My top three tools for when freaking out

Okay, so I’ve been freaking out a little bit lately.

My PhD defense is coming up in 4.5 weeks. It will be fine. No biggie.

And I started my business where I’d like to coach people on designing their lifestyle, setting priorities, and reaching their goals. Will it go well? No idea.

I’ve been looking forward to these events for years, but they’re scary nevertheless. I spent 8 years at the Donders (2 years for my master’s and 6 years for my PhD), so leaving the institute marks a big transition. Change is exciting and stressful, both at the same time.

My #1 tool

I’ve discovered that the best way to calm myself is by putting things in perspective. It works like a charm, but the key is to really see things in perspective, to really feel it.

I ask myself, “What is my #1 priority?”

Answer: “My family.”

Follow-up question: “Are we all okay right now? Are we all healthy? Is any of us in danger?”

Answer: “Actually, we’re all fine.”

Conclusion: “The most important thing is there. The rest will be fine.”

We’ve been in and out of hospitals during the last year, and we’ve lost several close friends and family members. Life puts things in perspective like nothing else.

This is the most powerful tool for me, but unfortunately, you can’t hack it. I’ve tried to use it in the past, and I just didn’t feel it. I thought, “Yeah, yeah, we’re fine, big deal. I’m still stressed!” But recently, something shifted. I guess it’s gratitude for things being just normal.

My #2 tool

This tool is super simple. It has to do with the present moment.

I’m standing in my kitchen, freaking out about my defense. I ask myself, “Right now, in this moment, am I okay?”

Answer: “Well, yeah, the defense is 4.5 weeks away, so I’m actually okay right now. I don’t have to defend my thesis right now.”

This works in most situations. Even when I’m on the podium during the defense, I can ask myself, “Am I okay right now?”

Most likely the answer will be: “Well, yeah, right now, I’m answering a question kind of alright, so I guess I’m okay.”

Most of the time, our fear is about the future, but in fact in this current moment, we are okay.

My #3 tool

This tool recognizes that there are different parts of me and that I have different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

For instance, one part of me is scared, and another part of me is excited.

One part of me doubts whether I’ll make it (e.g., the defense, the business, being a good mom, etc.), and another part of me knows it will be fine somehow.

Both parts of me are there. Both things are true.

I find this super calming for some reason. The fear is not any more true than the excitement or the joy. Both are true. (Btw I got this idea from Dr. Becky Kennedy.)

What are your favorite tools for when you’re freaking out, stressed, or anxious? I’d love to hear!

Reduce distraction and stress: Turn off notifications from messaging apps

Recently, I made a small change that turned out to make a huge difference in how distracted I felt and how much stress I experienced. It was a little change that I’d been considering for a while but didn’t quite have the guts to make. Now that I’ve implemented it, I’m not going back.

Namely, I stopped getting notifications from messaging apps. I still have the apps on my phone, but I only open them when I choose to. My attention is no longer drawn to them continuously as messages come in.

Continue reading “Reduce distraction and stress: Turn off notifications from messaging apps”

How I un-freaked myself out about planning my own wedding

I was seriously freaking out about my wedding. But once I figured out what was important to me and how to put that into practice, it became much easier and less stressful.

When I mentioned I am planning my wedding, many of my friends made jokes: “You love organization, so this must be heaven for you!” Everyone knows planning a wedding is stressful, but people assumed it was easy for me.

The truth is, it wasn’t heaven at all. I was freaking out. Completely! What kind of event should we have? Where should it be? How should we do it exactly? I had no idea.

Also, there are so many expectations around weddings. They are supposed to be gorgeous, elegant, fun, romantic, delicious (the food), entertaining… I felt like there was no way I’d be able to fulfill all these expectations and that the guests wouldn’t enjoy the event for one reason or another.

Whenever I shared this concern with friends, they said, “But you don’t need to worry about that! It’s not about the other people, it’s about you. This is your day!”

“Really?” I thought. “This is supposed to be my day? But if it really were my day, I would do it very differently.” But this was a strange thought because I had an idea of what weddings should be like, and that didn’t particularly attract me.



Photo credit: Logan Zillmer

I was fortunate enough to have multiple people around me consistently ask, “What do you want?” The truth was that I didn’t know what I wanted. I had never thought about it, and I had no clue.

In the end, it all came down to identifying my priorities. What’s important to me and what do I enjoy? I am not much into ceremonies and formal rituals, but I enjoy being in nature and being together with friends and family. (Fortunately, my fiance has the same priorities.) Once I identified these things as the most important, instead of expectations based on past experiences, things became clearer in my mind.

