to do the same — I promise you’ll be happier and healthier in the long-run!

Annie is a New York-based product copywriter who works exclusively with startups and small businesses. Have a question? annie1maguire@gmail.com

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