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Take 5: Stress management tips for 2014

Among the most common New Year’s resolutions is better stress management. But that’s easier said than done. We asked Chieh Li, an associate professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciencesschool psychology program, for a few pointers on how to succeed in stamping out stress. Li has practiced and researched school psychology for more than 30 years, but, as she put it, it’s not what she says that makes her an expert on stress management—it’s how she lives her life. She’s been meditating daily for more than two decades and couldn’t care a smidge whether her purse has gone out of style. Why does that matter? Read on to find out.

  1. Take five (minutes that is)

One of the simplest things you can do to reduce stress in your life, Li said, is to take five minutes out of your day to do absolutely nothing. For some this might mean sitting cross-legged in the Sacred Space chanting “om,” while others might find contentment in sitting quietly on the couch listening to music. Have a hard time sitting still? No problem, any repetitive activity—jogging, for example, or swimming—works, too. Just make sure to let yourself “zone out” for a few minutes each day. “There’s a natural healing mechanism in the body,” Li said, “but modern life is so busy, we don’t give it a chance to do its healing.”

  1. Make a budget…for your time

This is a big one for students, Li said. Often the most stressful times of the year—midterms and finals, for instance—seem to creep up out of nowhere. But if you take a look at your syllabi and schedules at the beginning of the semester rather than the end, you can start to budget your time right from the get-go. Professors can help with this, both for their students’ sake and their own, Li said: Spacing out assignments and exams not only gives students an advantage but also helps manage the workload of those grading all that material. Doing this can also have a positive impact on your health, Li said, since sleep and stress are directly linked to an impaired immune system. Ever wonder why you get the flu as soon as exams roll around? Talk about stress.

  1. …and one for the money, too

It’s no secret that financial worries are a major source of stress for the vast majority of humans with a heartbeat. But just as with time management, a little planning can go a long way. Subtract your expenses from your income and the remainder is the money you have to play with. Haven’t much left over? That’s okay. Having fun doesn’t have to cost a lot. And neither does giving. One of the most meaningful gifts Li ever received came from a young student who didn’t have enough money to buy her a card. Instead he wrapped a colorful, hand-written note saying “thank you” into a tiny package for Li to open and enjoy. Years later she still remembers it.

For more tips on money management, see our Take 5 on financial fitness from earlier this week.

  1. Be flexible

That handmade notecard taught Li an important lesson: We have to be flexible in the way we view the world and what we expect from it, ourselves, and those around us. The purpose of giving a gift or a card isn’t to spend a lot of money, but rather to express our gratitude, care, and love for another. It’s easy to get trapped in the images that television and the media tell us are ideal, but there are multiple ways of doing things, Li said. Being flexible allows us to see the heart of a matter and find those other opportunities. The same goes for many of the stressful relationships we encounter on a daily basis. Collaborating with a team member who sees things differently from you? Try to see things from his or her perspective and you’re likely to find the common purpose that unites you.

  1. Quit comparing

Although often neglected, Li said, this is perhaps the most important thing you can do to minimize stress: stop comparing yourself to everyone around you. Between all the new mobile devices, runway-worthy fashion trends, and even our own bodies, we are constantly comparing what we have with what we want. The person next to you on the treadmill is running at a faster pace, your roommate just landed a co-op at a Fortune 500 company, and your best friend somehow received the newest iPhone before it was even released. But keeping up with the Joneses is only stressful if you care about the Joneses. “Often people neglect what they have, they’re so eager to get what they don’t have, and then live in dissatisfaction,” Li explained. Start paying attention to what you do have—a healthy heart, a job at a fun-loving startup, and a best friend—and you can start to free yourself from the stress of striving, Li said.