E-mails from work or uninvited vendors. Text messages from friends or family. Facebook posts of your friend’s wedding or an event with a family member or friend’s children or grandkids. Constant “breaking news” or weather alerts on your tablet or smartphone. The pace of life today is hectic due to the multiple demands we face in our personal and professional lives, and the influence of technology on daily living. Staying connected 24/7 is a common phenomenon and a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can maximize the use of time to address work or personal issues using technology whenever we want or wherever we are. On the other hand, this can lead to feeling we have to stay connected and respond to the many text messages or e-mail requests we receive. Our challenge is to meet the demands of daily living, yet remain “balanced” and manage stress so that we do not burn out or the quality of our lives does not suffer. I believe a more balanced lifestyle reduces stress and brings many other benefits, which contributes to our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.
A good friend and wonderful colleague, the late G. Alan Marlatt, contributed to the field of addiction and behavioral health (BH) care in many important ways in his long and productive career as an educator, researcher, mentor, theorist, author, and clinician. Alan was a pioneer and one of the first to focus on the need for better strategies to reduce relapse to addiction, including the importance of maintaining a balanced lifestyle. His practical ideas on assessing and modifying lifestyle can be used by anyone, whether or not they are in recovery from a BH disorder.
In his classic book Relapse Prevention (1985), Alan discussed how lifestyle imbalance contributes to stress, addiction, and relapse. External sources of stress include major life events, daily annoyances and hassles, and imbalance between work and play. Life, he wrote, can have too many “shoulds,” and not enough “wants” or desires. A person is more likely to turn to an addictive substance or behavior if sources of stress and imbalance are not addressed. The key is to balance external demands (our “shoulds”) with internally enjoyable or fulfilling activities (our “wants”). Multiple demands are likely to always be present, so it is how we manage these that determines if our life gets too much out of balance.
Assessing Lifestyle Imbalance and Stress
So where do we begin? The first step is to assess your level of satisfaction—low, moderate or high—with different areas of your daily life. This will help determine where changes, if any, need to be made to to improve the quality of your day to day world. Do not expect all areas to be well balanced or to change all areas out of balance. Identify one or two areas to change and develop a realistic plan to do so. Keep your plan simple and make sure your goals are realistic and achievable. Strive for progress, not for perfection. For example, let’s say your goal is to lose thirty pounds by eating differently and exercising. However, cleaning out your entire kitchen, swearing off every treat, and committing to run several miles every morning may not be sustainable. Start first with committing to reduce the size of portions of food you eat, not eat desserts except on weekends, walk three times a week or take the stairs at work.
Strategies to Balance Lifestyle and Manage Stress
The strategies for more balanced living discussed by Alan as well as others are also promoted by several experts who write extensively about personal well-being. For example, Martin Seligman expanded his theory of well-being in his book Flourish (2012). He discusses how positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement are the measurable elements of well-being. In her book entitled Thrive (2014), Arianna Huffington, the cofounder and president of the Huffington Post, discusses the need to redefine success and include well-being as an important metric. She writes that well-being is needed to have a healthy, balanced, and meaningful life. None of these ideas are profound, but if you use their suggested strategies in different areas of your life, you might find things get better.
The following is a review of strategies that can improve any area of your life and aid in achieving more balance. Use those that work for you.
Recovery from BH Disorders
Keep recovery a high priority, work your plan on a daily basis, catch early signs of problems or potential relapse to “old” behaviors, have a plan to get back on track, and use the help and support of peers in recovery, family, friends, and others. Individuals with up to seventeen years of continuous sobriety and recovery who appear in the Living Sober interactive video series that I wrote were all still active in working a daily plan and using the help and support of others despite their lengthy period of sobriety and quality recovery. Recovery is incorporated into their daily lives and remains a high priority.
Physical and Lifestyle
Strive for progress, not perfection, in changing your lifestyle or health care habits. I know many people who have beaten themselves up for a lapse or relapse, or for making a mistake when trying to follow an eating, exercise or savings plan. Get regular medical, dental, and eye examinations, and comply with treatments for any problems and follow the recommendations to change a habit, behavior or lifestyle practice. Practice safe sex and get help if you think you have a compulsive sexual problem. Get sufficient time to relax and sleep since failure to get enough sleep can affect your health and ability to function.
Regular exercise, even something as simple as walking each day, is a great way to reduce stress and improve your health and mood. Walking with a friend or colleague is a great way to share ideas, discuss challenges in professional or personal life, and think creatively or solve problems. Get help for nicotine addiction, reduce nicotine use if not addicted, and if you do not have a substance use disorder, avoid heavy or excessive drinking or illicit drug use. Follow a reasonable diet and do not beat yourself up if you deviate from it. Consider the importance of moderation in any health-related behavior that you engage in. Enjoy your hobbies or find new ones if you feel bored and need something different to do. If you have the resources, plan trips or vacations to refresh yourself and broaden your experiences. Integrate into your daily life practices that reduce stress and improve health such as meditation or yoga. The positive psychology and self-help literature, in addition to summarizing the benefits of meditation from research, are full of personal stories by Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and others, of how meditation helped ground them, enhance their mental well-being, and improve their energy level.