I also had to battle FOMO (the fear of missing out). What if, at some point in the future, I regretted not having a formal wedding? What if it turned out this was something I wanted?

I had to think about something Gretchen Rubin said: “If it’s right for us to throw something away, we should, even if someone else would pick it up.” In my case, it might be right for someone else to have a formal wedding, but it’s not the right thing for me. Why? Because it’s not what feels right right now. I have no idea what will feel important to me in the future, but I can try to figure out what feels right now.

Once I identified what my priorities are and what feels right to me, I knew what to do. As I described in the blog post about my system, I made a Trello board for our wedding, identified projects and tasks, and started getting stuff done.

Before, I had felt paralyzed and couldn’t start acting because I didn’t know what I wanted. But once I identified what I wanted and broke it down into manageable tasks, it became easy to act. It’s amazing how having clarity about what we want and why we want it can reduce our stress and get us going.

Have you been stressed about a major project you had to undertake? Did you find a way to reduce the stress and manage the project better? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Practical Tips: How to Pace Yourself So You Don’t Burn out

In my previous blog post, I wrote about how I had overworked myself and the lessons I learned from that. Here I will share the practical things I do today to avoid depleting my energy and feeling burnt out. I use tips and tricks on different time scales:

  • Hourly
  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Seasonally/Yearly


The modified Pomodoro

I used to work non-stop for hours, and I thought it was normal to feel completely depleted at the end of a three-hour work period. Now I impose breaks on myself every hour (I follow the guidelines of Brendon Burchard). When I start working, I set a modified Pomodoro timer for 45 minutes of work, 15 minutes break, 45 minutes work, 15 minutes break, etc. I use the Custom Timer at Marinara Timer.

When the 45-minute work period is over and the timer goes off, I usually take 2-3 minutes to finish the specific thing I’m doing. I hate being interrupted, so getting up at the moment the timer goes off really annoys me. This means that I have around 12 minutes of break time. But what to do during a break? I usually go to the bathroom, get a cup of tea, walk down the hallway and back, climb some stairs, or do some stretches. I specifically make sure not to spend my break on my phone because that defeats the purpose. At the end of the break when I have 2 minutes left, I sit back down on my chair and take a few deep inhales and exhales. Then I think about the work I’m going to do during my next work block and set an intention for what progress I’d like to make and how I’d like to do my work.

The mid-day break

I can keep working for a long time using my modified Pomodoro system, but at some point it’s time for lunch. I usually take 30 minutes to eat lunch and then go for a 15 minute walk. Afterwards, I get myself a cup of tea and get ready to start working again.

Since I’m a relatively social person, I enjoy talking to people while having lunch. These conversations are often relaxing and sometimes super fun (ah, the things that get shared during Friday lunches…), but I sometimes expend too much energy talking to people over lunch and then need a break from my break. That’s why I like to take a 15-minute walk by myself. It clears my mind and also helps me avoid the after-lunch dip by energizing me. If I’m having a really busy day and I need a longer break, I just have lunch by myself.

Daily movement

I make sure to include some form of movement every day after work. Sometimes that means going to the gym, and other times it’s going for a brisk walk in the park while listening to a podcast. If it’s raining or I’m in the mood, I just dance in my living room! It’s awesome! And if I need some really gentle movement, I do some light yoga at home.

Wind down time

In the evenings, once everything is done (prepare food, eat dinner, do housework stuff, and shower), I have ‘Wind Down Time.’ This is usually half an hour to an hour where I can do whatever I want! In my case, that’s usually to read. I love reading on the couch with an aromatic candle and soft music. This me-time is really fulfilling. A day of work, movement, cooking, etc. (a.k.a. doing all the right things) feels very different after a little bit of me-time. It feels indulgent to read just for the sake of reading and because I enjoy it. I am much more willing to face the difficult parts of the day, knowing that there will be completely easy, indulgent parts as well.


Sleep is quite a priority for me, so I try to get a decent amount of sleep every night (usually eight hours). I have a bedtime I respect, which makes it easy to wake up refreshed when my alarm goes off. Also, I try not to push back my bedtime by more than an hour on the weekend, so I don’t completely mess up my sleeping rhythm and end up super tired on Monday morning when I need to get up early again.


It has become increasingly important to me to do my meditation every morning. This is my way of taking care of my mind and checking in with my mental and emotional state at the start of the day. It also allows me to put my thoughts and feelings in perspective and not take myself too seriously.


