Stress is an unavoidable part of being human. We experience stress on a daily basis, whether it’s a major source, or small stressors we may not even notice until they build up to overwhelm. Some stress can be healthy, but the kind we typically experience in today’s world, and in the excessive amounts that we experience it, is not healthy. The pace of life in America is rapidly increasing, and despite all of the time-saving devices like computers and cell phones, we are feeling busier and more rushed than ever before.
Here are just a few examples of stressors that we experience in our home and work environments:
- Work load
- Lack of time
- Relationship conflicts
- Family needs
One in five Americans experiences extreme stress, with physical symptoms such as shaking and heart palpitations (1), which are shockingly similar to trauma symptoms. Common reactions to stress include:
- Stomach issues and frequent headaches
- Muscle tension
- Increased blood pressure
- Racing heart
- Irregular sleeping and eating habits
- Racing thoughts
- Irritable mood
- Low energy
- Poor concentration and memory
These are all warning signs that your body is trying to cope with stress and if ignored, ends up turning into larger health issues leading to chronic disease.
Even though we have been told over and over that stress is the number one cause of disease, 60% to be exact (1), we still don’t take the time to incorporate stress management in our daily lives. We tend to put more value on being perceived as busy than we do on our own health, which leads to every 3 out of 4 doctor visits being stress-related. (1)
Thanks to research we know that there is a huge correlation between stress and our eating habits. Stress has been associated with not only eating more, but also an increase in choosing convenience food that is high in sugar and bad fat (trans fats). Forty percent of people who are stressed will overeat unhealthy food as a coping mechanism (1). The bottom line is that undue stress can force us to make poor food choices that ultimately have a negative impact on our long term health. It might feel good in the moment, but these little moments add up to a huge problem.
Our bodies were not meant to handle the large amounts of stress we experience today, but our culture has cultivated stress as a status symbol, so we must develop healthy coping behaviors to create balance instead of turning to food, drugs, or other unhealthy outlets. We cannot avoid stress, but we can control how we handle it.
Not everyone deals with stress in the same way; some people under-function and hide away, while others over-function and take on every little thing they can to avoid dealing with reality. Let’s look at some of the unhealthy coping mechanisms that are typically used to combat stress:
- Drinking too much
- Binging on junk/comfort food
- Shutting down and zoning out for hours looking at your phone
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
- Using pills or drugs to relax
- Sleeping too much
- Overscheduling every minute of the day to avoid reality
- Taking it out on others
- Spending more time working
It is scary that stress has become our new “normal”, where we find ourselves competing for who got the least amount of sleep and who is busier and more committed to unreasonable demands. The bigger and fuller your plate (no pun intended), the more “important” you are right?
It is imperative to shift this mindset and realize that stress is killing Americans. Stress management has to be a priority, however most of us have no clue how to appropriately manage life’s stressors, and making an attempt to control stress can be an uncomfortable experience since our default state is being accustomed to being stressed, busy, and overwhelmed.
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day, is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” Etty Hillesum –
Let’s dive in and unpack some of the most helpful ways to reduce and combat stress to achieve balance and contentment in our lives:
1. Learn to say NO – don’t overcommit
Are you a people pleaser? Get in line. We live in a world rampant with the idea of “to please and perfect”. Most of us have trouble saying no because we don’t want to upset or disappoint anyone, and this results in being spread too thin and forgetting to attend to our own needs. The first person you should be trying to please is yourself!
Start delegating tasks at work and at home to reduce the stress of taking on too much. Take a good look at your to-do list and decide what items can be delegated, which ones aren’t serving you, and set realistic expectations of what needs to be done and can be achieved.
Know your limits and stick to them, whether it’s in your personal life or professional life. Setting boundaries will make you feel empowered, and people will respect you for taking care of yourself. What’s interesting is that we admire those who take care of their own needs, yet we feel guilty when we attempt to tend to our own needs. In order to better serve those around us, we must let go of the shame and guilt associated with putting ourselves first. Get comfortable with the uncomfortableness of saying no; choose the discomfort of that moment over the resentment you will feel later for saying yes.
