I used to wake up each morning and, before I’d even brushed my teeth, I would check my email. This often meant that the first thing I saw every day was a frantic message from my boss. Eventually, I realized I had to set a rule: I wouldn’t check my email until after I finished my morning workout. This small change made a huge difference in my stress levels. Even if I still had to deal with anxiety-provoking e-mails a little later in the day, at least I had a solid hour or more in the morning where I was blissfully — and willfully — ignorant.
“[Phones] take these more stressful environments and put them into our homes and our bedrooms,” says John Torous, MD, co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School. “I think being cognizant of the stressors tied to your phone and how you’re letting them into your life is very important.”
Turns out, checking your phone first thing in the morning isn’t the only habit that could be doing a number on your psyche. We spoke with a few experts, who gave us insight into other seemingly harmless practices that could be disrupting your peace of mind.
7 Sneaky Things Making You Stressed Out
1. Grabbing a donut on the way to work in the morning.
Most people don’t give much thought about what to eat for breakfast, says Shanna Levine, MD, instructor of internal medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But you should. “If your main fuels are simple carbohydrates…that’s not an efficient energy source,” she says. “You’ll find that you become hungry very quickly and feel tired much more quickly. If you don’t have enough energy to get through the day, it makes it difficult to keep a healthy mindset.” On the other hand, if you eat a nutritious breakfast, you’ll avoid the physical and mental crash that can come with a greasy sandwich or sugary waffle.
The fix: Choose something high in protein and healthy fats, recommends Levine. A smoothie with fruits, veggies and nut butter or an egg sandwich with avocado will do the trick. Also, make sure to drink plenty of water.
“Trying to remember everything you have to do for the day can leave you stressed out.”
2. Keeping your to-do list in your head.
Trying to remember everything you have to do for the day can leave you stressed out, whether you realize it or not. “That’s certainly taking up brain space, which takes up more energy,” says Torous. “You can really offload it onto paper and it can be a kind of extension of your brain.” Writing things down seems to give most people temporary relief.
The fix: If you don’t want to buy yourself a notebook that serves as your to-do list (which definitely works), an app like Evernote can give you an electronic place to keep track of all your tasks.
3. Snapchatting and texting 24/7.
Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook make it seem easier to keep in touch with friends. But a phone or computer is no substitute for human interaction. “You can feel very engaged in online or computer-based social networks, but having real human contact with people is even more important,” says Torous. “Sometimes you’ll get tricked into thinking, ‘I have this network of Facebook friends and Twitter friends,’ but it’s crucial to cultivate relationships offline, as well.”
The fix: Schedule a few phone-free activities you can look forward to each week. That way, you’ll have regular opportunities to disconnect and engage with friends or family. Even better, the incentives will help break up the tedium that can often come with the workweek, says Levine.
4. Going straight from your car to the couch.
There’s a reason that people talk about a “runner’s high.” Exercise releases endorphins that can energize you and improve your mood, says Levine. “Evidence shows that exercise can be one of the most effective treatments for anything in healthcare, be it mental or physical,” adds Torous. (A 2016 study suggests it could help treat depression, specifically.)
The fix: You shouldn’t jump right into an intense exercise routine if you’re in firm couch potato mode right now. Levine recommends starting with a goal of 30 to 45 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity about five times per week. The key, says Torous, is to find an exercise schedule and form of physical activity that feels sustainable to you. “If it fits in your lifestyle, that’s better than saying you must go for 20 minutes a day at an intense heart rate,” he says.
“An irregular sleep schedule goes beyond depleted energy levels and the inability to concentrate.”
5. Going to bed at a different time each night.
An irregular sleep schedule goes beyond depleted energy levels and the inability to concentrate. It also increases your production of cortisol, which is tied to stress. What’s more, Torous points out that many mental illnesses are associated with unhealthy sleep patterns. (Conversely, treating sleep issues can sometimes alleviate symptoms of the mental illnesses.) “Sleep is really when the brain is growing,” he says. “It’s also when you consolidate memories and the brain reviews or plans for the next day. It’s also in part when the brain is relaxing.”
The fix: “I recommend getting at least eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep,” says Levine. “That means avoiding stimuli at night — whether that’s from phones or the TV — within an hour of intended bedtime. Avoiding caffeine and not exercising too late are also helpful.” Just make sure you have time to wind down before bed.
6. Ignoring what’s stressing you out.
It’s an easy trap to fall into: being so busy that you never take a moment to meditate on any anxious or negative feelings you might have. “I think we all have a difficult time with the act of mindfulness,” says Levine. “We all have things in our life we can’t control that make us tense. But taking a few minutes every day to reflect on what’s bothering us, calmly acknowledging it and letting it go — a sort of a mini-meditation — makes the day feel and seem a lot less stressful.”
The fix: When you’re feeling stressed out, take a few moments to acknowledge and accept those feelings rather than just continuing along, business as usual. Just pushing negativity aside can lead to even more stress.
7. Quitting habits that got you to a good place.
“A lot of times, when people are feeling well and good, they stop doing the things that keep them both physically and mentally healthy,” says Torous. “They’re so happy that they kind of forget those little things they did over time. That’s one of the main reasons for relapse.”
The fix: If a certain medication, morning ritual or exercise routine helped you feel your best, then it’s important not to neglect that habit, says Torous. Even if you think you don’t “need” it anymore, don’t ditch a habit that makes you feel happier and healthier.