How To Manage Stress And Chronic Illness

It is one of the most frustrating things when your doctor tells you that you need to manage your stress better to improve your health because the primary thing stressing you out is your health!

Whether or not you are navigating a chronic illness, these stress busting tips will help you learn how to master your stress.

I learned about Stress Mastery through this course I took.

I initially got into it because I took one of her free challenges and it was supremely helpful for me. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about lowering my total stress load and how to manage it when it creeps up.

Lowering Your Stress Levels

One of the biggest contributors to my stress level was not being honest with myself. When I learned to plan better, say no, and cut some unnecessary stuff out of my life, I could feel my total stress load going down.

Become A Better Planner

When I have a plan, albeit flexible, my stress levels go down.

The key to the plan though is not just planning what I will do, but also planning what I will not do.

You see, I realized that I would get distracted with other tasks that felt urgent, but actually didn’t need to be done immediately.

For example, even though it feels good to get my email inbox to zero. It’s a better use of my time to focus on a task like writing while everyone else is asleep. I can answer emails while being somewhat distracted.

Other distractions can come when someone asks you to consider doing something. There are always good opportunities to volunteer for or projects to take on at work.

But if you’re struggling with a chronic illness, it can be hard to be honest with yourself about what your bandwidth realistically is.

If something surprises you or isn’t something you anticipated having to consider, learn the phrase:

Let me think about that and get back to you.

I struggle with my people pleasing tendencies.

That means that my instinct is to say yes to others when they ask me to do something, usually because I like them and I want them to like me.

In the same way, just because something sounds good initially doesn’t mean that it’s what’s best for you or your stress levels.

Learn To Say No

I’ve realized that I unintentionally raised my stressed levels because I didn’t know how to kindly say no to people and the opportunities they were trying to give me.

Here are some ways to nicely say no:

  • Thank you so much for thinking of me but I can’t say yes right now
  • I’m so flattered that you thought of me but I need to say no this time around
  • Thank you for considering me for this but I don’t have the bandwidth right now
  • You were so kind to think of me for that but I can’t right now…. Please ask me next time (only if you mean that though!)

For extra bonus points you can end with a compliment such as:

  • I know it’s going to be awesome though
  • I wish I had the bandwidth to join you

You don’t need to give an excuse or a specific reason. (And you don’t need to tell people about your health problems to get out of things.)

Consider What You Can Cut

If you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, consider what you can cut or delegate.

Do you need to ask your spouse to pick the kids up for practice? Or coordinate a carpool with other moms?

Do you need to take a break from that bible study this semester? (See I told you sometimes good things aren’t always great!)

One of the ways that I am delegating some of my mental space to is teaching my kids how to cook. I love this healthy kids cooking online course. (It also makes a great gift for anyone ages 2-teen in your life!)

What is the first thing that comes to your mind after reading this? What is your gut telling you to send to the chopping block?

Give Yourself Margin Space

In the same way, be careful to not plan too many things back to back.

I used to be the kind of person who planned appointments and my time at work back to back, and then I’d end up stressed about traffic and being late.

I wish I had realized sooner that I could build margin time into my schedule for travel and transitions.

Being able to slow down the pace was so helpful for my total stress load.

I no longer say yes to meetings or commitments that would require me to rush out the door or hustle from place to place.

It’s just not worth it anymore.

I’ve realized other places in my schedule that I needed margin as well.

For example, we try to schedule at least a day at home at the end of vacations to unpack and recharge before having to jump back into our normal routines.

There was one vacation last summer that we didn’t do that and we were exhausted soon after. We realized it was because we were used to our staycation time.

Where can you build margin space into your schedule?

Reset Your Stress System

After considering what things you can say no to, get rid of, and cut out of your life. Pick one of the following habits to try adding to your life to reduce your stress when it starts to creep up.

Don’t try to add too much at one time or else you will just add to your total stress load.

Many of these I learned from this free challenge on stress mastery that’s coming up again September 13-17. It really goes into the science of why these things work.

I’m totally the kind of person who is better about doing something when I understand why.

Deep Breathing

Take a deep breath.

Hold it.

Exhale slowly.

See, wasn’t that nice?

I know we’ve all heard this one before, but I’m trying to be better about taking deep breaths intentionally throughout the day.

What are some ways that you can remind yourself to breathe deeply?

Here are my suggestions:

  • Set an alert on your phone:
    • For 1 minute after your alarm goes off to remind you to take a deep breath to get energized for the day
    • 5 minutes before your lunch break is over to help you better digest your food
    • Just before you typically go to bed to do a breathing meditation
  • Find some décor that reminds you to breathe deeply

Or if you’re cheap like me (and trying to save money because you are chronically ill <-How To Save Money When You Are Chronically) find some pretty art for your phone background that tells you to breathe.

