Stress 101: Eat Well, Sleep More and Move Around a Lot

By Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium

"Eat well, sleep more and move around a lot." That's what I say to people who are asking for the primer on how to take better care of themselves to manage stress. I'll admit it, I don't know what I could possibly say about eating, resting and exercising that hasn't been said already. Advice about how to take care of yourself and studies on the rationale for doing so abound, and anyone who's been paying attention can probably distinguish good choices from bad.

Everywhere I turn, I see recipes for kale smoothies and apps to inspire physical activity and track sleep quality. There are plenty of voices telling me what to do to nurture myself. In humble recognition of that fact, I'm here to discuss not what you should eat or how you should work out and why, but to suggest that we reframe the conversation about how we take care of ourselves. Rather than talking about what we should do, let's think instead about what happens when we stray from our sense about what is right, and why we do so. Let's talk about making bad choices.

Our days are filled with decisions: what to wear, which route to take to work, what to tackle first when we get there. Some choices hardly demand consideration. How often do you wrestle with forcing yourself to brush your teeth or put shoes on before leaving the house? Other actions, however, require more internal negotiation, and we have tricky ways of telling ourselves that we're avoiding something unpleasant or inconvenient or difficult for rational reasons. This is especially true with food, exercise and rest. Here is a good example of how I can talk myself out of a good choice.

Weekday mornings offer half an hour of family time before we all scatter for work and school. I often struggle to leave the house and go for a run. I have to choose between getting in a quick but invigorating workout and being in the kitchen while the kids have breakfast, a precious window of time together. I know on one level that I'll feel better all day (and be more productive, and make better food choices) if I go for the run, but I rationalize not going by telling myself that it is important to be there for the kids; as a working mother, I often feel like being present for my family is more valuable than the benefits I'll gain from the run.

On one level, this logic might be the product of laziness -- who doesn't occasionally search for an excuse to avoid a workout? -- but on a deeper level, I am coming up against a very real internal struggle between serving my family and serving myself. More often than not, I probably skip the run and feel the consequences of doing so, perhaps in the form of bad food choices, restlessness in my desk chair or an inability to fall asleep at night.

The reason I bring this up is that the moment of the internal negotiation -- the point at which I weigh my two options -- is an important teachable moment. I wish that in those moments, I had the ability to step outside of the situation and reexamine the tradeoff I had formulated. Looking back, I wish I had been able to stop and tell myself the following:

  • You are not helping your family by putting your own needs behind their needs; in fact, you're creating more of a struggle for yourself by telling yourself that your needs are somehow in conflict with those of your kids. They value your company, but they will be best served by a mother who is energetic and balanced and not mad at herself for skipping her work out.
  • You will be more productive and present in the rest of your day if you take time for yourself, and you will make better choices throughout the day if you make a good choice now.

What we often think of as sensible arguments are in fact the product of a false view of the situation, often rooted in deep beliefs (called "iceberg beliefs") we have about how the world should be. If we could teach ourselves to stop and think more critically in these moments of decision, we'd have a fighting chance of preventing the stress that results from our bad choices about what to eat, whether (or not) to exercise and how to rest.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium,, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

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