If you’re struggling to deal with the stress in your life and are seeking tips on how to manage stress, this article is for you. Below we will explore what stress actually is, the purpose it serves, and how it can get out of hand. We also offer helpful, life-saving tips to help you cope with stress and prevent it from putting your physical and mental health and well-being at risk.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal, functional part of being alive, but it jeopardizes our overall health when it persists. If it weren’t for a healthy amount of stress, we probably wouldn’t have survived very long as a species. This stress is helpful, but if it gets out of hand, it can make things a lot worse.
Deep within the brain lies the basal ganglia. This brain area is one of the earliest formations that would evolve into the full human brain we have today.
The basal ganglia is involved in threat detection. If we notice something threatening our environment, such as a lion, an attacker, or an oncoming vehicle, that would put our life or well-being at risk, the basal ganglia elicits a threat response.
Stress-related chemicals such as cortisol and norepinephrine flood the brain and body, pumping it with adrenaline and mobilizing the muscles and tissues for action in what is known as the fight/flight response.
In the fight/flight response, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) gets activated. The SNS helps us deal with threats by exciting the body. When a threat passes and we feel safe, the SNS de-activates and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) activates. The PSNS governs rest and digestion.
These days, we’re unlikely to be threatened by a lion on the horizon, and we may go through our life without being attacked that often or facing frequent threats to our life. Still, stress comes in all shapes and sizes. Frequent criticism from a parent, excessive demands from your boss at work, or uncertainty in a relationship can all be significant sources of stress.
“Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle.”, says Bill Phillips, American entrepreneur, author, and fitness professional.
Stress management is key to preventing stress from taking over your life. Below you will find some evidence-based, tried-and-true stress management tools and techniques to help you relax, reset, and live as happily and stress-free as possible. First, let’s take a look at the most common signs of stress.
What are the Signs of Stress?
Stress affects all of us at one point or another. Sometimes, we can be so caught up in our worries and the pressure of life that we might not even notice how heavily we have been impacted by stress. Consider the following signs to help you determine if stress has been having an impact on your life.
- Constant worry or anxiety
- Irritability, short temper
- Finding it hard to relax
- Muscle tension, headaches, tight jaw
- Excessive sweating
- Feeling frequently overwhelmed
- Poor concentration and attention
- Poor performance at school or work
- Eating too much or too little
- Disrupted sleep
- Using substances to help you relax (alcohol, tobacco, drugs)
- Low sex drive
If you notice some of the above in your behavior, it may be time to take a step back and consider the stressors in your life. In the society we live in, we are often encouraged to push ourselves to perform better and faster, and be happy while we do it. At the end of the day, if you’re quality of life is being impacted by stress, it’s your responsibility to make some necessary changes.
It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to de-stressing. If we don’t approach each moment of stress with clarity and mindfulness, the stressors will continue to build up and leave us at a loss on how to cope.
Below we have outlined some effective, evidence-based methods to help you overcome the stress in your life, and maintain your physical and psychological health moving forward.
Tips on How to Manage Stress Effectively
In an attempt to cope with stress, some people engage in unhealthy, maladaptive coping behaviors such as drug or alcohol use, aggressive or violent behavior, emotional suppression, self-harm, or disordered eating.
All of these behaviors are dangerous and may put your health at significant risk. They also fail to help in the long-term, instead exacerbating the original stress one tried to suppress and adding more on top.
Instead of taking an unhealthy approach to stress management, and risking serious health issues as a result, try some of the following health-positive tools and techniques.
Exercise has a profound impact on your stress levels. Even just 30 mins of aerobic exercise can pump up the levels of endorphins (feel-good brain chemicals) in the brain. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and also work wonders for stress reduction.
If you’re struggling with effective stress management, consider your exercise routine. Do you have one? If not, why? Many people neglect or avoid exercise because they associate it with lifting heavy weights at the gym or going for a ten-mile run. However, you don’t need to exert yourself to such extremes to enjoy the stress-reducing benefits of exercise.
There is a wide variety of exercises you can try to help you feel better and more balanced, such as:
- Tai Chi
All you need to do is engage in an exercise that feels enjoyable. You don’t need to push yourself by waking up at 5am to run a marathon (but feel free to try!). As long as you get your heart pumping and your muscles moving, you’re on the right track.
There is a strong link between diet and mental health. A healthy, nutritious, and varied diet can increase your distress tolerance, improve the strength of your immune system, improve your mood, and even lower your blood pressure.
An unhealthy diet containing lots of unnecessary fats and sugars can lead to the opposite. If your diet consists of unhealthy foods, you’re far more susceptible to stress. It’s essential to nourish the mind and body with nutrient-rich foods if you want to equip yourself with the strength and resilience necessary to overcome your stressors.
To achieve and maintain good health, and reduce your stress levels as a result, focus on eating complex carbohydrates such as whole-meal bread, pasta and rice, lean proteins, and fatty acids, such as those found in fish, eggs, and nuts. Try to include omega-3, antioxidants, and plenty of water into your daily diet to optimize your health.
Mindfulness has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, and for good reason. Extensive scientific research highlights that mindfulness is a powerful stress-reduction tool. It helps those who practice mitigate the habit of negative self-talk that accompanies moments of stress.
