Take it 1 step at a time

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Despite my strategic, perfectionist demeanor, I haven’t always been the best at coping with stress.

As someone who’s been prone to anxiety for as long as I can remember, navigating my way through the great challenge that is stress has been a constant battle for me.

I took a trip with my family to my mother’s home country, Japan, in summer 2008 because I had been offered the chance to shadow at a Japanese elementary school for a few weeks. Initially very excited for the opportunity, I became overwhelmed with social anxiety upon arriving at the school. I felt stressed out by the smallest things: fearing that I would say a word in Japanese wrong or worried that I would make a mistake in the swimming exercises we did as a grade. By the end of the trip, however, I had managed to come out of my introverted shell and leave these worries behind.

I look through pictures of me as a 6-year old child looking extremely sad and distressed next to a plate of food and bowl of rice during my Japan trip, usually joking about why I was so concerned over a simple lunch. But during last week’s Instagram story trend that directed users to share a picture of them as a child that encapsulates their energy now, I chose the picture of a stressed out 6 year-old me. I do indeed still struggle with stress today, and that’s something I’m willing to share with my friends.

Throughout my life in middle school, high school and college, I’ve made strides to face my challenges with stress. It’s often been difficult for me to find a method of coping with stress because some say that I have a “hardy” personality. I’m able to tolerate stress even when I’m juggling a lot, giving off the perception that everything is A-OK.

However, that’s not to say that stress has never harmfully affected my life. I’ve unnecessarily gotten sick and missed events because I was too stressed out. My inclination toward perfectionism lends into my intuition, telling me to put my all into studying for a test regardless of if I already felt very comfortable and confident with the material.

Last year, I found myself extremely overwhelmed with the prospect of taking a big test in one of my classes. Naturally, I dealt with the stress by calling my mom, who always supports me during difficult times.

“Why are you stressed?” she asked me over the phone. “You said you’ve been studying every day for the past several days. Take it one step at a time. The best thing you can do for yourself is just relax and make sure your well-being is healthy enough to take the test.”

Somehow in the midst of that call, my over-caffeinated and tired self managed to understand the very important and valuable piece of advice that my mom was giving me. There was no point in spending every minute possible cramming knowledge into my head when I had already committed so much time beforehand to studying the material. My brain needed time to digest the information, and my body needed time to rest.

While it took me a while to trust my mom’s advice, I slowly but surely began to allot time for self-care prior to, during and after my study sessions.

I realized that studying straight for hours on end may have worked for me for the past decade, but it certainly wouldn’t be sustainable. While I was previously reluctant to try the Pomodoro study method — 25 minutes of studying interrupted by five to 10 minute breaks— because I felt it called for too many breaks, I figured I might as well try it once. It soon became a habit that I use almost every day. I even found Pomodoro study method playlists online that featured clips of Spencer Hastings, a perfectionist student in the TV show “Pretty Little Liars” that I loved as a preteen. I made sure to take part in healthy activities such as preparing snacks and meals, doing short workouts and listening to music during my study breaks.

I also made sure to plan out the steps I would take to take care of myself following a study session or an exam, whether that be cooking for myself or treating myself to a nice meal. As I’m writing this now, I’m at Blue Bottle Coffee after finishing up my last midterm and presentation of the semester. Just like I promised by mom during one of our FaceTime chats, I’m treating myself to some coffee and, more importantly, self-care.

I might get some sushi later, I might go on a walk and listen to some jazz. I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll do, but I know that I’ll break up my stress by taking time for myself. It doesn’t have to all be planned; things don’t always have to go perfectly; and I’m just going to take it one step at a time.

Contact Rina Rossi at [email protected].