Like a lot of people in the modern world, there is often a constant undercurrent of stress and anxiety in my life.
I have a wife and three children still living at home, each of whom I try my best to be there for in a meaningful and focused way. I have a complex career. I have two parents that I love dearly that are older and in declining health. I have a lot of different community responsibilities and obligations.
All of that adds up to a lot of different things on my plate, and when you add to that the worries of the modern world, it can definitely add up to periods where I feel anxious and stressed out.
Of course, the modern world offers up a bunch of solutions to stress and anxiety, but you often end up paying for them. There are services you can pay for that will take some of the tasks off of your plate, from restaurants and take out services to laundry, maid and delivery services. There are endless entertainment options — that you have to pay for, of course — that will take you away from it all for a while. There are expensive hobbies with endless things to buy that can definitely pull your attention toward something more pleasant for a while.
Yet, in the end, those expensive services and products often exacerbate the problem, adding more financial stress to the equation than the other stresses that they take away. If I eat take out food all the time to save some time, it ends up devouring my money. If I throw my money into things designed to distract me for a while, I eventually come back to the same worry and stress and anxiety I had before, except with even more financial stress on my plate.
What’s the solution to all of this?
For me, it was figuring out a set of strategies that helped me manage stress and anxiety so that it wasn’t detrimental to my life. I believe a little bit of stress is positive, as it can nudge you toward doing things well, but too much stress and anxiety is a detriment. I wanted to find things in life that actually dialed down the stress and anxiety to a useful level.
These are the things that have actually worked for me in that regard. These may or may not work for you; I’m merely offering them up as things to try. As I noted above, none of these things cost money — there may be a negligible cost to a few of them, but they’re not oriented around spending, so they don’t contribute to financial stress.
Here are things in my life that I find actually reduce stress and anxiety without financial cost. Treat these like a menu. Use the ones that make sense to you and skip the ones that don’t, because the truth is that some of these things will click with you and some won’t. We’re all wired a little differently. The important thing to note is that there are lots of low-cost options for beating stress and anxiety and that these things work for at least one person out there.
12 frugal ways to deal with stress and anxiety
1. Think about things in terms of whether you can control them, and worry less about the things you can’t.
If I’m facing something that makes me uncomfortable and upset, I try to look at it through a lens of what I can control about that thing and what I can’t. With anything, there are some parts of it that are outside of my control and other parts within my control. There are also some things I can influence, but not directly control — like talking to someone about a problem.
Basically, I consciously recognize that it doesn’t help me to worry about the things that are completely outside my control. I can’t control what other people do. I can’t control the weather. I can’t control the arrival and spread of pandemics. I can’t control market forces. It is a waste of my energy to worry about those things or feel anxious about them.
Rather, I try to focus on what I can do. I can’t control what other people do, but I can act in the way that I wish others would act. I can’t control the weather, but I can pack an umbrella. I can’t control the arrival and spread of a pandemic, but I can stay at home most of the time and wash my hands frequently. I can’t control market forces, but I can choose how I invest my money. Once I know I’ve done what I can do within my circle of control, there’s really no need for additional worry.
You can’t control a lot of things in life. All you can control is yourself — your thoughts and actions — and perhaps influence a few others. This doesn’t mean you should be ignorant of everything else; it’s good to be aware of what’s going on in the world so you can think about your own actions in response, but it’s not good to worry about those things you can’t control.
Practice this. The more you practice just letting go of stuff you can’t control, the easier it gets. It feels like a knot untying in your gut.
2. If something is bothering you, take action with regards to the aspects of that thing that you can control.
If you’re sitting there with some kind of worry on your shoulder, immediately reshape it in terms of what you can actually do to change the outcome of that worry, or to minimize the pain of the worst-case scenario. Then, quickly take action on those things. In other words, rather than sitting around and stewing about something that’s bothering you, take action to either solve the problem or take action to minimize the downsides of that problem.
For example, if I feel bad about the state of my body, I can take action by eating less, eating better and getting some exercise. If I feel bad about a work problem, I think about what I can do to either eliminate that problem, prepare for the worst case, or influence people who can make it better.
Again, if I can’t translate that worry into actual action, then it must be something I can’t control, and thus it’s not worth worrying about. If it is something I can translate into action, then it’s time to take action as soon as I can devise a good course of action, which is usually pretty quickly (just long enough to be sure I’m not acting out of emotion).
3. Journal daily about things you’re grateful for.
Each day, spend a few minutes simply dumping out what’s on your mind onto paper. I don’t mean just listing what you did that day, but writing down your thoughts on what is most worrying you. It’s incredibly cathartic.
My daily journaling practice is really simple. I usually do it shortly after waking up, and I just write down five things in my life I’m grateful for, then spend 15 to 20 minutes just writing down whatever is worrying me the most right then. I write down what I’m worried about and why it worries me (in other words, what I’m afraid of losing), and then I try to work through the very thing I mentioned in the previous two steps — what parts I can’t do anything about (and thus aren’t worth worrying or feeling anxious about), what parts I can do something about, and what can I do.
