I Tried to Relax for a Week and Stressed Myself Out Instead
10.02.17
Photo by Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images

Before I moved to New York, hours and hours of TV were my mental reprieve after work. My boyfriend at the time and I would plop down on the couch and giggle with conspiratorial glee as we pressed play, and then again when we clicked “Next Episode,” and then again and again. We watched even if we needed the sleep, even if there were other things we wanted to do, even if some part of us knew it made us feel gross. It was just too easy, like a bowl of Goldfish crackers within arm’s reach when you’re famished: not the best choice, but certainly the easiest.

Sometimes easy is what you need.

…Right?

When I set out to test five popular after-work modes of relaxation last week, that’s the question I hoped to answer. Of all the things I do to “unwind” in the evenings, which actually work, which are just easy, and where, ideally, is the crossover? Today, I watch very little TV. Squeezing an episode into the increasingly small window I have to myself in the evenings no longer appeals to me. Free time feels more precious in this city, with this job, than it did when I worked elsewhere and in slower-paced San Francisco. Every few weeks, though, I tend to spiral out and maybe cry (just a little!) from burnout. Could that be because I never “turn my brain off”? What does that even mean? Thus, five days of forced relaxation began (during what turned out to be an exceptionally busy work week).

Monday: Read a book

Before: Today I left work at 8:11 p.m. Emotional state? On edge. As much as I love my job, New York media is a high-strung industry and the work never stops. The thought of having to pause for an hour to read a book — an activity I’ve long deemed restorative — is making me feel more on edge. I’d rather just get home and keep going, but I know the quality of my work will suffer without a break, so I stick with the plan. By 9 p.m. I’m home and on my couch with a book in my lap. One hour of reading. Just one hour! As soon as I crack the book and return to the story of Jude St. Francis (I’m reading A Little Lifeand I’m in the final stretch), my work anxiety disappears. Ten o’clock passes unnoticed. Then 10:30, then 11, and finally it’s 11:30 p.m. and the book is over and I’m sobbing.

After: I didn’t finish the rest of my work — it’s far too late — but I feel profoundly present in my body and mind. Even if the nihilistic tilt to the book made me sad (not a spoiler; it’s sad the whole way through), it made me feel alive on a macro-level, which put the importance of my looming deadline in perspective.

Verdict? Reading worked.

Tuesday: Socialize

I socialize very little during the week because the thought of having a hard stop in the evening makes me nervous, but too much screen time is its own kind of sanity deterrent, so I make plans to go to my sister’s for dinner on Tuesday.

Before: I leave work around 7:30 p.m. feeling less on edge than yesterday, but still a little uneasy about a deadline. (It was for this story — it was hard to write!) I decide I’ll finish later when I get home. At my sister’s, the hours disappear. It’s so nice to see her, my brother and my brother-in-law. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve had “family dinner,” as we call it, and so it stretches on much longer than usual. By 11:20 p.m. we all crawl out of our conversational cocoon and realize how late it is. Shit! No work will get done tonight.

After: The late hour notwithstanding, I do feel good and energized, better than I did leaving work. This kind of socializing — the grounding, feel-good kind — definitely improved my mood. The only downside is that it turned my brain on, rather than quiet it.

Wednesday: Watch TV

On Wednesday I have plans to get dinner with a couple friends, which I made months ago. As fun as it sounds, by 7 p.m. the plan feels like an imposition on my productivity: I still have work to do and I need to find time to watch TV (lol). The meal is great nonetheless and I arrive home at a reasonable 8:40 p.m.

Before: My roommates are watching Django Unchained. I do not want to join them as I’d rather squeeze some writing in, but I force myself anyway. Time passes…I’m playing around on my phone because the movie isn’t holding my full attention. I spend most of the time in a cloud of guilt because time appears to be slipping through my fingers as I sink deeper into the couch. This is so easy, I think.

After: At 9:20 I decide to stop. Standing up is hard, but wasting time feels worse. When I sit down at my computer, I’m all distracted and in the wrong frame of mind to be efficient.

TV: Not good for me.

Thursday: Go on a long walk

I recently read on Medium that Einstein, Darwin and Nietzsche all took long walks to get in an idea-conducive state of mind. On Thursday, I plan to walk for 30 minutes after work to clear my mind between work and home.