2. Organize your time
Use a daily planner and get organized. Most people have no concept of what is realistically achievable within a twenty-four-hour period. When addressing clients about how their time is spent throughout a day or week, they usually have no idea what they are doing or where their time is allocated. Take time each week to write out or plan your commitments. Make a list and a realistic time table, then check off tasks as they are completed, this will help to give you a sense of control and reduce anxiety.
Be sure to schedule out your worry time as well, and make time each week to do what I call a “brain dump”. This is a useful tool I use with clients to help them clear their minds. Quieting the mind can help you gain a different perspective, and writing down your thoughts reduces the need to keep thinking about them. Set aside 15 minutes in a distraction free environment, and write a list of all your thoughts, worries, and concerns. Then go through your list and circle the items you have control over and cross off the ones you don’t. Then only focus on the items that you have circled, which ultimately are the things you can control. This will help you to identify where you are focusing time and energy that could be allocated elsewhere if it’s not serving you.
Poor time management can cause stress, but if you take the time to plan ahead you will feel calmer and more focused. Having a plan will help you avoid that feeling of “I have so much to do I don’t even know where to start”. The bottom line is that when you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
3. Be physically active
Exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress because it releases endorphins in the brain which help improve our mood. Big muscle activities such as walking, strength training, pilates, and yoga are the best for reducing tension in the body and relaxing the mind.
Setting realistic expectations around exercise can make or break you. If you have not exercised in a long time, it is important to start with simple behavior changes such as taking the stairs, parking farther away, taking a short walk during your lunch break, etc. This will increase the chances of those behaviors turning into something bigger like starting a group class, taking bike rides, or venturing back into the swimming pool. Eventually, these activities will become a part of your daily routine. It’s important to ditch the “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to exercise and focus on finding a healthy balance and create a realistic workout schedule that you can stick to.
Sex is also a really great form of exercise, it won’t replace the treadmill, but it counts for something! Being close to your partner can soothe stress and anxiety; touching and hugging releases your body’s natural feel good hormone, and releases chemicals that rev up the brains pleasure and reward system. You may want to schedule it in and make time for sex on a regular basis; just like exercise, consistency helps to maximize the benefits. Make a date with your mate and don’t let anything get in your way (even if your mate is yourself, practice a little self-love!) J
4. Develop a positive attitude and practice positive affirmation
Negativity breeds negativity, it’s highly contagious. When we are constantly surrounded by negative people and situations, we train ourselves to think that way, and it doesn’t affect just our minds. The brain is a powerful thing, and the mind-body connection is still beyond our full understanding. What we do know is that when we think or say something negative, our body reacts physically.
The good news is that you can turn this around and change your mindset. Surround yourself with positive quotes, music, and positive people. Most importantly, you have to change your perspective. We cannot control certain situations or other people, so we must change the way we look at every situation in order to maintain a positive mindset.
My favorite example of this is traffic. How many times have you been crawling down the highway, ready to come out of your own skin with anxiety and frustration? We’ve all been there right? So instead of getting angry, realize that this is a situation you have no control over, and that getting pissed off and swearing under your breath won’t make the traffic disappear. Turn it into something positive and see it as an opportunity to turn on some good music and enjoy some alone time!
Lose the victim mentality. Instead of saying “what did I do to deserve this?”, focus on being proactive instead of wallowing in your self-pity. You are only a victim in life if you choose to be.
Instead of playing victim, try practicing gratitude, positive affirmation, and self-love. These practices are much more beneficial to the mind, body, and others around you instead of pity and self-hatred.
The trick to positivity is that is starts with you. You must have a positive attitude towards yourself in order to feed that energy to other people. Affirmations are a good way to silence our inner critics, which only add to our stress. Most of the time we create our own stress by using negative self-talk and comparison, and most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to the people we love.
Next time that inner critic starts whispering in your ear, repeat a positive message or phrase to yourself such as “I’ve got this” or “Everything will be okay, I can handle this”. Take every negative message you send yourself and turn it into something positive. When you say, “I can’t do this”, change the message to “I’ll do my best, and my best is enough”. It may feel silly at first, but eventually you will train yourself to think positively, and this translates into how you talk to others as well.
Find ways to constantly remind yourself that you are special. Take care of yourself, learn to say no, repeat positive affirmations in your head, write sticky notes on your mirror, whatever it takes!
5. Relax and meditate
Schedule regular time to relax, such as weekly massages or spa time, or 10 minutes of quiet reflection. This time needs to be built in, schedule it if you have to, but take the time to take a break and recharge your batteries. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury, you will be better prepared to handle the stressors of life if your mind is in the right place. You must take care of yourself first, to be able to best serve others in your life.
Meditation is always where I hit resistance with clients, mostly because this is way outside of most of our comfort zones, and also because there are many misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness. Upon hearing the word, most of us picture ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor with our palms resting upward and chanting “ohhhmmm”.
There are many ways to meditate and to practice mindfulness. If you’re like me, sitting with my eyes closed and trying to meditate quietly is really challenging. My mind wanders and I start thinking of all the things I need to do. This practice is teachable through guided meditation and lots of practice. Try my favorite guided meditation video here, it’s only 20 minutes long and will give you an understanding of energy flow as well as the chakras.
Even stretching can be a restorative form of meditation. Muscles tighten over the day and stress exacerbates this effect. Stretching relaxes the muscles, encourages deep breathing, and slows life down a little.
One of my favorite ways to destress is just to simply light some colorful candles, calming my mood and helping me to relax. You can also try other things such as drinking herbal tea, getting lost in a good book, coloring, going for a walk by yourself, or taking a short nap. Anything that promotes relaxation and quiet reflection!
6. Breathing exercises
This goes hand in hand with meditation and relaxation. Breathing exercises can be extremely helpful in reducing stress and anxiety levels. One of the most popular ways to do this is by doing what’s known as “box breathing”. This consists of breathing in a patterned way, such as breathing in from the nose for 4 seconds, holding that breath for 4 seconds, breathing out from the mouth for 4 seconds, and then holding the empty breath for 4 seconds, and then repeating. The repetition and focus on the breath drastically reduces anxiety by delivering oxygen to the brain.
Find a quiet room, wear loose clothing, sit or lie on the floor. Close your eyes, and relax your entire body starting with the forehead and working your way down, breathing into each of those areas. Repeat a positive or neutral word such as “peace” or “calm” while slowly breathing in and out. Slowly and naturally breathe in and out for 10-20 minutes. If thoughts come to your mind, silently repeat your chosen words and focus on your breathing.
Be sure to breathe through your diaphragm, as this creates stress relief almost instantly, while shallow chest breathing can cause the heart to beat faster and muscles to tense. Place a hand on your belly and watch it move up and down as you take slow, deep breaths.
Breathing exercises are considered to be a form of mediation, and there are a lot of apps now that help guide you through this practice. Simply download a breathing app on your phone and schedule 10 minutes every day to use it.
You can try a shorter version of relaxation sessions during high stress times such as the middle of a hectic work day. And if you practice regularly you should experience relaxing and calming effects.
7. Get enough sleep
Small problems can seem more overwhelming than they really are when we are sleep deprived and tired. Lack of sleep causes all kinds of imbalances in the body…our emotions can be all over the place, we’re more irritable, less productive, don’t think as clearly, have more cravings, the list goes on.
The goal is to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Less than 7 hours of sleep has been shown to decrease leptin and increase ghrelin levels in the body, which increases the appetite. For every ½ hour of inactive wakefulness, an additional 147 snack calories are eaten on average, and 44% of those who are sleep deprived are losing sleep due to stress (1).
The Nurse’s Health Study from 1986-2002 monitored 68,183 women. This study found that women who slept 7-8 hours had the lowest risk of major weight gain (33 lbs. or more), whereas women who slept 5 hours or less were 32% more likely to gain a large amount of weight. Sleep deprivation is not benign.
You can encourage better sleep by avoiding caffeine, coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and nicotine close to bed time. Most people have high levels of caffeine sensitivity, and may need to stop earlier in the day (I recommend no caffeine after 12pm.) Alcohol also disrupts the sleep cycle by acting as a stimulant which can keep you awake.