Mental and Emotional Health
Use emotional skills to reduce and manage negative emotions or moods, especially the ones that cause the most difficulty such as anxiety, fear, sadness, depression, anger, and hostility. Pay attention to and increase positive emotions and behaviors such as feeling grateful and expressing gratitude and kindness towards others. Challenge and change negative or distorted thinking that interferes with your relationship or work, or that contributes to emotional distress and problems such as depression or anxiety. Develop a repertoire of self-soothing strategies that help you calm down and relax. The practice of mindfulness helps us stay in the present and be aware of our external surroundings and our internal thoughts and feelings. Focus on the present while limiting attention paid to the past or worry about the future. Finally, have strategies to deal with periods of low motivation to change, and control your impulses when you feel like saying or doing something that is likely to harm you or others.
Focus on maintaining your unique relationship to your higher power. Use your spiritual beliefs or religious practices—prayer, meditation, spiritual readings, services, rituals—to bring you peace and serenity, and provide hope during tough times. Give to and do for others through altruism, kindness, and showing compassion and love in your behaviors. Focus on what is meaningful in your life and gives you reasons to live or a purpose for being here. My late sister-in-law, a very spiritual, giving, and loving person used daily prayer, spiritual meditations, and readings to feel closer to her higher power and find solace for her problems.
Interpersonal or Social Health
Stay connected, develop, and use a social support network and accept that “we” is more important than “I.” As I stated previously, give to others through your actions and expression of positive emotions like love, gratitude, and compassion. Evaluate or stop relationships with people who harm you, and spend minimal time with negative people who do not have your best interests in mind. Let go of your past hurts by forgiving others if you feel ready to do so. If you lose a loved one, a pet or something else of significance in your life, allow yourself time to grieve and adjust to your loss. It takes time to heal and adjust to a significant loss.
Emotional health also involves awareness of the emotions of others and the ability to convey empathy. Pay attention to others when you are with them. Too often I see people more focused on themselves or activity on their smartphone than the people they are with. I too have been guilty of this in the past.
Work, Career or School
Think about whether you are working mainly to make a living or to have a career. There is nothing wrong with working for a living and not having a career, but it depends on whether you feel you are using you talents and abilities or reaching your goals. Consider going back to school or getting specialized training if you want to change jobs or a career.
Do not let work dominate your life at the expense of other areas. For those of us who work too much, incorporate work-free periods into your life where your time belongs to you and not to your job. If you are on vacation, avoid checking e-mails or calling the office. Additionally, take breaks and lunch breaks. One of my supervisors years ago told me always to take a lunch break. I have done a mediocre job following his advice and work through lunch more often than I should, despite knowing the benefits. What works best for me is planning lunch outside of the building with friends or colleagues.
Daily Living Habits
Enjoy pleasant activities each day and make sure you have sufficient fun and play in your life. Trying something new or out of the ordinary, such as a trip you normally would not take, a different activity or hobby or any unusual experience. Use your creative side—painting, sculpting, other arts, crafts, writing, music, carpentry, knitting—to make something or engage in meaningful activities in which you get lost or find exciting or enjoyable. Let your curiosity and sense of wonder lead you to new discoveries in which you learn or do things that expand your horizons. Bask in the beauty of nature and the many beautiful sights and sounds it offers. When sitting on my deck or looking out my back windows, I enjoy watching the birds, deer, and other animals that walk through our yard. The most at one time was twenty-four turkeys! The other day I was awestruck by watching a spider in a web built on the outside of my deck; I love and never kill spiders. I savor the beauty of the change in colors of bushes and trees brought about by the fall season or the beauty of a new snowfall in winter. I try not to take these beautiful sites for granted.
Build in Technology-Free Time
Set times during which you do not watch TV, movies or DVDs, read or respond to e-mails, or spend time on your computer, iPad or other tablet, smartphone or other technological device. Start with a few hours one or two days a week. Expand to an evening and a weekend day or part of a weekend day. When you are socializing with others, give them your attention rather than checking your smartphone for calls, messages or surfing the Internet. Leave your smartphone at home occasionally when you go out to shop, eat, play or socialize. In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington recommends keeping technological devices out of your bedroom when you go to sleep as a way of avoiding having to check them throughout the night (2014).
Poor financial management creates stress. While some of this is unavoidable due to a person’s income, there are many things you can do to reduce stress associated with money. In recent articles I wrote for Counselor magazine, I discuss the importance of living within your means and being financially responsible by using strategies to assess and manage money issues (Daley, 2015, in press). I reviewed the following strategies:
- Tracking what you spend
- Following a budget
- Reducing debt
- Cutting down on daily expenses
- Finding lower interest rates for credit cards, school loans, auto loans or mortgages
- Avoiding aimless shopping and impulsive buying
- Contributing each paycheck to retirement
- Avoiding giving others money you do not have
You are likely to feel less stress and better if you deal head on with financial stressors and manage your finances wisely no matter how tight things are for you.
Becoming More Balanced
Stress is part of life, but it doesn’t have to run your life. Living a balanced existence involves reducing and balancing stress in your life so it doesn’t affect your health and behavior. Achieving balance isn’t about achieving perfection—it’s simply about striving for progress. You can start by focusing on one change at a time.
Marlatt, G. A., & Gordon, J. R. (1985). Relapse prevention: Maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Daley, D. C. (2015). Financial issues, part I: Behavioral health disorders. Counselor, 16(4).
Daley, D. C. (in press). Financial issues, part II: Strategies for those in recovery. Counselor, 16(5).
Huffington, A. (2014). Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a life of well-being, wisdom, and wonder. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.