This often ends up being a rabbit hole and overshooting the 15 minutes I allot to it, but that’s fine. When I’m done, not only do I have a much better grasp on that worry, I usually feel better for just having done it. I cannot tell you how much this helped me while dealing with the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, for example.
4. Dedicate time to hobbies
Figure out which of your hobbies really fulfills you the most, then simply schedule blocks of time to give to those hobbies without interruption. This means that you turn off things that might interrupt you, like messages from work or any texts that aren’t of the utmost urgency, and let yourself be drawn into that hobby.
For me, the big hobbies I give this kind of focus to are reading, tabletop gaming and hiking. I will literally turn off my phone and put it somewhere else when I’m engaging in these things so that I’m not distracted. I give myself big blocks of time to just get lost in that hobby, like a three-hour chunk of a rainy afternoon to just get lost in a book without my phone chirping at me, or two hours in an evening to play an interesting strategic board game or a role-playing game with my family or four hours in the morning to go on a long hike on the trails at a local nature preserve.
That uninterrupted time gives me the space I need to fall so deeply into that hobby that I lose track of time, which leads directly into the next strategy.
5. Engage with what you’re doing
Ideally, this means things that you’re actively doing. I’m not talking about staring at a dull television show in a stupor. Rather, I’m talking about things that you’re mentally or physically engaged with, things that are making your mind and/or your body active, that happen to be so engaging that you lose track of time and place.
We’ve all felt that feeling of being so sucked into a task that eventually you find yourself “coming around” with a sudden start, only to realize that a surprising amount of time has passed.
This state is commonly called a “flow state,” and here’s a secret: doing that is an incredibly powerful way to soothe stress and anxiety. For me, being in a flow state for a while usually means that much of the rest of the day will be relatively low in terms of stress and anxiety, and when I pop out of it, I almost always feel naturally happy.
I can get into that state with professional work, with household work, and with hobbies. The key is that it needs to be something mentally or physically engaging — just watching a dull television show doesn’t do the trick, though I might lose track of time a little while doing it.
6. Go to sleep early
Over the years, I’ve found that I’m always far more susceptible to negative feelings of stress and anxiety if I haven’t had enough sleep over the previous few nights. If I’m consistently forced awake by an alarm clock or have a couple bad nights of sleep in a row, I will find myself falling quickly into feelings of anxiety and stress.
The way to combat this is simple: just go to bed early enough so that you can sleep until you naturally arise most nights. That doesn’t mean you don’t set an alarm clock, but that you naturally wake up a little while before the alarm goes off.
For me, it helps to just get up quickly as soon as I recognize that I’m awake. I get out of bed and start on a basic morning routine right away (using the restroom, getting something to drink and doing a few of the other things on this list). If I lounge in bed, I feel like I get very little value out of that time.
Many of us have to arise by a certain time each day, so the way to make this work is to gradually move your normal bedtime earlier and earlier until you find yourself consistently arising shortly before your alarm goes off.
7. Eat more fruits, vegetables and grains at each meal than dairy and meat.
This is not a call to give up all meat and dairy products and become a vegetarian. Rather, you should just aim to fill your meal plates with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than everything else.
If your dinner centers around a hamburger, for example, eat a side salad with minimal dressing to go along with it, steam some broccoli in the microwave to eat with it or cook some Brussels sprouts on the grill. Maybe have some long grain rice or wild rice along with it, seasoned as you like it. Finish your meal off with an apple.
In other words, keep eating what you like, but just shift the proportions a little bit.
This is one of those things that doesn’t seem to make a ton of difference if you do it once. You certainly won’t feel anxiety and stress melting away after one meal like this. Rather, this is a strategy that builds on itself if you consistently do it, time after time after time, over the course of many days. For me, it causes a slow decline in all sorts of negative feelings, usually so slowly that I don’t even really notice it until I look back at earlier journal entries. Like other things, it will fade when you stop doing it, too.
The nice thing about this strategy is that it comes with other benefits, too. You’ll almost always lose some weight naturally if you do this, even if you aren’t counting calories or dieting.
8. Spend 10 minutes in focused prayer or meditation daily.
For this, the exact prayer or meditation technique is less important than the “focused” part. For this to really help with stress and anxiety, it is crucial that whatever you do, you spend that time focused on what you’re doing, whether it’s a simple breathing meditation where you focus on the breath or a repeated prayer to the higher power of your choosing or something else entirely. Focus on what you’re doing and bring your mind back to your focus if you find it wandering. For me, I find it really helpful to either repeat a very short prayer (and keep my mind on it), or breathe steadily in a pattern (and keep my mind on that).
Again, much like the meal strategy above, this is something that offers a subtle benefit that builds over time, often so gradually that you don’t notice it, and one that will fade when you drop the daily practice. I usually feel a little calmed after praying/meditating for a while, but the real benefit for me seems to come through repetition of it, day after day. I do it as part of my morning routine shortly after waking.
