We could all use a little less stress in our lives, am I right? Between everyday work stress to maintaining relationships, navigating social engagements and wrangling the kids stress, there’s more than enough stress to go around. Luckily, there are ways to ease your stress levels if you set your mind to it.
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Clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD, explains how stress works and healthy ways we can help manage stress before it gets out of control.
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.
“Although we often think of it as being negative, stress can also come from positive changes in your life, like getting a promotion at work or having a new baby,” says Dr. Borland.
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
The more your actions reflect your beliefs, the better you’ll feel, no matter how busy your life is. Use your values when choosing your activities.
“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
It’s OK to say “no” to demands on your time and energy that’ll place too much stress on you. You don’t always have to meet the expectations of others.
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
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself of what you do well. There are ways you can build a healthy sense of self-esteem.
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.
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.
- If you feel nervous 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.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Maintain a regular exercise routine, but don’t exercise within two to three hours before the time you go to bed.