Before: Unfortunately, I don’t get home until 10 p.m., at which point walking alone feels unsafe. Instead, I eat half a pint of ice cream that was left over from my birthday. Eating, I suppose, is another popular form of stress-relief, so I retro-actively decide it will have to stand in for exercise. (An unfortunate swap for my body.)

After: Can confirm, with utmost certainty, that eating is not an enduring form of stress-relief. I feel terrible, but I did get lot of work done today and am therefore less stressed than evenings prior.

Friday: Cook myself a meal

After missing my walk the day before, I decide to get up early and go for one in my neighborhood. Today I’m working from home in Bushwick, and the opportunity to skip my 40-minute commute and stay local has given me a jump in my step. The day feels full of productive opportunity and the walk only intensifies that feeling. Walking = good.

Before: The day is busy and full. By the time the clock strikes 6 p.m., I’m not ready to stop. I know that I should be heading to the grocery story if I’m going to cook, but the thought of cooking sounds like a drag. I’m beginning to realize why I don’t often pursue these forms of “relaxation:” because the time they require cuts into time I need to do the job I love right now.

First 8 p.m. passes. Then 10 p.m. It’s getting later and I decide that finishing my to-do list will be a more effective form of stress-relief than waylaying it to cook. This decision feels like a satisfying exhale. I’m on a writing roll.

After: Objectively I feel lame for working so late on a Friday night, but subjectively I’m overcome with relief. Giving this day completely to myself, from the early morning walk to the quiet span of uninterrupted writing time — not a soul in sight for any of it — turned out to be the most effective form of stress-relief of all.


Although working late to hit deadlines turned out to be the most explicit and productive answer to relieving stress for me, I know that’s not a sustainable approach. On Sunday, I decide to spend all afternoon cooking and baking to make up for it, and the quiet rhythm of chopping, stirring and measuring brings a different kind of quiet to my mind. It’s a similar feeling to the one I got from reading and going for a walk.

In reflecting on the week, socializing, eating junk food and watching TV all had the similar effect of taking the edge off in the moment without offering me any enduring peace. And even if socializing, of the three, is something I actually need, it won’t necessarily stave off burnout. True relaxation, for me, didn’t come from the easy-to-access distractions. It came from listening to myself, and engaging with something I ultimately believed was good for me, and which enabled my mind to wander into interesting corners at its own pace.

The revelations won’t be the same for everyone, but taking the time to explore what did and didn’t actually help my stress-levels, rather than simply reaching for the figurative Goldfish, was a worthy exercise.

Have you thought about this? What truly relaxes you?

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Reading is always my go-to form of stress relief. I make sure to do at least an hour of it right before I go to bed. That way even when I’m working until 10 p.m. (I know what you mean about media in NYC), I can wind down and then turn my brain off enough to fall asleep.

    I also read when I eat breakfast and at lunch, if I have time. Reading helps get me into a writing mood 🙂

  • Paula

    Dear Haley,
    i just wanted to let you know that I really admire you’re way of writing. Every single article that you put out there feels like a honest, deep but also entertaining conversation with a good friend while reading. I find that really impressive – especially concerning the massive output of high quality content that you managed to produce this summer. Thank you so much for that! To me it’s really inspiring to see how you succeed in coping with this workload while retaining a consistent effortless-seeming quality in your writing.
    You rock! All the best wishes from Leipzig, Germany!

    • Micah Lpez

      I second this !!!!

    • I was going to say pretty much the same thing! From our perspective, seeing all the slam dunk articles you’ve produced this year, it’s refreshing to see some of the back end “effort” it takes to produce that quality of work. Keep it up, lady! And thanks for all of your hard work, I really enjoy and appreciate it.

    • 100% argee! Absolutely loving your articles recently

    • Alexia

      I agree with this too! Loving the articles Haley.

    • Emily

      totally agree!!

  • Bmo

    I tend to gravitate toward TV and sitting on my phone for stress relief, and I agree with you that it doesn’t provide long lasting relief.

    I also like doing activities that aren’t exactly stress reducing themselves, but completing them relieves my stress. Like cleaning! I get very anxious and a little stressed while cleaning (type A), but afterwards it’s like a wave of calm that lasts for hours.