Exercise regularly, but preferably not within the 3 hours before bedtime. Working out too close to bedtime promotes the increase of cortisol (our stress hormone) and decreases melatonin (our sleep hormone).
Establish a regular and relaxing bedtime routine such as taking a warm bath or drinking tea. Create a sleep conducive environment that is quiet, dark, and comfortable and get those 7-9 hours!
8. Reduce caffeine, alcohol, and sugar intake
It can feel so good in the middle of a sleep-deprived, stressed out, and overwhelming moment to just reach for a cup of coffee, an energy drink, a candy bar, a cocktail, or a cigarette. The problem is that caffeine, alcohol, drugs, and sugar only provide us with temporarily relief, and leave us feeling even worse when the effects wear off. If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself in that moment, “is this really worth it?”. If you’re at the point where you aren’t sleeping, are needing constant energy boosts, and reaching for convenience foods, the real problem you need to examine is why you’re living that way, and if being that stressed and overwhelmed is worth whatever the outcome is.
We often cope with sugar, caffeine, drugs, and alcohol as a way to drown stress out, and completely avoid dealing with it, however we all know that avoidance isn’t the answer. If you instead tackle life’s problems head-on, you will have a clear mind, sleep better, have more energy, and a sense of peace in your life.
I realize it can be difficult to just cut out our vices, which is why I always preach slow and steady change. Even if the next time you reach for a candy bar you simply ask, “do I really need this?”, you’re on the right track. Awareness is the first step to change!
A good laugh boosts endorphins in the brain and can help improve your mood. Lighten up by watching a favorite sitcom or chatting with someone who makes you smile. Goofing off can be helpful, because play encourages creativity and allows you to connect to your inner child. Some of the best moments in life are the times where you can completely let loose and just have fun being your goofy and ridiculous self, without caring what anyone thinks.
10. Accept that we’re human and we all make mistakes
Don’t create a catastrophe over a mistake, as this will only add to the stress of a situation. If you make a mistake, accept it for what it is and that you can’t change it, and move on.
Accepting your talents and limitations, and understanding that you are imperfect and human, is a crucial step to stress management and self-love. Focus on life experiences where you’ve been successful and not where you have failed. See the positives in your mistakes and setbacks and choose to believe in yourself and your ability to learn from them.
Trying to control the uncontrollable is a straightjacket, particularly trying to control the behavior of other people. Instead of stressing over someone else’s behavior, try focusing on your own reaction to their behavior, and how you can make the situation better for yourself. We cannot avoid negative things and people (unfortunately), so learning to manage reactions and making a choice to not let negativity penetrate you is important.
You must learn to forgive yourself and others for mistakes, which leads us to the next one…
Forgiveness is a choice, and maybe one of the hardest choices we have to make is deciding to let go of the pain and hurt inflicted upon us by others. But holding onto grudges only causes more stress and pain.
We have to accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world, and let go of anger and resentment because really, it’s only hurting you. Carrying around a grudge can feel like a 100-pound weight, and the practice of letting go can be healing and set you free.
We cannot avoid all stress, however there are many stressors that are avoidable, and while we cannot control how others treat us, and while it hurts to be betrayed, we have to choose how we react to every situation and how we let it affect us.
So what now?
Try to identify how you cope with stress. Are you an emotional eater? Do you smoke, drink, or stay busy? Do you over function or under function? These are important questions to ask yourself as you try to incorporate stress management. You can catch yourself in the act of unhealthy coping, and practice one of the strategies above instead.
Try not to make stress management a stressful practice. Reading these tips and thinking about fitting them into your life right now might seem overwhelming. That’s okay, you don’t have to do a 180, and I don’t recommend it! Pick one thing from the list above that you feel is realistic for you to try, and just focus on that one thing until it becomes a regular habit, then move on to the next!
“For fast acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin
If you feel that you struggle with stress management and need guidance, that’s what I’m here for. Schedule a free 30 minute call with me, and we will come up with a specific action plan for you!
This article is primarily focused on how to reduce stress and the healthy coping mechanisms. To understand how stress negatively affects our bodies and health, read a previous article here.
(1) Graphic by The American Institute of Stress www.stress.org/stress-is-killing-you