Stress management is essential if you want to lead a happy and efficient life. There are many different types of stress management strategies. They include everything from exercise to cultivating an attitude of gratitude.
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Stress is a natural part of life.
This isn’t always a bad thing. A small amount of stress can sometimes help you sharpen your focus. It can spur you on to greater productivity and efficiency.
However, when it becomes a dominant player in your life experience, stress can be dangerous and damaging. It can compromise your mental health, hinder your productivity and cause harm to your physical body.
That’s where stress management comes in. Though you may not be able to banish stress completely, there are steps you can take diminish it and minimize its impact on your life.
In this article, we will:
- Define stress and explain the role it plays in the human experience
- Discuss the two main types of stress
- Show you how to spot the signs of stress
- Identify common stressors and explain why it’s helpful to know the cause of your stress
- Discuss the ways in which stress can negatively impact your health
- Share tips that will help you manage stress
- Identify the benefits that come with effective stress management
What is stress?
Stress is a physical or emotional response that you experience when faced with certain events, circumstances or thoughts. It can manifest itself in many different ways. Depending on the person and the situation, stress can trigger any one of a host of unpleasant emotions. It can leave you feeling angry, fearful, nervous, vulnerable or frustrated.
The factor that creates this stress is referred to as a stressor. There are many different kinds of stressors. For example, if you’re having trouble with your marriage, it could be a stressor in your life. Preparing for a presentation at work could also be a stressor until the event is complete.
When it’s faced with stress, your body reacts by releasing hormones. These hormones sharpen your brain function and help make you more alert in that moment. They also cause your muscles to tense, and they increase your pulse.
This is what is called the “fight or flight” response, and it’s the body’s reaction to danger. It evolved as a survival mechanism that helps humans and other mammals stage a quick and effective response in perilous circumstances.
In certain situations, this response is a good thing, because it can sharpen your reflexes and help you deal with the situation that’s causing the stress more effectively. However, if you’re constantly in a stress state, it can place great strain on your body over time.
Types of stress
There are two types of stress:
Acute stress impacts you over the short term and dissipates quickly. It’s that rush of adrenaline you feel in emergency situations. For example, you experience acute stress in the moment when you slam on your car’s brakes to avoid colliding with that deer that appeared out of nowhere. You may also feel this kind of stress when you’re having an emotional fight with a friend or partner.
Acute stress is unavoidable. In certain circumstances, it also serves an important purpose: It can help give us the alertness we need to survive in life-or-death situations.
Acute stress appears quickly and is gone in a flash. Chronic stress is different. This type of stress lingers, and it can hang around for weeks, months or even years. For example, if you have ongoing money problems, this issue may be a source of chronic stress. This type of stress may also be caused by longstanding problems at work.
It’s important to get a handle on chronic stress. Without effective stress management, it can negatively impact both your physical and mental health.
This article will focus on how to address chronic stress.
Signs of stress
How can you tell if you’re experiencing stress?
With acute stress, there’s a surge of adrenaline that’s easy to identify. You know right away that you’re in a stress state, and you know when that state has ended.
With chronic stress, the signs are a lot less obvious. If you’ve been experiencing chronic stress over a long period of time, you may have learned to live with the symptoms, and you may barely even notice them. While the signs may be less glaring, make no mistake: Over the long term, chronic stress can have a devastating effect on your health.
Here are some signs that may be indicative of chronic stress:
Do you constantly feel exhausted and run-down? This could be your body’s response to ongoing stress.
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Stress can literally keep you up at night, and it may be a factor if you have a hard time falling asleep. On the other end of the spectrum, sleeping more than eight or nine hours each night may also be a symptom of high stress levels.
Weight loss or weight gain
Sometimes stress diminishes your appetite, and this can cause you to lose weight. Conversely, some of us turn to comfort food to escape stressful situations. Over the long term, this can lead to weight gain.
Certain situations can cause your stomach to churn. This is one of the body’s responses to stress.
Difficulty focusing at work
When you’re anxious and stressed out, it may affect your ability to stay focused at work. This can ultimately impact your productivity.
To succeed and shine, we need to keep our energy levels high. Stress can rob you of your energy. This can make it difficult to maintain the stamina necessary to complete projects both at work and at home.
A high stress level can sometimes cause a headache. If this becomes chronic, it can severely impact your quality of life.
The picture gets even more bleak if you suffer from migraines. Stress can sometimes trigger debilitating migraine headaches in those who deal with this condition.
Stress can sometimes impact your mental functioning. In some cases, it can leave you feeling forgetful and spacey.
Constipation or diarrhea
Your stomach can sometimes take the brunt of the pressure when the stress level rises. Constipation or diarrhea are both physical symptoms of stress.