  • Arden

    I’m an avid stress baker. I find that baking something is totally relaxing and then afterwards you have a delicious treat you can share with friends! (Or not.)

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    omg i cannot imagine reading “a little life” to unwind, its srsly the most depressing book i’ve ever read. i can’t decide if i’d recommend it or not.

  • Natty

    all forms of relaxation for me involve turning off the tv and putting my phone away.

    going on a walk. cooking. cleaning. practicing my calligraphy. reading. journaling. there are so many nice things to do when you eliminate screens!

  • Sydney JG

    I really admire your work dedication! It is so inspiring how you can work for hours, and not want to stop, even at 6pm on a Friday night. I should be more like that, and try to stop taking breaks every 30 minutes (lol)!

  • CeeEm

    I just finished watching Breaking Bad for the first time, and while NOT EXACTLY a relaxing watch, it was such a great way to escape after my long days. I totally lost myself in each episode in the best way. (The trick is limiting yourself to one episode per night and actually going to sleep.)

    But yeah, if you’re not 100% engaged, TV isn’t relaxing at all. I always find myself fidgeting with my phone and checking emails.

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    I really connected with this. And I really can’t say enough how much I love your writing!
    I have a very demanding day job in display, and my real life pursuit is singing/perforning. (Lots of time management involved, and the constant need to feel productive and not burn out). I find that TV and Iphone/Computer is terrible for relaxing the mind, (therefore shutting off sometimes is helpful) and cooking and exercise are the absolute best! (For me). A whole day at the beach is actually what works best for me, because the beach is the one place where my mind immediately and completely rests, but since there isn’t always time for that, the above are my tricks.

  • Kat

    Haley, I love that you’re finding ways to unwind! I have to say it worries me when you say you’re working so much. I know you love your job but working all the time isn’t healthy. I guess that’s partly American culture though, you guys barely get any holiday as well right?!
    I feel lucky to mostly work 9am-5.30pm Monday to Friday (with about one Saturday a month from September to April). I make sure I take my lunch hour and I try not to stay too late. My health already went massively downhill from stress once and I won’t let it happen again!
    Side note – going for a short walk outdoors during the day helps “reset” you too.

  • Madina

    Love your article. I found sometimes all I need is a good night sleep, or a good day sleep – afternoon siesta…love my bed, even though it is a two edge sword, since it’s also the way to escape from the world

  • A breathing exercise (like Claire’s) consisting of “breathe in, hold on, breathe out, hold on, breathe in …. ” done for 10 minutes, each part (breathe in, hold on and breathe out) lasting 4 seconds works fine for me.
    And workout.

    (I almost died reading A little life, it went so so deep. Certainly one of the best books ever read but not one I would recommend – who knows what can happen to my recommendees … but then, I have just read Stoner and it made a very deep impact too. Should try something lighter now, like my course material on administrative law 🙂

    • Imaiya Ravichandran

      i feel the exact same way about a little life! great, brutal read but i would never do it again, nor would i recommend a friend to do it.

    • Eliza

      Ha! I read Stoner last summer while on vacation. I loved it, but found it emotionally exhausting. Definitely not a beach read…

    • Senka

      I would describe administrative law as soul sucking, rather than light. 😀

      • I know it sounds crazy, but they put together highly fascinating learning materials. Well-written, funny, with pictures and whatnot. So I am hooked. Will let you know when/if shame turns up.

  • gracesface

    I like to read before bed but I LOVE reading mid day (and have since childhood). I read on my 15 minute breaks at work and then I read while eating my lunch at work. It totally takes me out of the day, gives me a mental break, and I get more reading done as a result. Highly recommend. Otherwise being alone relaxes me. Also I quite Hulu, Amazon Video, and Netflix about six months ago and just watch what I get at the library or on their hoopla service.

    • Claire

      I do the same thing! Reading on my lunch at work is v relaxing to me.

    • Emily

      I do this too! but sometimes I feel anti social for skipping lunch with friends/coworkers to read. I got in the habit this summer of arriving to work 30 mins early and sitting and reading for a bit with a coffee before heading to my desk. really recommend it!

      • Gene Day

        During a student work placement when I was in a bad head space in a city I loathed I read during breaks and lunch, couldn’t handle socializing with people I had nothing in common with and didn’t know at the time about Myers Briggs helpful descriptors (raging introvert here) . My supervisor gave pretty negative feedback on my performance review regarding my lack of social interaction with coworkers. Twit.

