In 2018, Gallup study found 23 percent of nearly 7,500 full-time employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.
April’s Stress Awareness Month series drew attention to the signs of chronic stress and the ways to reduce it, but sometimes, it takes more than shocking statistics and science-backed solutions to incite change in our lives and conquer stress.
It’s helpful to see how others deal with pervasive, unrelenting stress. We interviewed five successful women working in various fields to find out how they manage stress in their day-to-day life.
Approaching Stress: Key Tips + Takeaways
→ Make a Realistic To-Do List
Jodie, known professionally as Bode Burnout or BB, is an Australian artist who delivers clever, sarcastic hand-drawn illustrations to 186,000 followers on Instagram.
Through hand-drawn self-portraits accompanied by revelations to freehand poetry, Bode Burnout reminds women that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, lonely, bloated, frustrated or just plain exhausted.
Bode Burnout publicly addresses her own experiences to generate a dialogue on difficult topics. In a digital age, users face constant deception about the realities of everyday life. Bode Burnout uses her creativity to shatter these perceptions.
BB’s best way to cope with stress is “getting things done,” she said.
“I’m usually stressed when I have a huge to-do-list or lots of bills,” she added. “I cope with stress by cleaning, even if it’s just the smallest thing to clean up, writing down five things that I can get done and getting them done.”
While it may seem like a simple solution, her method speaks to a proven element of human psychology. In an article on why to-do lists don’t work, Harvard Business Review consulted the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz and psycho-economist Sheena Iyengar.
When researching performance under stress, Iyengar found that the human brain “can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose.”
Research shows it’s helpful to have a shorter to-do-list because it narrows the scope of available task actions. Setting a shorter list of more attainable goals require a realistic approach to what is achievable each day. It also delivers a greater sense of accomplishment a task is completed.
However, just because you’re tackling a shorter to-do-list, doesn’t mean you won’t encounter stress.
“I have many times done lists of things I needed to do whilst balling my eyes out getting a crying headache,” BB said.
If productivity means scream-crying the lyrics to Adele’s “Hello” while stress-cleaning a messy bedroom, then grant yourself permission to do that.
Emotions are deeply rooted in human experience. It’s time to be honest about what we need to get things done.
→ Step Away from Social Media
Lex Lee, a Los Angeles-based designer and furniture maker, has been notoriously open about her mental health online. Her use of lighthearted humor makes her a resource for others working to manage stress.
Lee, who carries a degree in economics and urban planning from the University of Los Angeles, in addition to an interior design degree from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, has built an extensive digital presence—despite intentionally spending time away from the platform.
“I think social media is incredibly bad for your mental health,” she said. “Even if you aren’t stressed.”
Everyone faces self-scrutiny to varying degrees when on apps like Instagram, Lee said. Looking to social platforms for relief when stressed won’t necessarily help.
“I recently hired someone to manage my account and it has been heavenly,” she said. “If only I could stay away from the dumpster fire that is Twitter.”
A better way to manage stress is to drop into your body, Lee advises.
“Unclench your jaw, relax your shoulders away from your ears. Take a deep breath through your nose and hold it at the top. Open your mouth and audibly sigh it all out. Repeat.”
In fact, many suffering from signs of stress also experience a condition known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). Most people can also attest to pain in the jaw at some point or another as a consequence of stress.
Pyschotherapist Michael Chan told Medibank, “Stress may subconsciously contribute to us clenching more frequently than usual, which creates more pressure within the jaw (or temporomandibular joints).”
Left unchecked, consistent jaw tension can lead to issues with posture, prolonged muscle pain in the neck and shoulders, and chronic headaches.
In addition to jaw releasing as a physical tactic, Lee recommends yoga classes, journaling, walking the dog, crying in the shower, sitting out in the sun, spaghetti carbonara, handstands, and incredibly long skincare routines as some other go-to methods for dealing with stress.
If her list confirms anything, it’s that relaxation comes not from being militant about maintaining immaculate “healthy habits.” Stress is better managed by taking a step back and engaging in a restorative routine, whether it’s consuming pasta or applying hyaluronic acid to your face for an exorbitant amount of time.
→ Be Present and Self-Aware
When it comes to beauty practices, YouTuber Maya Washington is no-doubt familiar with wellness rituals.
In fact, Washington has a whole playlist on her YouTube channel dedicated to beauty and fashion. But she’s much more than a woman who knows to wield a beauty blender.
Known online as “Shameless Maya,” Washington is a skilled multimedia producer, artist and influencer. Since 2012, she cultivated a massive following that started with the question: “What would happen if I shamelessly promoted myself for 365 days?”
Seven years later, her success is evident: a superbloom of Washington’s inner beauty, shared with the world.
When she feels creatively burnt out, Washington said the most productive thing is to give herself a break.
“I don’t create at all and need to just fuel up on inspiration by being present, observing, and listening to life as it is,” she said.
She makes a good point.
Nearly 20 percent of North American workers worry their bosses won’t think they are hardworking if they take regular lunch breaks. Twenty-two percent of North American bosses believe employees who take a lunch break are less hardworking.
When at work, it may seem more productive to abstain from breaks, but further research published in the psychological journal Cognition shows that taking breaks is the best way to stay focused on a task. Moreover, the key to increasing workplace productivity is working smarter, not harder.
