Stress can tip from bearable to overbearing in a split second. When you’re buckling under the stress, and who isn’t these days, give yourself these gifts. You have to give them to yourself because the reality is no one else will. 

Photo of a young woman on a swing looking at a sunrise on a beach. The text reads... 10 Gifts to Give Yourself When Stress Is Making You Lose Your Shit

Stress can be a gift. Stay with me here. A reminder of our humanity. Humbling. What was revelatory to me was to learn that just because my Stressors were not going away, the stress the stressor was causing could actually go away but only if I gave myself the following gifts.

1. Time out.

Sometimes stopping is best. Just stop. Call an Emergency Time Out! A complete halt in whatever is going on. Like cold turkey. When you (by which I mean “me”) are (am) in a deep well of too much, it may mean the difference between survival or drowning.

That is what I did a few weeks ago when I was buckling under the stress. The Universe bitch slapped me with vertigo and I said OK time to clear the schedule!

2. Plan your next time off.

When I took my emergency time out (see above) I shared with my family that I hadn’t had time off for six months. My son had the nerve to say, “I don’t get it. Aren’t you in charge? You’re, like, the owner of the practice?” 

Turns out I’m not the best boss of me that I could be.

It was not easy to give myself permission to ignore my email, reschedule meetings, sessions with patients, and inform people that that thing I said I’d have by this week, well, not happening this week. But when I did something amazing happened. 

Why do we take time off? To vacate the brain. Get all the manic monkeys, flapping bats, and creepy, crawly bugs out, out, out. Our brain functions better if it isn’t overloaded, distracted by too much stimulation, fatigued, and abused. 

Weeks, even days, completely off from our usual work here and there throughout the year are great for relieving stress. It’s much more challenging to take time off from stress every single day. 

In their book, Burnout, The Secret of Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski, point out a crucial distinction between Stress and the Stressor. Stressors, they write, “are what activate the stress response in our body. They can be anything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine could do you harm. There are external stressors: work, money, family…And there are less tangible internal stressors: self-criticism, memories, The Future…” 

Stress, they go on to say, “is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter one of these [Stressors].”

My Stressors may not be going away anytime soon. Not only that but, once one Stressor is handled, another pops up, like a nasty game of Whack-A-Mole. What was revelatory to me was to learn that just because my Stressors were not going away, my Stress actually could if I gave myself the following gifts.

3. Sooth the body & Let the Stress Go!.

Stress, which can be easily experienced as anxiety, is a very physical response. Therefore, our best antidote is to take a pause to pay attention to where our body is in the moment. 

The Stressor makes us feel threatened. I need to feel safe to get the stress to ease off. There are things we can do to soothe our system when stressed in the moment. Here are few:

  • Almost always, the Stressor is in The Future, it is not going on right now. So tell yourself, “Not happening now. Right now everything is fine.”
  • I can put my hands over my heart and tell myself, “You are safe. All is good.” I can actually feel the tension leave my body when I do this.
  • A minute of four square breathing also calms me down. Breathe out (through your lips) for a count of four, pause at the bottom of the breath for four, breathe in (through your nose) for a count of four, pause at the top of the breath for a count of four. Works every time. To remind you to breathe there are breathing apps available for all your devices if you’re into that.

4. Playtime.

Brene Brown said this about play:

“Play – doing things just because they’re fun and not because they’ll help us achieve a goal – is vital to human development.” She also said, “The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression.”

Brene Brown


It’s sad that in our culture right now adult play is not exactly encouraged, much less prioritized. When was the last time you did something just for the fun of it? I’m thinking here… does gardening count? I’m going to say yes. While there’s a goal, a beautiful landscape in my backyard, from day to day I use my imagination, sometimes move containers around, smell the dirt, enjoy the colors and varieties of plants, the birds and butterflies that come to visit. And it’s fun! What about hate-watching the Bachelorette with my daughter? We deeply enjoy making snarky live commentary while sipping prosecco and there’s absolutely no discernible goal achieved. Yes, I think that counts, too!

Moving on to stress management Gift #5…

“But wait – don’t such ideas sound kind of like another form of work? More goal-oriented tasks tend to boost productivity in the long run? Is developing a rest ethic ultimately another job? Perhaps so. But then again, maybe that’s the only language the unhealthy work-obsessed really understand.”  ~Rob Walker, author of “The Art of Noticing”.

That’s why I use the word ‘gifts’ in the title, not ‘things’ or ‘ways to’ but ‘gifts’. A gift is generous,  kind and non-transactional. I want these ideas to be like little presents you give yourself every day, a delightful little, wow! Isn’t that nice? For no reason other than it IS nice and it makes you feel good. We all need that don’t we? 

And to review: These gifts are to assist us in de-stressing on a daily basis so that you don’t have to wait until your vacation to feel self-cared for.

5. Vent time.

Find some people who have your back, who are totally trustworthy, grab a glass of wine and let go! Give yourself permission to be angry, frustrated, and just done, out loud. Complaining should be savored, not abused, like a piece of fine, dark chocolate. If you do find yourself talking about the same issue over and over, that’s abusing the chocolate and may be a sign that it’s time to find a good therapist

Also complaining is not just a one-way activity. Let your inner circle pat your back and say, “poor baby”, or “that bastard!” or “to hell with that!” Take in all their validating goodness. Then do the same for them. 

If you can’t find people to vent with then journal privately. Journal, journal, journal, then let it go. Avoid anger sharing on social media. Not only is it a bad look, it does not serve to destress. Social media is more often a stress echo chamber.

6. Create To Avoid Stress.

“But I’m not creative,” I hear people say. Shut up, I say. Everyone is creative. To be human is to be creative. But I hear what you mean. Sadly, many of us have had creativity shamed out of us or ignored, perhaps buried somewhere in the basement under all of our obligations. Find it. It’s there, waiting for you. You may be being creative already but don’t even realize it. Are you creative when you cook, bake, pack the kids lunch? In arranging flowers, or greenery on a vase or furniture in a room? Or your style, how you put an outfit together on a budget? Maybe you were creative in the last tattoo design you chose or the way you sing to the tunes you love. The more traditional ways we think of creating count, too, of course. Painting, sculpting, composing, writing, visual arts, crafts… so, so many ways to create something out of nothing! 

7. Movement.

Anything counts! A fun, gentle yoga class or dancing like a maniac in your kitchen, weeding in the garden, swimming, walking around the block, of course, but also running three miles if you can do it and that’s what gets you out of your head and into your body.

8. Putter.

Sometimes tidying up, cleaning, even doing the laundry can be a pleasant brain distraction. Some of us like to clean out a closet on a rainy day and at the end of it have the satisfaction of a newly organized space, a bag of stuff for GoodWill and a chore off the To Do list! Puttering only works to de-stress if it’s a choice, not a chore and certainly not a job. Pick out something specific, easy and doable in a short amount of time so that the satisfaction is achieved within a few hours.

9. Sensory appreciation time.

Yes, I could be talking about sex here, a very pleasurable sensory appreciative activity if there ever was one, but there are others. At any time you can pause and ask yourself what your senses are telling you right now. The scent of rain, of the laundry when it comes out of the dryer. The sight of whatever your eyes fall upon at this moment, colors, brightness or darkness. Visit a local art gallery, like the Burchfield Penny Art Center in Buffalo. Take a beat and pet your dog or cat or the upholstery of your sofa. Feel the texture and temperature of what your sense of touch brings you. What do you hear right now? Traffic? Birdsong? A dog barking? Linger over the taste of the sandwich you had with lunch or the chocolate treat you gave yourself after. Any of these (including the sex) is being mindful at its best.

10. Be with loved ones.

I mean really Be with them. Your kids need your undivided attention and you need to be able to tell your monkey brain to take a rest while you give it to them. Your friends need you and you need them. Rest when you’re with them by being with them. Take away any pressure to perform. Be quiet with a loved one, listen closely. Relationships require mono-tasking not multitasking. 

Ultimately, all any human being wants is to be seen and heard. And to laugh. Ask your spouse/partner to just hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes for one full minute. For sure you will both be either belly laughing or kissing wildly by the end of sixty seconds. Laughing together, genuine, sweet, out of control, breath-taking laughter is the best gift. Give it and receive it often.

As for the kissing part, see #9.

Dr Aletta is the author of “10 Gifts to Give Yourself When Stress Is Making You Lose Your Shit”

dr aletta