Less Stress in the New Year

10 Ideas to Keep Stress at Bay

by JiJi Russell

Over the last ten years, I’ve worked with a colorful variety of people in the realm of wellness — many ages and backgrounds. If I had to choose just one concern that most, if not all, confront, it’s stress. My purely observational, unscientific opinion on stress and health is that if we can become better at managing stress, and in some cases avoiding it altogether, our collective health status would improve greatly. But stress can be such an amorphous, multi-pronged tangle of junk, both internal and external, that it can take a lot of real effort and commitment to pick it apart. Like the airlines’ inflight safety instructions state, however, take care of your oxygen first, then help those around you. Similarly, applying some effort to combat stress can help you while it ripples outward to others. If we could all dedicate a little time, compassion, and yes, effort, to the task of recognizing and managing stress, we will 
all benefit. 

Below are ten ideas that I’ve culled from many workshops, surveys, personal conversations, and other work I’ve done with clients and corporate employees in the service of reducing stress and/or improving resilience to counter stress when it arises. 

My suggestion is to select just one of the ten that might spark your interest, and try it out for a week or so. See how things go. Add on as you like, or concoct your own stress buffer techniques. Eventually, with some persistence, you will be able to make positive changes for yourself. 

1) Write down your worries and concerns once a day; get them “out of your head.” If your problems are on paper, then at least you can let them go for the moment, knowing you won’t forget them (goodness forbid it!). Writing things down can neutralize their power. It can also give you something to look back on, and, perhaps in some cases, to view your progress.  

2) Schedule “gaps” in your day, particularly at the beginning and end, as a way to power down your body and mind. Instead of booking yourself, your kids, your tasks in a back-to-back march against time, create some gaps when you can just sit or walk, and think about nothing in particular. Or perhaps use the gap as a little planning time to more wisely use your day. 

3) Get into the habit of taking a breath before you speak or act. Deep breathing has a real and measurable physical impact on you. It can calm your nervous system, relax your muscles, and bring better balance to your emotions. It’s never a bad time to take a deep breath. 

4) Find someone you admire for his or her ability to remain calm and balanced, and ask that person to be an advisor to you when you have a question or concern arise. I have several such folks in my life, even for different areas of life, including career stress, parenting stress, and many other categories in between. Seek these people out and talk to them. 

5) Take a two-minute breathing break before you log on to your computer, before you eat a meal, before you go to bed. Just 10 minutes of deep breathing a day can help. A tangent on the “taking a breath” and scheduling “gaps” suggestions, this one is an intentional moment of deep breathing. Put your phone on airplane mode; set a two-minute timer; and just sit and breathe. 
Benefits abound. 

6) Eat a satisfying breakfast that contains protein as a way to jumpstart your mental and physical energy and keep your metabolism “fired up.” You’ve heard the stats that kids who don’t eat breakfast are less able to concentrate at school and don’t perform as well as those who do eat breakfast. Well, many adults skip breakfast, too, and then hit the ground running with their overly-ambitious schedules. Put some thought into your first meal of the day. Give your body and mind what it needs to be you for the day.

7) Consider limiting or giving up “C.A.T.S.” (C = caffeine,  A = alcohol,  T = tobacco,  S = sugar). These are known to cause fluctuations in energy and mood. This suggestion always elicited a bit of scoffing in the corporate world, but because each of these edible items can either stimulate or depress the nervous system, using them can interrupt healthy sleep patterns, amplify cravings and dependency, and complicate other health conditions. If giving it up does not seem an option, think of cutting back more gradually, and see how you feel.  

8) Recall and re-visit a favorite activity or hobby. Doing an activity that brings you joy or allows you to be fully engaged in something uplifting, can have a very positive effect on your mental and emotional state. Making jewelry, fishing, photography, bird watching, whatever it is you used to love to do — do it again. 

9) Make of goal of getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Many people will argue that they don’t need as much sleep as the average person, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, that’s just not true. Humans need sufficient sleep for a host of good reasons, including cardio-pulmonary health, proper hormone function, healthy immune function, and many, many more. Of course, it might not be so easy to simply lie down and zonk out for eight hours. It might demand a good look at what it is that’s keeping you awake. Is it mind chatter; is it your desire to binge watch your favorite TV shows until midnight? What is the root of your restlessness, and how can you begin to right your course to better sleep? 