9. Stretch daily
I often do this in the morning while listening to a podcast or some music. I have a sequence of about 20 different stretches that I do each morning to limber up, each one lasting about 30 seconds, adding up to about 10 minutes. I feel incredibly good afterward and I feel much better about handling the stresses of the day.
If you’re not sure where to start, my own routine is basically a modification of this one, which is a really good sequence of full-body stretching. Since I practice taekwondo with my family, I have just changed it a little to incorporate some stretches that work well for the types of kicks we do in taekwondo.
For me, this builds on itself a little bit with daily practice, but it mostly just feels good in the immediate aftermath. I usually feel really calm for a while after doing this. It also definitely helps with flexibility and balance if you do it consistently, which isn’t a big help with stress and anxiety, but it is a nice perk.
10. Go on a long walk outside daily.
The simple act of going on a long daily walk (30 minutes or more) is that it gets you outside for a reasonable period of time, which means that your exposure to sunlight stimulates a ton of positive biochemical responses in the body; gets you moving around, which is healthy for blood flow and long term health; and gives you time to reflect and think about things.
When I go on a walk, sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast or an audiobook, sometimes I’ll listen to music, and sometimes I’ll listen to nothing. If I listen to a podcast or audiobook, my thoughts usually center around that, so it’s not a great walk for general thinking. If I listen to music, I usually find that my walk ends up pacing itself to the music and, if the music has lyrics, it’s really distracting. If I walk with lyric-less music or nothing at all, I tend to notice more things while I’m talking and my mind wanders a lot. All three are good things some of the time, and I try to mix them up.
Go at your own pace so that it’s enjoyable. This isn’t any kind of race or sprint. It’s just a leisurely walk to give yourself some outdoor time.
11. Vigorously exercise daily
What I mean by this is that you do something each day that gets you out of breath and sweating. I’m not prescribing a two-hour daily workout or an intense devotion to physical fitness — those things fall more under the “meaningful hobby” strategy described above. Rather, I’m just suggesting doing something that makes you sweat and makes you breathe hard.
For me, having a variety of things works well. I generally try to choose really tough things that get me out of breath and sweating quickly, like burpees, planks or pushups. I keep going with those things until I’m sweating and/or I can’t breathe, and then I stop. I usually do a variety of things like this, with a few sets of each, and my shirt is wet and I’m panting after a very short time. If an exercise ever starts to feel easy, I try to find a harder version, like a plank or pushups where my feet are up on a chair.
Some days, I’m engaged with a different activity that gets me out of breath and sweaty, like carrying around bags of fertilizer or soil or moving lots of stuff around in the garage.
The goal of getting sweaty and out of breath is to get an endorphin release (in the short term) which feels quite good, while also improving overall physical fitness (in the long term) so that I’m more capable of doing everyday things and have a longer life.
12. Be more open about who you actually are and spend less time worrying about what other people think of you.
I used to generate a lot of stress and anxiety worrying about what others thought of me. Over time, I’ve almost completely killed that feeling, for two reasons.
1. If I conduct myself in a way where I’m happy with who I am and would love to live in a society where people conducted themselves like me, then it really doesn’t matter what others think of me. It is impossible to guess what others might think, anyway, but if I know I’m acting in a way that I’m proud of and would love to have others act around me, I’m doing things in a way that I am happy with, and that’s all I can control.
2. If I’m open with who I am, what I value, and what I care about, it makes others feel more comfortable doing the same and can often help me find friends. If I hide the things I care about, not only do the people around me know a lot less about me, they also don’t have a window to show the things they care about. Furthermore, there’s no easy way for people who are also interested in those things to find me, or for me to find them. I’ve gradually found myself being more and more open about what I love and care about, even if others might find it “nerdy” or “weird.” Again, as I noted above, I’d love to live in a world where everyone was “nerdy” and “weird” and felt comfortable sharing whatever they were “nerdy” about, and all I can really do to cultivate that world is to be more open with my own things that others might consider “nerdy” or “weird.” Yep, I really like to play board games and tabletop role-playing games. I like making batches of fermented foods, like sauerkraut. I enjoy Americana and folk music. More than anything, I love it when people share what they actually like, too.
Living in that way has been a powerful eraser of stress and anxiety. Rather than worrying about what other people think, I just try to live like a good person, the type of person I would love to have in my community or in my circle of friends, and if I hew close to that, then it really doesn’t matter what other people think.
Remember, this is a menu.
This is simply a list of free or very low-cost strategies that have helped me combat anxiety and stress in my own life. I believe some number of these things can help everyone, though not all of them will help every single person.
My recommendation to you is to simply try many of them. Give each strategy that seems promising to you a trial as a personal 30-day challenge. Do one of these things for 30 days and see if it’s had an impact on you. If it isn’t clicking, move onto another one. If it is, now you have a nice new tool in your repertoire for dealing with stress.