        • Bo

          i used to be accused of “planning trouble” when I quietly read books about WWII during my lunch break

      • gracesface

        Everyone gets a pretty short 30 minute lunch break at my work and aside from monthly potlucks I don’t always have others to share my lunch break with. When I worked overnights at this job it was super dead so then I could get something like 6 hours of reading in. 🙂

    • Adrianna

      Reading during lunch maintained my sanity during a terrible job. Some people definitely do this at my current job. Also, I try to grab a book as soon as I enter my apartment. Otherwise I scroll through Instagram for longer than I’d like to admit

  • Jam Jam

    “What truly relaxes you?”

    No roommates.

    • Emily

      i wish this was an option for me!

    • ihaveacooch

      the fucking dream. one day.

  • Fat Tony

    I feel like I am able to relax when I find something that I want to put all of my attention into. Sometimes that’s reading, sometimes it’s watching tv (most often it’s playing a computer game like Nancy Drew or the Sims). If I am struggling to put down my phone or keep my mind from going a mile a minute I know that whatever I’m doing at the time isn’t working. I like how you experimented with different things and didn’t put too much pressure on yourself to follow through, it helped show you what really works for you, and was realistic about how ever-changing someone’s schedule can be.

    • Alice

      Have you played Stardew Valley? I find it more relaxing than the Sims and it has truly no down time, I always disliked waiting while they went to work.

      • Fat Tony

        Omg cool I will def check that out, I hate waiting while they’re at work

        • Alice

          Yeah you get a farm and you can grow things, forage, go into the mines, etc. It’s very wholesome and feel good. I do recommend watching 1 or 2 videos after a few days there and occasionally reading the wiki when you feel stuck.

  • Meemaw

    Booze.

  • Mellisa Scarlett

    This was great Haley! I often think decompressing means reaching for the Goldfish. But I’m learning taking that work out class I dread or even working a little late to ease up my case load actually makes me feel a ton better! Some times we have to just do what our soul needs despite what we would like to believe we want.

  • Emily

    I also don’t watch too much tv. My roommates this summer, though, watched tv all day, and I found myself doing that with them. I felt much more restored on nights that my boyfriend and I went out to dinner or read books next to each other. Quality time and being really present in what I’m doing help me to unwind. When watching tv, i don’t really tend to experience that. Lovely piece!

  • Adrianna

    I’ve said this 10 times on Man Repeller – Paint by Number! This is easier on the wrists and, it’s truly the one activity where all decisions are made for me. (Even less stressful than picking a tv show on Netflix). I like to this along with a casual podcast. Plaid Creates is my top recommendation in terms of number visibility, paint quality, and difficulty level.

    https://www.amazon.com/Plaid-Creates-20-Inch-21676-Victorian/dp/B00426BXV8/ref=pd_sim_201_6?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=B00426BXV8&pd_rd_r=5HARGC8AQJM6PVKQZ6KM&pd_rd_w=04Q1Y&pd_rd_wg=wEkmN&psc=1&refRID=5HARGC8AQJM6PVKQZ6KM

    • Jac

      I am amazed by this suggestion!! I definitely find working on some sort of crafty, hands-on project to be really rewarding and try to devote my Sundays to something like that, but when it’s something I don’t fully know how to do I definitely find myself getting more frustrated and stressed rather than less. This + a podcast seems like an amazing option, and the ones you linked look so detailed!!

      • Adrianna

        I found coloring books kind of “stressful” in terms of picking out colors and how long it took to fill a section. I love detailed paint by numbers, and Plaid doesn’t require any mixing. I have a smaller, seemingly simpler non-Plaid painting that still isn’t finished because it required a lot of mixing and some of the numbers weren’t printed clearly.

  • Watching a film or reading a book relax me, I think I’m pretty old fashioned!

  • Abby

    wandering through the aisles of target, grocery shopping, writing in my planner

  • For me relaxing has to be on my own. I love either cooking or painting. I like to make something and feel like I’ve had a little win, but with out the screen time. Doing something with my hands also always seems to leave me with a much clearer headspace

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • Charlsey

    This makes me feel so much better! I’m literally unable to relax. I would much rather be doing something, anything. If I do meditating or anything where I am just chilling I feel so overcome by anxiety. So comforting to know there are other women who need to be busy bees.

