Sorting out stress

From the reference desk, I have been observing how students deal with end-of-semester stress.  Some admit they are just barely on top of things, others are highly organized.  One night I helped a student find sources for a history paper on the Gulf War. She told me it was due the next morning but that she works better at the last minute.

Knowing your own comfort zone regarding deadlines and planning is a great way to manage stress. But what if that’s not enough? I was intrigued this week by a story in the Washington Post about George Mason University Law School’s “Puppy Day” during finals.  Pets are indeed an excellent help in relaxing. More on that in a moment.

Elgin Community College in Illinois hosts a “Stress-Free Zone,” which provides spa treatments, “back massages, cotton candy and popcorn, tea and hot chocolate, a coloring corner and a Play-Doh table.”  If your school doesn’t provide such amenities, the Independent Florida Alligator offers several DIY stress relief suggestions, including practicing breathing exercises, cooking something healthy, talking with a friend, working out, and laughing.

The hosts of  Books On the Nightstand, Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, recently asked listeners/readers to share their comfort books. Returning to a favorite genre, author, or childhood story can be a great stress reliever. My grandmother, a teacher and librarian who lived to be 96, swore by mysteries for a brief escape. Our mutual favorite, the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman, is perfect; the books are short, fast-paced, smartly plotted, and fascinating, with plenty of humor and nothing so scary as to disrupt your already limited sleep.

A new hobby of mine, Zentangle, is a simple way to de-stress artistically. You can check out patterns online (Google “tangle patterns”) or try how-to books. I recommend Totally Tangled or Yoga for Your Brain by Sandy Steen Bartholomew. In no time you’ll be making your own tangles. The results are very satisfying and mind clearing, and you could turn your stress-management into holiday gifts.

I’m enjoying a new app St. Nicholas brought my teens and I that teaches mindfulness meditation. I learned about buddhify at Action for Happiness, and it’s a well-organized and simple tool which I’m finding very helpful.  So far it’s one of the best entry-points to meditation I’ve tried.

Even if you’re not a student, December can feel pretty stressful. I combined two stress-relieving activities before work last night: I rested my hand on my purring cat while using buddhify. I fell asleep, which is not really the goal of meditation, but woke from the short nap feeling better. How are you sorting out your stress?


** Welcome Advent Conspiracy visitors! Please scroll down or take the link to “Making Merriment Meaningful,” and thanks for reading.


Mindfulness 101

Stress is a natural reaction to changes in our environment — it’s our mind’s way of saying, “Whoa! I’m not ready to adapt to this.”  The start of a new school term brings stress for students, educators, staff, and communities (all that extra traffic!), so it seems like the perfect time to consider a very effective method of dealing with stress: mindfulness.

Mindfulness is intentional awareness and acceptance of what is happening. It can be combined with other practices, such as meditation or prayer, but can also just be a part of everyday activities. While it’s simple, it’s also challenging – our brains are trained from a young age to multi-task and to split our attention among competing stimuli. We are also used to reacting to that stimuli without really thinking about why or how we are responding. Mindfulness requires practice.

Noticing, (“This printer is not working,”) refraining from judging (hating the printer, fretting over the missing document or lost time), and accepting (I’ll just have to troubleshoot) can shift our attention and deter stress reactions (raised voice, elevated heart rate, feelings of anger, worry, frustration). There’s no denial involved; mindfulness isn’t about ignoring or glossing over difficult situations; we observe the challenge, notice our feelings, and let it all pass with our equilibrium likely intact. Mindfulness increases our own well being and improves our interactions with others.

Science shows that it also literally changes our minds. Dr. Richard Davidson is famous for studying Tibetan monks’ brains, as well as pre-schoolers and veterans (a Danish documentary about his work will be out soon).  Davidson’s research indicates mindfulness “re-wires” our brains.  Jon Kabat-Zinn has written extensively on the health benefits of mindfulness, particularly in managing stress, pain, and depression.

So if you’re sitting in morning traffic or starting a new semester, juggling schedules or sending a child to college, balancing your budget or looking for work, answering reference questions or troubleshooting network issues, try a little mindfulness.