10) Make a cut-off time for electronic communications, and stick to it. You’ve probably heard about the “blue light” of electronics, which interrupts your brain’s ability to create melatonin, the hormone your body produces to help you feel sleepy and fall asleep at appropriate times (e.g., nighttime). Well, most functions of the electronics in our lives are stimulating, and stimulation is not what you need when your body needs sleep to reset and recover. Text messages, social media posts, emails, news … each of these things can stimulate mental activity, and, certainly, emotions ‑ not what you need at 9 p.m. 

One need not be a social scientist to predict that stressors will continue to abound in our human lives. We need to develop more resilience and compassion to ride the tides in constructive ways. These ten suggestions might lead you to discover something you can do for your own good in 2019. As with all things in well-being, it’s up to you. No one can do it for you. Cheers to your efforts toward a good cause!

Timothy Johnson, Small Town Lawyer

As the Crow Flies

Grassland Nesting Birds Are Disappearing!

Story and illustration by Doug Pifer
Eastern meadowlarks used to be common birds in local hayfields, and their songs drifted across the fields in the early summer air. Now they’re on a growing list of field nesting birds — bobwhite quail, vesper sparrow, American kestrel, and red-winged blackbird — whose numbers have seriously dropped. Now you can drive though the countryside and never see any
of them!
In 2015 the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS) launched its Grassland Birds Initiative. The first property to enroll was Claymont Farm. As of this month, a total of nine properties in the Potomac Valley participate, according to PVAS executive director Kristin Alexander.
Last summer, I enrolled our two hayfields as designated grassland bird habitat. My wife and I have been managing our property for wildlife since we bought the place in 2016. Until recently, I believed we were encouraging grassland birds by allowing natural vegetation to grow in our fencerows and rock breaks, and mowing only once a year, late in the season. Since enrolling in the Grassland Birds Initiative, I’ve learned this isn’t enough. In fact, studies show that long fence lines of trees, shrubs and vegetation that separate and constrict open fields offer predators like feral cats and red foxes easier access to any birds living in the fields, hampering their nesting success and adding to the problem.
Better strategies include allowing certain parts of a field to go un-mowed for more than one year instead of cutting the whole field. PVAS cites a large field in the Steamboat Run area near Shepherdstown as a prime example. They cut some of their hayfields only once a year on a rotating basis, while leaving others uncut for a couple of years. Birds nesting there have increased to levels that were never seen when they mowed everything yearly.
Farmers used to allow their fencerows to grow up, and would let certain fields lay fallow for a year or two to “rest the soil” and allow nitrogen to build up. Today’s more intensive agriculture requires all the land to be used. This means maintaining “clean” fencerows and applying additional chemical fertilizer to make up for the depleted elements in the soil. This also means added expense.
A better conservation practice, and one farmers are now starting to adopt, is to sow warm season grasses in fields that would formerly be allowed to grow up or lay fallow. Native grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, fowl manna grass, switchgrass, muhly grass, and Eastern gamma grass can be cut for hay. But, unlike annual cool season forage grasses, they develop perennial hummocks of vegetation that offer grassland birds year-round protection: hiding places in winter, summer nesting places, and autumn food in the form of seed.
Results of these programs show an increase in field nesting birds and other wildlife. Fields planted in native warm season grasses attract more beneficial insects, such as bees, butterflies, and dragonflies. Turtles, non-poisonous snakes, toads, and frogs also find more food and places to hide in such fields.
I’m encouraging my neighbors to join us in creating more grassland wildlife habitat. You can improve your own backyard, even if it’s under an acre. Maybe you’re tired of weekly mowing — or of paying somebody else to do it. Instead, you could transform it into a beautiful, more bird-friendly place. Contact the Potomac Valley Audubon Society at www.potomacaudubon.org to learn more about the Grassland Birds Initiative and about Habitat Certification for smaller properties, a new program they launched
this spring.