  • Katie M

    *Literally just commenting on no. 1*
    I’m on the final stretch of A Little Life too and am amazed at how I zone out from the world reading it. No other book has ever given me that level of escape. The content kind of puts things into perspective too, doesn’t it? Also have had to stop reading it on the commute because I’ve only narrowly avoided a couple of hysterical crying sessions… Almost finished though!!

  • What truly relaxes me without fail is working out! It’s so tough to begin and I’m sweaty and aching during it, but the serene calm I feel afterwards is unrivaled. (It’s also a method of relaxation that satisfies the naggy little voice in my head urging me to do something ‘productive’ at all times.) Sometimes I start my morning jogs with a frown and after couple meters I will start grinning or actually burst out laughing at nothing, like a sociopath, just from the endorphine rush! Anyone else who experienced that?

  • Daeyz

    Since most of my work involves sitting in front of a screen, I make a priority that I always put my phone away and be present in the moment when I relax – even if its just for 5 minutes.

    xx,
    Daeyz
    http://www.daeyz.com

  • Jeanie

    There’s nothing that truly relaxes me more long term than being around really chill people with no drama. I got lucky that the people I work with most closely are all chill. Balances out my high anxiety a little more. I learned that hanging with people who put their anxieties on to me for their own comfort really adds to me stress levels.

    • Jeanie

      *my stress

  • Hayley

    Loved this piece, Haley!

  • aronnoco

    Walking and cooking are great because they put you into a rhythm. I try to go on 45-minute walks with my dog every day, and even though she’s crazy and way too excitable, by about minute 10 she’s calm and happy and sniffing around, and I get to watch her be an animal and interact with the world and sometimes sing her stupid little songs. At the end of every walk, there’s a really pleasant, floaty feeling in my head, like all the things I was worrying about at the end of the workday have been steamed out.

    Reading is unbeatable, especially from honest-to-god books, and not online. I would also suggest getting into a good video game–a story-based game, not a mindless shooter–where you can immerse yourself in characters and decisions. Finishing the best video games feels like finishing a book–you’re wiped, but alive.

  • Jay

    Oh…. I hear you soooo much girl… like I just cant relax just watching TV?! (More on that below… like the ways I can make this work) And socializing during the week is so terribly difficult, cause I’m like … always late?! And then not relaxed? And when I ease into it, then it gets late and I get agitated and … cant sleep. Hello Insomnia…

    Working. Out works for me though. But not so much cardio but more lifting some heavy weights.

    But reading is great.

    And I found calm in

    – colouring while listening to music or watching some documentaries (travel, fashion shows, biopics like „The Eye has to Travel“ or „September Issue“, or even like shitty reality TV, that kind of makes me reconsider my own issues…)

    – knitting scarves (nothing too difficult though I’m actually pretty good…) while watching the same selection as above, but possibly even some TV show, something funny… cause the movement is automated in me…

    – doing some yoga stretches and foam rolling every night for 10 minutes

    But most of it is reading.

    That is where I can totally loose myself in and relax.

    Oh – and I love your take on sunday cooking – that’s something I do every sunday and call it safe care:

    – work out in the morning
    – get home take a bath, make yourself a hair mask and facial
    – eat with a glas of bubbles
    – start meal prepping for the week while watching real housewives or kardashians (I’m so into shitty TV when I have the attention span to watch it)
    – clean a little bit while things are in the oven and dance around to Beyoncé or Riri
    – Do nails after cleaning and cooking

    Settle with book.

    And go to bed real early with socks and thick cream on feet.

    Yeah.

    Not very sexy.

    (But I totally do that in hotpants, so maybe well.)

  • Lorange E

    Haley, why are you working so much?? I mean, what time do you have to get up every day? I’m reading this schedule like I would collapse in a puddle in no time… but my day starts at 6:30am. I’m really hoping yours doesn’t!

    One other idea for relaxing after work: try a pottery class (making pots on the wheel) or a dance class. Excellent because you literally cannot use any screens and they require so much coordination of mind and body there usually isn’t much room for continuing your work thoughts. (Unless you’re a really good dancer I suppose.)