Social time

All kinds of research show how important social connections are, and socializing can be truly relaxing. For me, too much socializing can be overwhelming, but I make sure I spend quality time with people 1-2 times per week. Usually that’s my Friday and/or Saturday evening. I enjoy going out to dinner with a friend or two because then we can really talk and connect. Spending time with good friends can also truly put things in perspective.

Time in nature

I really enjoy being in nature, so on Saturdays or Sundays I often go for a little hike in the nearby forest. I just walk without listening to music or podcasts, and I really enjoy the sounds, smells, and the overall feel of nature. It is very refreshing, and nature has the ability to quickly put our human struggles into perspective.


Special event

A special event can get you out of your routine and make time feel special. Approximately once a month, I do something special. That can be a dance performance, a concert, or an arts event of some sort. In the autumn and winter months, my boyfriend and I go to a spa for a day, and that’s a real treat! It’s wonderful time spent together, and it’s truly relaxing. Other times we take a little trip such as visiting a city for the day or going camping for the weekend. These are all little treats that are easy to include in a weekend but make time feel special.


Intense vs. easy-going periods

I find it useful to label periods of time as “intense periods” and “easy-going periods.” For instance, July-August is a relaxed period, while September-November is an intense period. This helps me really focus on work during an intense period and know that that’s okay because I will have more rest during the relaxed period that will follow. These periods are well delineated for students with summer and winter break, but I find it helpful to have these for other people too. It can help us focus on what we’ve chosen as important during the current period.

Vacations and trips

Vacations and trips are like “extended special events” (see above). They definitely break the routine, allow us to experience new things, and make time feel richer. I like to have a trip or vacation once every 3-4 of months because it serves as a breath of fresh air in between two intense work periods. I find that people (including myself) often feel reluctant to take a vacation. We think, “How could I possibly take time off? I have so much work to do!” But once you are on vacation, it’s great! And when you’re back, you’re refreshed, energized, and motivated to work again. So vacations are a win-win: good for both our rest and our work!

These are some tips and tricks I use to alternate work and rest and make sure I don’t overwork myself. Implementing these things allows me to have stable energy levels, continue doing high-quality and fulfilling work over the long run, and feel happy with my work-life balance. How do you make sure you have good amounts of work and rest in your life?

How I Learned to Pace Myself So I Don’t Burn out

Six years ago, I got close to burn out for the first time. I was in college, it was exam week, and I had my last exam the following morning. It was for the course Psychopharmacology, probably the most difficult exam I’ve ever taken. I had studied so much that I knew I’d do well, but nevertheless I was miserable. I lay in bed, trying to sleep, but names of pharmacological compounds and various brain areas were swimming in my head incessantly. What was more, I had a fever, and I kept tossing and turning in bed. My stress levels were through the roof because I couldn’t sleep, and I knew how important sleep is for performance at an exam. Needless to say, trying to make myself sleep only made things worse.

It was a truly terrible night. I felt exhausted beyond belief but still unable to rest. My mind was incredibly anxious, and every single thought was torture. Perhaps the worst was that I felt helpless to change anything or to make myself feel better. None of my usual tricks worked, so I just had to lie there, waiting for morning to come.

Lying there, I thought about what I had done to bring myself to this place. The answer was clear: I had overworked myself. I had worked hard for many weeks and months on end, without taking proper breaks and without letting myself rest. I was taking five classes instead of the recommended four (because of course I could do more), and I had three side jobs (because I could do it all!). My only time off of studying and working was Friday and Saturday evenings. Literally.

I still can’t believe I did that to myself. I know how important it is to get some rest, exercise, and have at least a little bit of free time. But I found myself in a situation where every single minute was crammed full of things to do, and I felt constantly anxious about whether I’d manage to complete everything I needed to do.

I think it had a lot to do with the environment. When everybody else appears to be pushing themselves to their limits, it seems to be the right thing to do. And since my self-worth was on the line, i.e., I felt like I would not succeed if I didn’t do that as well, it seemed like the only thing to do. There was no choice, I just had to keep pushing.

On that night when I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep before my last exam, I felt incredibly sad for us humans. We push ourselves so far, to the point of breaking, and we usually only realize it once we are broken. We feel that the only way to be happy, or to deserve to be happy, is by completing that impossibly long to-do list. But we never quite get to that happy point; instead, we just pass out at the end of the day, utterly exhausted. The next morning, we have a new to-do list to complete.