Next time you find yourself unable to focus at your desk, try taking a lap around the office or a trip to your nearest coffee shop. By the time you return to your work, you’ll have a renewed energy to complete the task.
Washington listed other solutions to stress as talking to a professional, journaling, breathing, listening to music, reading a self-help book, and being around loved ones.
“I like to think of it as a mirror. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, make changes,” Washington said. “When I find myself stressed out, I either log out or delete [Instagram] entirely, focus on the work I need to do that enriches my soul and come back with a more positive outlook.”
However, Washington said she believes everyone reacts differently to social media.
“It’s about balance and figuring out who you are and how social media can work for you in positive ways,” she said. “If it is destructive and negative, get off.”
→ Take a Step-By-Step Approach
When stressed, Huffington Post journalist Carla Herreria has found it beneficial to find and follow accounts that uplift and motivate her. She shared that social media can be a source of inspiration “as long as you are consuming it consciously.”
Herreria works to create a social media presence to help others.
In a recent Instagram post, Herreria writes, “I am a hurting, feeling, thriving, fearing being. I won’t shut up for the sake of your comfort. If my light makes you bright then my shadow will give you something to feel. I am who I am and I show it.”
For the women achieving career success, in addition to a following in the digital space, honesty seems to be the throughline. There is something healing and empowering about owning up to difficulties and choosing to share vulnerability online.
As far as coping with the stress while working in journalism, Herreria says she tries to take a step-by-step approach to bigger projects.
“If I’m working on a story that requires an interview, an hour of research, and then three hours of writing, and I’ also mentally burnt out,” she said, “I will first focus on just doing the interview and sort of pretend like the other steps don’t exist.”
Setting specific goals is a more action-oriented approach to tackling a bigger one, and that’s exactly what Herreria does.
Much like embracing the shorter to-do-list, tackling a smaller task instead of taking the big picture approach may allow you to achieve more.
Sometimes, the biggest strain on productivity is the failure to start. Start small. Have patience. Pretty soon, whether it’s finishing an article like Herreria or wrapping up your spring cleaning at home, you’ll be feeling the rewards of energetic investment and tiny victories.
→ Start the Day with Compassion
When tackling stress, Angelica Beliard, a New York native and Broadway performer, prioritizes starting the day gently.
“I really believe the way we start the day sets the tone for how we deal with everything that gets thrown at us,” Beliard said. “Take at least fifteen minutes first thing in the morning to truly just be with yourself, breathe, and know that you are enough.”
Though taking time for self-care may seem like a delay, Beliard disagrees. Constantly lending ourselves to extrinsic circumstances will leave us depleted if we don’t take the time to nourish ourselves first.
“When I gather within myself, my output is much more effective,” Beliard said.
Making rash emotional decisions mid-day can be a direct result of not taking the proper time to calibrate your mind in the morning and set your intentions for the day, Beliard said.
Beliard’s advice centers around creating a wellness-oriented morning routine. While some implement a meditation practice, others get their self-care fix by listening to a motivating playlist. It’s all about what works for you, she said.
In an article for Healthy Place, clinical psychologist Jodi Lobozzo Aman explained the importance of routine to mitigate anxiety. Aman explains that having a routine can “help steady your mind, but also give confidence to your emotions. In other words you feel in control.”
Especially for people who regularly suffer from anxiety, having just fifteen minutes in a day where a sense of control is cultivated and tangibly attained can be life-altering.
In addition to starting her mornings on a positive note, Belliard shared that the ways she copes with stress can vary depending on the task at hand. After all, being a Broadway performer can often come with a colorful task list.
While sometimes, managing stress means trying to “get in the zone,” Belliard can attest to the benefit of outsourcing for creative inspiration.
“If I have to prepare for an audition in a short span of time, I will link up with a coach to help me tackle the material. Sources outside of myself force me to get out of my own mind and offer fresh perspective that may not be flowing through me in moments of blockage.”
While this show-stopping powerhouse prefers silence to calm the mind, she also enjoys listening to Persian music when stressed. Though she cannot understand the Farsi language, Beliard explains, “the passion and feeling that I hear in the music is healing.” Art, in general, serves as a healing touchstone.
“Whether it be poetry, a play, or just being present with nature,” she said, “art opens up channels for stress or frustration to find its way through.”
Maybe, the next time you’re stressed, turn to a music genre you don’t typically listen to. Open up a photography book and take in the visuals. Letting the mind play with concepts outside of the scope of our work is a key element in re-energizing and avoiding burnout.
Despite wide-ranging career interests, tips on managing stress were consistent across the board. Collectively, all the creative women interviewed honor their personal needs and stay honest with themselves. Plus, everyone agreed that taking a break from social media has a positive impact on mental health.
Successful, creative women prioritize their authentic wellbeing. They recognize the value of introspection, indulgent moments and self-compassion. Too often, we neglect our needs in an attempt to tackle extrinsic goals that can leave us exhausted if we compromise our wellbeing in the process.
Before we address our stressors, it may be of great benefit to first address ourselves.
If you’ve benefited from our series on stress, share the work.
Bring the conversation into May’s Mental Health Awareness Month.
Let’s stop the stigma surrounding stress.
Featured photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash