What is stress?
Stress is your body’s response to a challenge or demand. Everyone experiences stress, which can be triggered by a range of events, from small daily hassles to major changes like a divorce or job loss. The stress response includes physical components like an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, thoughts and personal beliefs about the stressful event, and emotions, including fear and anger.
How can we handle stress in healthy ways?
Stress serves an important purpose — it enables us to respond quickly to threats and avoid danger. But lengthy exposure to stress may lead to mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression, or increased physical health problems.
“A large body of research suggests that increased stress levels interfere with your ability to deal with physical illness,” says Dr. Borland. “While no one can avoid all stress, you can work to handle it in healthy ways that increase your potential to recover.”
1. Eat and drink to optimize your health
Some people try to reduce stress by drinking alcohol or eating too much. These actions may seem to help in the moment, but actually may add to stress in the long run. Caffeine also can compound the effects of stress. While consuming a healthy, balanced diet can help combat stress.
2. Exercise regularly
In addition to having physical health benefits, exercise has been shown to be a powerful stress reliever. Consider noncompetitive aerobic exercise, strengthening with weights or movement activities like yoga or Tai Chi, and set reasonable goals for yourself. Aerobic exercise has been shown to release endorphins — natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude.
3. Stop using tobacco and nicotine products
People who use nicotine often refer to it as a stress reliever. However, nicotine actually places more stress on your body by increasing physical arousal and reducing blood flow and breathing. Plus, it can worsen chronic pain, so if you’re experiencing prolonged tension and body aches, smoking won’t help.
4. Study and practice relaxation techniques
Taking the time to relax every day helps manage stress and protect your body from the effects of stress. You can choose from a variety of techniques, such as deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation. Many online and smartphone apps provide guidance on these techniques. Although some require purchase costs, many are available free of charge.
5. Reduce triggers of stress
If you’re like most people, your life may be filled with too many demands and too little time. For the most part, these demands are ones we’ve chosen. But you can free up time by practicing time-management skills like asking for help when it’s appropriate, setting priorities, pacing yourself and reserving time to take care of yourself.
6. Examine your values and live by them
“Considering the stressful demands and responsibilities we face on a daily basis, it’s important to engage in activities that are in line with our values and speak to us on a personal level,” encourages Dr. Borland.
7. Assert yourself
8. Set realistic goals and expectations
It’s also OK — and healthy — to realize you can’t be 100% successful at everything all at once. Be mindful of the things you can control and work on accepting the things that you can’t control.
9. Sell yourself to yourself
10. Try biofeedback
This behavioral technique helps you learn stress reduction skills by providing information about muscle tension, heart rate and other vital signs as you attempt to relax. It’s used to gain control over certain bodily functions that cause tension and physical pain. Biofeedback can be used to help you learn how your body responds in stressful situations, and how to cope better. If a headache, such as a migraine, begins slowly, many people can use biofeedback to stop the attack before it becomes full-blown.
If you’re interested in any of these techniques, ask your healthcare provider for more information or other suggestions they may have. Often, counseling can help you recognize stress factors that may not even be readily obvious.
Short-Term Stress-Relief Strategies You Can Do Anywhere
Whether you’re about to be interviewed for a job or you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child’s behavior at the playground, it’s important to have some stress reduction tools that can lower your stress right now.
Try Guided Imagery
Guided imagery is like taking a short vacation in your mind. It can involve imagining yourself being in your “happy place”—maybe picturing yourself sitting on a beach, listening to the waves, smelling the ocean, and feeling the warm sand underneath you.
Guided imagery can be done with a recording where you listen to someone walk you through a peaceful scene. Or, once you know how to do it yourself, you can practice guided imagery on your own.
Simply close your eyes for a minute and walk yourself through a peaceful scene. Think about all the sensory experiences you’d engage in and allow yourself to feel as though you’re really there. After a few minutes, open your eyes and return to the present moment.
You might develop a mantra that you repeat in your mind as you take slow deep breaths. Or, you might take a few minutes to practice mindfulness, which involves being in the moment. Simply pay attention to what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
When you’re focused on the here-and-now, you won’t be able to ruminate about something that already happened and you can’t worry about something in the future. Meditation and mindfulness take practice, but it can make a big difference in your overall stress level as it brings you back to the present.
Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation
With practice, you’ll learn to recognize tension and tightness in your muscles and you’ll be able to relax more easily. Each time you practice, however, you should experience a feeling of relaxation sweeping through your body.
Focus on Breathing
Just focusing on your breath or changing the way you breathe can make a big difference to your overall stress level. Breathing techniques can calm your body and your brain in just a few minutes.
The best news is, no one around you will even know you’re doing them. So whether you’re in a stressful meeting or you’re sitting in a crowded theater, breathing exercises could be key to reducing your stress.
Take a Walk
Exercise is a fantastic stress reliever that can work in minutes. Taking a walk allows you to enjoy a change of scenery, which can get you into a different frame of mind, and brings the benefits of exercise as well.
So whether you just need to take a stroll around the office to get a break from a frustrating task or you decide to go for a long walk in the park after work, walking is a simple but effective way to rejuvenate your mind and body.
What to do if you have trouble sleeping
Sleep is often sacrificed when you’re overwhelmed with stress. You may experience insomnia because of discomfort, stress from personal concerns, or side effects from your medications. If you can’t sleep, try these tips:
- Establish a regular sleep schedule: go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Make sure your bed and surroundings are comfortable. Arrange the pillows so you can maintain a comfortable position.
- Keep your bedroom dark and quiet.
- Use your bedroom for sleeping only. Don’t work or watch TV in your bedroom.
- Avoid napping too much during the day. At the same time, remember to balance activity with periods of rest. or anxious, talk to your spouse, partner or a trusted friend. Get your troubles off your mind.
- Listen to relaxing music.
- Don’t rely on sleeping pills. They can be harmful when taken with other medications. Use them only if recommended for a brief period by your healthcare provider if other nonmedication methods don’t work.
- Take diuretics, or “water pills,” earlier if possible, so you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and do something relaxing until you feel tired. Don’t stay in bed worrying about when you’re going to fall asleep. .
- Maintain a regular exercise routine, but don’t exercise within two to three hours before the time you go to bed.