  • Put a sticky note reminder to breathe deeply on your:
    • car dashboard
    • mirror
    • desk
    • kitchen cupboard
    • or wherever you find yourself prone to being stressed and holding your breath

Finding ways to remind yourself of the habit to breathe deeply will help you remember to take a breath when you feel stressed. It’s important to teach yourself to breathe so that you remember to use it as a tool when your stress starts creeping up.

But breathing may not be enough.

Take Breaks

I used to be the person who worked straight through my lunch break so I could leave work earlier.

Wait, I lied. I actually never ended up leaving earlier. I was just trying to get more done.

I wrongly believed that I just needed to keep pushing and pushing and pushing to accomplish everything.

I mistakenly thought it made me more efficient.

My biggest takeaway from the last free challenge I did on stress mastery was realizing that I was taking the wrong kind of breaks.

My typical break was checking my phone for social media.

But even though that’s a break from work, it’s not a good break for my brain. It’s still a high level of stimulation!

It never occurred to me before that I needed a biological break, not just a work break.

It’s why I still felt so overwhelmed.

So what do I do instead?

I look out the window or go outside for a 2 minute walk. Sometimes it just means taking a deep breath while I refill my water bottle.

How can you be more intentional about taking better breaks for your system?

Take Short Time Outs

My first job out of high school had a mandatory 15 minute break.

That pattern got stuck in my head as the only way to take a break and it never occurred to me that even a 1 minute or a 3 minute break could lower my stress.

So when I feel myself starting to boil over, I grab the kids each a new toy (not actually new but usually a toy that was put in time out earlier or something I know will hold their attention) and I lay on the couch, set a timer on my phone for 3 minutes, and I close my eyes to rest.

Sure I’ve had my eyes poked at, but it’s still a really helpful way to manage my stress better.

It turns out that I’m more effective when I’m refreshed.

And the more often I take these time outs for myself, the better I am able to come back to a whatever I’m working on.

Is there a time of day you can plan to take a short time out?

Say What You’re Thankful For

There is something so grounding about saying what you are thankful for.

I’m just terrible at remembering to actually do this.

When I was leaving my first full time pastoral job out of seminary, I knew that I was leaving the role over 3 months beforehand.

It made it difficult to stay focused at work and I was tempted to give into the senioritis feeling.

To help stay grounded at work, I grabbed a mini notepad that one of our non profit partners gave us and decided to write 3 things I was thankful for at the start of work each day.

But when I left that job, I totally fell off the train on that one.

Then, I learned from a mentor to stack a new habit I want to learn on a routine I’ve already established.

So now when I put kids down for bed, I tell them 3 things I’m thankful for that day. (And it will hopefully lay the foundation for them to manage their stress well too!)

Mise En Place

This is a french term (pronounced miece (rhymes with niece) in plah (rhymes with la like in la la.)

Mise En Place.

Some life coaches also call it resetting to zero. When I was leaving that job I mentioned in the last section, I set my small gratitude journal on top of my keyboard before I left for the day so that I would remember to fill it out the next day before I logged into my computer.

Now, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting up whatever I need for the next day, so that I don’t have to rush the next morning.

When I need to leave the house, the night before I will:

  • Fill a water bottle and put it in a bag by the front door
  • Put any non perishable food in the same bag
  • Put my computer and work supplies in my bag
  • Pack any lunches needed in the fridge

When I’m working from home, the night before I will:

  • Set up my work station before bed with my laptop all plugged in
  • Fill a water glass
  • Fill the electric kettle with water
  • Set out my tea cup and tea (lately it’s been fresh ginger and a cutting board with a knife to cut it)

In the same way, I will also do this if I am only working for the afternoon. So in the morning after everyone has breakfast, I will pull everything out for dinner:

  • Pull out any appliances I might need (Instant Pot, food processor, cutting board and knife, etc)
  • Pull out all non perishable ingredients and set them on the counter
  • Pull out all pots, pans, and utensils
  • Fill any dry ingredients in measuring cups
  • Fill any pots of water and cover with a lid

These habits make it so much easier to make healthy food choices because I already have it all out. It also eliminates the stress of “what am I going to eat?”

Managing Stress and Chronic Illness

Even though navigating health issues is stressful, there are things you can do (and not do!) to keep your stress levels low.

Think again about the decisions you are making with your schedule. What can you say no to?

What do you need to say no to?

Would it be better for you to have some margin space in your day so you don’t have to rush around from place to place?

Have you noticed a correlation between stress and your health? I know I’m more prone to symptoms when I let my stress get the best of me.

After cutting out what is contributing to your stress, consider one habit to add to your routine this week.

  • Deep breathing
  • Better breaks
  • Time outs
  • Gratitude
  • Mise en place

And remember to check out this Stress Mastery course I took for more ideas if you want to dig deeper.

And sign up for the free challenge, Sept 13-17, for more hacks to lower your stress.

You got this!

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