Mindfulness has been used for centuries throughout Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism, but only became popular in the West around the 1970’s having been widely introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn and other mind-body practitioners and spiritual teachers.
You don’t need to follow any particular religion or ideology to engage in and reap the benefits of mindfulness. You simply need to bring your attention to your breath. In the practice, you don’t try to change or ‘fix’ your breathing, you simply watch it as it is, and allow it to change naturally.
Mindfulness is also about accepting your thoughts and feelings as they are, without judgement or blame. This can be challenging at first, especially if we are used to judging our feelings or blaming some external source for how we feel. Still, the practice becomes easier the more we do it. Eventually, we may learn to be mindful in each new moment.
Journaling is the keeping of a diary or journal in which you write down and reflect upon the issues in your life. As a tool for stress-management, it’s incredibly effective.
What are the benefits of journaling?
Some of the most common benefits of journaling include:
- Reduced stress
- Improved cognitive functioning
- Improved mood
- Mental clarity
How to keep a journal
In a journal, you might write down regular stressors, such as certain people, behaviors, or even thoughts. You could elaborate on these stressors, being as specific as possible to help you understand them better.
Once you can look at these stressors on a page, you can then take the time to figure out how to reduce their impact on your well-being. This might be setting boundaries, removing yourself from situations, or simply noticing when a stressor has come up and taking action to relieve it.
5. Improve Your Time Management
Poor time management is a major cause of stress. If you spread yourself too thin by taking on more than you can reasonably get done, or you stay up late and always wake up late in the morning, you’re likely to burn out. Furthermore, it’s hard to stay calm and relaxed when you’re tired.
Time management can be hard, especially in today’s climate of ‘more’. We often try to push ourselves beyond our capabilities to keep others happy, unfortunately to the detriment of our health. We might struggle to find time for work, our partner or family, our social life, and our hobbies, and suffer from stress as a result.
How to manage your time
Fortunately, there are some tips you can use to better manage your time and achieve greater relaxation. If time is a source of stress for you, try some of the following:
- Don’t over commit to tasks and projects
- Prioritize tasks by importance
- Break tasks and projects into small, manageable steps
- Delegate responsibility
6. Get Enough Sleep (but not too much!)
Stress can cause you to lose sleep, which in turn reduces your ability to deal with stress. Stress and poor sleep lead to a vicious cycle that can soon burn you out and even lead to physical illness and disease. Stress is one of the leading causes of inflammation, so if we don’t get enough rest through a healthy amount of sleep, our bodies will find it harder to counter stress-related inflammation.
How much sleep is enough?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Less than seven hours impact our distress tolerance, cognitive functioning, and immune system health.
Sleeping for more than 9 hours each night is also bad for your health. Just as much as we need sleep, we also need to be active and engaged in our waking life to achieve optimum health.
To help you get sufficient sleep, try to set a reasonable bed-time, and adhere to it as much as possible. Turn off the TV a couple of hours before bed, don’t eat a big meal before going to sleep, and stay off your phone at night.
7. Connect With Friends and Family
Humans are social beings. Community lies at the heart of our psychological development as a species. It is hardwired in our brains to connect and bond with others. If you’re feeling stressed for whatever reason, seek out those you love and spend some quality time with them. Go for dinner, take a walk, or simply sit down for a cup of tea with your favorite person.
8. Learn Immediate Stress-Relief Techniques
In the throes of stress and feelings of overwhelm it helps to have some ready-to-go tools and techniques at hand to help you relax. While exercise, nutrition, and sleep are power tools when it comes to fixing your stress levels, sometimes we need quick relief.
Breathe into your diaphragm
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” – Amit Ray
Deep breathing is a tried-and-true stress reliever. If you’re not familiar with the technique, it can take some getting used to. We are always breathing, but we don’t always notice. Often, especially when we’re stressed, our breathing is shallow. Try the following deep breathing exercise next time a wave of stress washes over you.
- Bring your attention to your breath, and watch it as you naturally inhale and exhale.
- When you’re ready, let all of the air out of your lungs in a long exhale (or at least as much as you can).
- Take a deep breath in through your nose. Try to visualize the breath travelling all the way down to your diaphragm (just above your belly button).
- Let the breath fall out. Don’t push it – it falls out naturally.
- Repeat for ten deep breaths.
Deep breathing is an effective stress reliever because it opens the airways, reducing blood pressure, increasing oxygen flow, and promoting activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).
Stretch your body and breathe deep into your diaphragm. Simply standing up for a quick stretch can improve your blood flow, increase the flow of oxygen to your brain and blood around your body. You can even stretch right from your desk! Whenever you need it, try the following stretching routine for stress relief:
- Stand with your knees soft, or sit up straight.
- Let your arms hang loosely by your side, then inhale as you raise them sideways and reach for the ceiling.
- Join your hands above your head, then bring them down in front of your body as you exhale until they reach your chest.
- Let your arms drop by your side.
- Repeat 5-10 times, staying mindful of your breath.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully the above tools and techniques will help you overcome the stress in your life. Remember that stress is natural, so we can’t completely avoid it. Still, we can prevent it from getting in the way of our health and happiness by practicing an effective self-care routine, which involves nourishing our body with nutrient-rich food, exercising at least three times a week, sleeping a healthy amount, and prioritizing our health and well-being above all else.
As you go about your day, keep in mind the following quote from renowned mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”