Frequent body aches and pains
One of the most harmful aspects of negative stress is the impact it can have on the overall way in which the body functions. Being in this state can leave you with frequent body aches and pains.
Jaw, neck or shoulder stiffness
Long-term stress keeps you in a state of high alert, and this can take a toll on your muscles. Jaw, neck or shoulder stiffness are common symptoms.
If your life has become a series of stressful events, this can cause sexual problems. It may lead to diminished interest in sex. With men, it can sometimes be a causative factor in erectile dysfunction.
Use of alcohol or drugs to unwind and relax
Many of us look for a way out when faced with life’s stressors. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs as a means of escape. Over time, constant use of these substances can lead to other health problems, as well as addiction.
If you’re experiencing stress, it can be extremely helpful to identify the cause. If you know what the stressor is, it may give you the insight you need to address it head-on.
Many of us feel most comfortable and secure when our circumstances are stable and predictable. Change of any sort leads to uncertainty, and this can cause stress. In many cases, major life changes can wind up raising your stress level.
Here are some common life stressors:
If you’re about to get married, there’s a lot to think about when planning the wedding. You likely have to deal with everything from selecting a guest list to booking a location, and this can cause a great deal of stress. Also, weddings can be expensive, and the financial outlay may become a source of anxiety.
Once you’ve tied the knot, you may find yourself living a very different life relative to the way things were when you were single. This change in your everyday existence can wind up being a huge source of stress.
Divorce can be painful and messy. It can take a toll on your emotions as well as your finances, and this can be stressful.
The death of a spouse, close friend or close family member
The death of a loved one can shake us to the core. As you work your way through the grieving process, you’ll likely experience high stress levels.
Getting laid off
Our jobs provide us with the money we need to survive. If we’re suddenly laid off, it may leave us in a situation of financial uncertainty. This can be stress-inducing.
Retirement is a phase of life that some people can’t wait to experience. However, if you love working and have always enjoyed your job, retirement may leave you feeling unproductive, stressed out and unfulfilled. Also, retirement may strain your finances in ways that trigger anxiety.
Having a baby
Babies need constant attention during the first few months of life. Caring for a new baby can leave you feeling sleep-deprived and stressed out.
Our safety and security in this world often revolve around money. If we’re experiencing financial difficulties, it can create the kind of lingering uncertainty that leads to stress.
There’s a lot to think about when you’re planning a move. In the weeks and days leading up to the big event, it’s common for a person’s stress level to climb.
Having a major illness
A serious illness impacts more than just our health. Depending on your situation, it may prevent you from working, and this can strain your finances. Also, if your illness requires hospitalization, you may find yourself facing steep medical bills. These factors can cause a great deal of stress.
We spend most of our days at work. If there is conflict or drama in that environment, it can leave us feeling anxious and stressed out.
Problems at home
Problems at home can take many different forms. Maybe you’re not getting along with your roommate, or maybe you’re in the middle of a difficult home renovation. Whatever the nature of the problem, know that it can affect your stress levels.
The impact of stress on your health
Chronic stress can wreck your health over the long term. It can cause diseases and conditions that can harm your well-being and diminish your overall quality of life.
Here are some of the ways in which stress can negatively impact your health:
High blood pressure
When stress hormones are released, this causes your blood vessels to restrict and tighten. This stress reaction can raise your blood pressure.
As mentioned, stress causes high blood pressure. This can damage your arteries over time, and it could ultimately leave you susceptible to a heart attack.
Stress can prevent your reproductive system from functioning properly. This can happen with both men and women. In some cases, it can make it more difficult to conceive.
It’s not uncommon for men of all ages to deal with erectile dysfunction at some level. Stress is often a contributing factor in this condition.
Many people turn to food to calm and soothe themselves when faced with chronic stress. This can increase the risk of obesity.
When you’re facing stress, your liver produces additional glucose to give you an energy boost. If stress is a constant in your life, your body may not be able to manage the extra glucose being pumped out by your liver. This can raise your blood sugar and increase your risk of getting type 2 diabetes.
Back and shoulder pain
Your muscles naturally tense up when you’re stressed. This is the body’s way of protecting you from injury in dangerous situations. Over time, stress can place a great deal of strain on your muscles, and this can cause back and shoulder pain.
Stress gives your immune system a jolt that can be beneficial over the short term. The extra stimulation can help prevent infections and speed up wound healing. Over the long term, though, stress hormones can place a huge burden on your immune system. This can make you more susceptible to viruses such as the flu and the common cold.
Heartburn and acid reflux
Stress causes a rush of hormones that can upset your digestive system. It can cause an increase in stomach acid, and this can make you more likely to develop heartburn and acid reflux.
