The past few years have been — as if you didn’t live through them too — kind of hellish. Okay, very hellish. You don’t need me to share the many many articles about how much work moms in particularly have been doing to balance everyone’s needs and help keep everyone in our lives on track, in the face of so much turmoil and wild unpredictability.
While I’m generally excellent at finding silver linings in all things (this year did bring us season 2 of Ted Lasso, outstanding medical science, and on-demand cocktail delivery), I’ve really needed to work on mindfulness and calm in more conscious ways to keep myself steady.
I know that when I’m in a good place mentally, it helps me be a more thoughtful partner, parent, and friend. I write better. I work better. I also just feel better.
Like I’m a better me.
These days, we can use all the good feelings we can get right? So I wanted to share just a few of the small changes I’ve been making (or at least trying) that are helping keep me more calm and centered.
I can’t change the whole world. But to some degree, I can change me
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This post has been updated for 2023
5 simple changes that are helping me stay more calm and centered
Please note that if you’re having struggles around stress, depression or anxiety that feel like too much to handle yourself, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. There’s no stigma, no shame, and thankfully, plenty of resources for you.
1 Start the morning without checking your phone
Hahaha this is sooooo not me!
So let’s jump right in with one of the tougher changes I’ve been trying to make!
I’ve been working on spending at least five minutes after waking up before immediately grabbing my phone and scrolling social media or checking emails. We have so few boundaries these days with our “always on” media world, and just those few minutes to gather my thoughts or jot down ideas can make a big difference in how I feel the rest of the day.
Put it this way: opening your eyes first thing to a list of unread emails, or the feeling like you’re already behind on news or birthday greetings or your to-do list is a terrible way to start your morning.
And yes, five minutes may not sound like a lot of time to some of you, but it’s okay to start small! I’ve learned that making the smallest changes, one at a time, mean you’re less likely to fail and therefore more likely to stick to them.
(Pro tip: If you use your phone as your alarm, consider an alternative so that you’re not waking up with your phone literally in your hand.)
2. Make lists. Really.
This may sound counterintuitive, but at least for me, I find that list-making really help me cut back on stress.
A lot of anxiety comes from that running list of to-dos in my mind (send a thank you note, pay that bill, run that errand, return that call, follow up on that email…) that never seems to stop. It’s not just the anxiety around needing to do these things, but the fear of forgetting what I need to do in the first place.
By writing everything down, ideally the moment I think of it, I no longer have to use any brainpower to “remember not to forget” a zillion different things.
3. Sleep more and sleep better.
Don’t laugh, parents! Bear with me here…
I get it. We can’t all just snap our fingers and sleep more. In fact, nothing used to bug me quite like all the articles I read during the sleepless baby and toddler yers, describing how important it is to get sleep. Gah.
But now I realize I often stay up past a reasonable hour to catch up on “just one more episode” or “just one more article” — basically giving myself some me-time, like a lot of parents do. But, it’s also depriving myself of sleep I need. And it turns out, it’s not generally worth the trade; more sleep means I can be more rested, calm, and alert during the day, so I dawdle less, actually enabling me to find that me-time during the day.
Here are a few tips that work for me:
– Try an app. Set the Sleep app on my Apple Watch to give you nightly bedtime reminders. Or do it with apps like Calm or Headspace — Calm will send me a gentle notification that says “start winding down now to get a full night’s sleep.” You can also do this using any phone or device, with a repeating nightly (gentle) alarm or reminder that it’s time for bed.
– Use music, white noise, or a nighttime meditation to help you relax and drift off. For me, the sleep stories in the Calm App have been a big help so I shared that idea a few months back. The sound of rain on leaves is nice, but there’s something about Cillian Murphy reading me a story about a train to Northern Ireland that absolutely does it for me.
– A little OTC help from the pharmacy taking CBD tinctures or Unisom’s melatonin-based Simple Slumbers at night which not only helps me get to sleep and stay asleep, I wake up without that grogginess I’d get from a glass of Cabernet.
4. Ease up on the TV news.
I am definitely a media/news junkie and I loooove keeping up with current events. But after several years of 24/7 emergency, tragedy, and anxiety-provoking awfulness, it’s taken a toll on me.
I admit that I was worried that if I turned the news off, it would be like putting my fingers in my ears, and I don’t want to be that person. But fortunately, some wonderful people reminded me that you can stay active in the world without following every breathless breaking news alert all day and night. It’s not “turning away” or ignoring the issues that concern us; it’s just a way of taking care of yourself so that you’re stable and healthy enough to actually be able to do something productive about the issues that concern you.
5. Just breathe. Which isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
I am not a yogi or a meditation expert by any means, so trust me when I say that deep breathing is not some wu-wu thing. Deep, focused breathing is proven to turn down your body’s response to stress, and I could link to a hundred articles about it. (Here’s just one via Harvard Med School.)
Busy parents don’t all have an hour each day for a Qi Gong class or a yoga session, but that’s okay. If you have a breathing app on your phone or smartwatch that can remind you to take a minute, fantastic.
Of course there’s the low-tech method too: Just give yourself a minute or to with no distractions. Breathe in slowly through your nose (it’s important for your abdomen to expand fully, don’t hold it in!), then breathe out very slowly — I find it helps to do it through pinched lips to extend the exhale.
It’s kind of amazing if you look at the published studies about the connection of deep breathing to physiological improvements, like lowered heart rate, more stable cortisol levels, and improvement of mood and stress.
All just by breathing! If only we can do it more deeply and mindfully, it can make a massive difference in how we feel throughout the day.