That experience (and many others like it) have led me to make some changes. For me, that sleepless night marks a ‘before and after’ point. Before it, I used to take on as much as possible on my plate, trusting that I would figure it out somehow. After that night, I knew that I was able to do all those things, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. What’s the point of succeeding at a bunch of stuff if I broke myself in the process? To me it was clear that it wasn’t worth it.

What followed was an extended (and still ongoing) search for how far it’s good to push myself. It must be a dynamic balance: I don’t want to sit around and do nothing all the time, but I also don’t want to burn myself out. So what’s the right balance?

I immediately made some changes after that psychopharmacology exam. For the following semester, I signed up for four courses (apparently, it’s the recommended number for a reason) and dropped one of my part-time jobs. I also made time to exercise regularly and to meditate. Moreover, I prioritized sleep: I made sure I got seven hours of sleep each night. (Side note: seven hours a night was still not enough for me, but I only realized that a couple of years later when I started sleeping eight hours a night and suddenly I didn’t need caffeine anymore! How surprising!)

Nowadays, I am much stricter about taking care of myself. I monitor my energy levels and my anxiety levels to make sure I steer clear of ‘the danger zone.’ It’s still a struggle sometimes when other people are (or appear to be) so much busier and doing so much more, but I need to do what works for me. Even if I feel that anxious urge to do more, I force myself to do less. For example, at the end of the work day, I know it’s time to get up and go to the gym, but I feel guilty leaving my work. If I could only stay and do a couple more hours of work… but no, I get up, go to the gym, get moving, and give my mind a break. I inevitably feel better than if I had stayed at my desk and kept working until I felt exhausted. And the next morning I’m actually excited to do my work again! What’s more, in this way I have more energy for the important relationships in my life as well.

There are several simple things I prioritized to make sure I don’t overwork myself:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Good food
  • Meditation
  • Rest/free time (at least a little bit)

In the next blog post, I will describe specific things I do to ensure I don’t overwork myself and to maintain stable energy levels and a fulfilling lifestyle. Stay tuned!

Gastritis Post 7: The unique influence of stress

Stress is a major contributor to many health issues, and, unsurprisingly, it also plays a big role in causing gastritis. I have noticed many, many times that my stomach gets irritated when I’m stressed. Once I started paying attention to this, I could notice it very clearly: about an hour after a stressful situation occurred, my gastritis symptoms had already gotten worse. Talk about a mind-body connection! Also, when I’m tired and sleep-deprived my stomach hurts more. Alternatively, when I’m on vacation and I’m relaxed and rested, I don’t feel my gastritis much. If only I could live my life on vacation…

It’s easy to say that generally we should try not to be too stressed. This is more easily said than done, however. What this translates into practically is that we can try to minimize stressful influences on our lives. For instance, we can make sure to get enough sleep rather than live our lives in a state of sleep deprivation which acts as a huge stressor on the body. We can also choose a work environment which allows us to pick our goals ourselves, so we reduce the pressure of external expectations, or we pick a job which allows us to pick our own schedule, so we can create a daily rhythm that works for us.

Also, it’s helpful to learn to “manage” our stress, whatever that means. For some people that means exercising, going out for walks, reading on the couch, meditating, or socializing. In general, anything that makes us feel like we’ve taken time for ourselves and have taken care of ourselves is a good idea. According to research, physical activity, time for introspection, and activities that deepen our relationships with others are the most helpful ways to reduce stress. I have found meditation to be particularly helpful because it allows me to see things in perspective and thus not worry unnecessarily.

This is so good! 😀 Enough said.

Image source: QuickMeme

When a stressful situation happens, a stress response ensues in our body immediately, and it’s good to have a way to diminish that. One simple but effective technique is to breathe in for 4 counts and breathe out for 6-8 counts. Taking several breaths like this ensures that we activate the parasympathetic system (which is engaged during rest) instead of the sympathetic system (which is engaged when we are stressed). Give it a try! It’s surprising that something so simple really works.

Finally, I’ve found it really helpful to take magnesium in the evening because it allows me to sleep very well. I take it after dinner, or about 2 hours before going to bed. Some people like drinking soothing herbal infusions such as ones containing valerian or other soothing herbs. While I like this idea in principle, I try to avoid drinking tea before bed because if I do, I have to get up to pee all night 🙂

To sum up, stress contributes to gastritis a great deal. It’s much easier to heal your gastritis if you don’t have much stress, so I’d recommend you try to minimize stress as much as possible. And if you can’t minimize it much, then try one or more of the many techniques to “manage” stress.

Source of featured image: Hello Giggles