Embodying "Less Is More" Is The Most Potent Way To Boost Well-Being In 2023
What's it going to be this year? Have you set a lofty goal for 2023, like eating healthy or getting fit? Big changes are hard to make and harder to keep. By the end of the year, over 90% of people have not kept their New Year's resolutions.
On the other hand, small daily changes can make a significant difference in our lives, especially when they are about our mental health. One small mental change can spill over to everything and make it easier for you to keep your other resolutions.
Here is why stress management should be front-row center in your resolutions and tangible ways to make it a priority in 2023 and beyond.
Why make stress management part of your resolutions?
Back in October, the 2022 American Psychological Association annual survey on stress showed us a flashing red alert: Almost half of adults are feeling overwhelmed, and even paralyzed, by stress. Nearly 30% of people report feeling so stressed they cannot function. This numbness is a sign of burnout, and burnout is hard and slow to reverse. Stress impacts the ability to focus, make decisions, and get things done.
Clearly, the experience of stress and its effects are becoming more severe. Chronic stress puts us at risk for serious mental health disorders including depression1, anxiety2, and neurological disorders such as dementia3.
Daily stress degrades our social connections, impairs intimacy, and lessens the subtle feelings of joy we can tap into by appreciating the ordinary miracles of the everyday.
What would it feel like without all this stress bringing out our worst qualities: distraction, impatience, anger, reactivity, poor food choices, and even accelerated aging4? It's simple. Without the threat of daily stress, there will be more of you—the real you. Here are three ways to stress less and stress better in the year ahead:
Create space: Do less work more often.
Simplify your daily schedule. We can't unwind when there is no time or space to do so. We can be so busy maximizing our time that we don't realize we are cheating ourselves out of the most important time: time to regenerate!
Taking frequent breathing breaks was our most common and urgent advice to front-line workers during the pandemic.
If we can reduce the demands on our time, we can add brief breaks throughout the day. This is not a luxury; this is a necessity. During the pandemic, I helped lead mental health initiatives at our medical school. Taking frequent breathing breaks was our most common and urgent advice to front-line workers during the pandemic, whether they were delivering goods or working in the emergency room. The body needs a break to restore. And the body will use it well.
Use space for true rest and rejuvenation.
It's easy to fill all your breaks with doomscrolling or catching up on email and social media. But those breaks are precious times for you to unwind. This year, aim to use them more mindfully. Unlike resolutions that require hours of dedication, this one only takes a few minutes at a time (and may therefore be more achievable).
Fill those tiny down moments with mind-body movement or slow breathing through the nose. Make your exhales longer than your inhales to quickly restore your nervous system, rev up parasympathetic activity, increase vagus nerve tone, and reduce stress hormones.
When you have time to do these restorative activities for longer periods, by all means, do. This will help you reach a deep rest state5, where you get much-needed restoration down to the cellular level.
Realize how little control we have, and conserve your energy for amplifying joy.
Attempting to control everything can lead to immense stress. Spend the next few days thinking about what you truly control and what you have no control over.
Tough situations in our lives that don't have a clear resolution—like caregiving, work issues, or problems with loved ones—require a robust positive stress mindset. We can spend a lot of time trying to control and solve these situations, as if we are pulling hard on a rope. But when we pull on a fixed rope, we get rug burn. It's like playing a game of tug of war we cannot win—and expending a lot of mental and physical energy in the process.
Moving forward, can you simply drop the rope? Can you accept the situation and release the need for control? You might say, "This is reality as it is, right now," while acknowledging your pain and feeling love and kindness toward yourself. My new book, The Stress Prescription, provides many science-based ways to embrace positive stress; manage anxiety, sadness, and grief from painful and unwanted circumstances; and amplify joy starting right when you wake up.
While we can't control what happens to us, we can control how we respond. We can break up chronic stress into manageable stress and even create positive stress.
I am urging you to make mental health—and in particular, stressing better and stressing less—your New Year's resolution. When we feel overly stressed, we don't notice the beauty around us and we can't easily feel joy.
Moving into 2023, hold on to this simple message from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "The best medicine is inner peace." Indeed, science tells a similar story: Inner peace can slow aging and allow your true loving nature to more fully manifest itself.
When it comes to New Year's resolutions, doing less truly is more.
Elissa Epel, Ph.D. is a professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. She is an internationally renowned health psychologist who has conducted pioneering research into how stress impacts our health. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Telomere Effect. The Stress Prescription is her latest book.