Shortness of breath
When you’re under stress, you may find yourself breathing harder and faster. All this is part of the fight-or-flight response. If you’re going to run from or fight an enemy, your muscles will need all the oxygen they can get so they can perform. By ramping up your breathing, your body is making sure that oxygen-rich blood is distributed to your muscles.
This aspect of the stress response may leave you feeling short of breath. If you have a condition such as asthma or emphysema, the effect may be even more pronounced.
Stress can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Once you’re asleep, stress can make if more likely for you to wake repeatedly during the night.
Over the long term, stress can wear you down in ways that leave you feeling out of control and defeated. This can lead to depression.
Women sometimes find that stress affects their hormones in ways that impact the menstrual cycle. This can lead to missed periods. In the most severe cases, stress may stop the menstrual cycle completely.
Stress management strategies
You don’t have to live with excessive stress. Stress management can help you take control of your physical and mental health in even the most challenging circumstances.
Here are some stress management strategies to consider:
1. Take up yoga
Defeating stress is all about learning how to relax. Research has shown that yoga is an incredibly effective relaxation technique.
In a 2005 study involving 24 female participants, yoga was shown to reduce cortisone levels in the body; cortisol is the stress hormone. After a three-month yoga program, participants in the study exhibited lower levels of anxiety, stress, fatigue and depression.
2. Try progressive muscle relaxation
Muscle tension is one way in which the body reacts to stress. Progressive muscle relaxation actively works to relieve this symptom.
This approach to stress relief involves tensing a group of muscles as you inhale, and relaxing them as you exhale. You work on one muscle group at a time. Eventually, you cover all the body’s major muscle groups.
Relaxation and anxiety exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. This technique works because it’s impossible for the body to feel tense and stressed when it’s relaxed.
A guided audio recording may be helpful as you get started. If you suffer from insomnia, progressive muscle relaxation can be used to help you fall asleep.
3. Breathe deeply
Deep breathing sounds simple and basic, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking it doesn’t produce meaningful results.
Abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes each day can work wonders when it comes to stress relief. If you’re dealing with an acute stress response, abdominal breathing combined with visualization can quickly calm your nerves and take you to a more peaceful place.
4. Practice tai chi
Tai chi is a type of exercise that’s existed in China for centuries. It’s rooted in martial arts traditions, and it emphasizes slow, deliberate movements and focused breathing.
A 2017 study showed that tai chi is an effective tool in reducing stress and anxiety. Research also shows that tai chi can help you get more restful sleep.
5. Get physical
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise creates a response in your body that soothes stress. This type of physical activity ramps up your body’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters, and they can leave you feeling euphoric.
This sensation is often referred to as runner’s high, but it’s not exclusive to running. You can trigger this feeling by engaging in any type of exercise, from a brisk game of tennis to an early-morning power walk.
6. Explore meditation
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice that was originally created to facilitate a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries. These days, it’s been shown to be an effective tool for stress reduction.
This time-honored practice can help you feel more relaxed during stressful moments. Better yet, it can expand your awareness in ways that give you fresh perspective on stressful situations. There are many different types of mindfulness meditation, but they typically involve focused attention, a quiet setting, a comfortable position and relaxed breathing.
7. Seek social support
In some cases, you can relieve stress by talking about the situation you’re experiencing. If you have a close relationship with a friend or family member, turn to this person when you’re feeling anxious or stressed out. Sharing what you’re going through may help you navigate stressful circumstances more easily.
8. Become the observer
Stress is nothing more than a reaction. If we can step outside that reaction and observe it from a distance, it loses its power.
The Mayo Clinic says that when you find yourself experiencing stress, become the observer. Don’t try to fight the feeling or diminish it – simply observe it. Become aware of your body’s response to the stressor. Stress can sometimes trigger irrational thoughts. Take note of these thoughts and ask yourself if they are true.
If you make an effort to create this kind of awareness when faced with stress, it can help you respond to triggering situations in a calmer, more rational way.
9. Start a stress journal
Writing things down has a way of making us feel better. A stress journal can be an important tool in your quest to lead a more peaceful life. You can use this journal to keep track of things that cause stress in your life; you can also use it to maintain a record of your stress response.
If you’re experimenting with different stress management techniques, you can use this journal to track your results. This will help you know what’s working and what isn’t.
10. Learn how to say “no”
Often times, we create stress in our lives by taking on more than we can handle. This can happen at work when we agree to tackle projects that overburden us. It can also happen at home when we make commitments to family members and wind up stretching ourselves too thin.
If you can acknowledge that this is happening and pinpoint that it’s causing stress, it makes it easier to deal with the situation. Once you’ve realized that your stress is being triggered by the fact that you take on too many responsibilities, it becomes easier for you to say “no” when someone makes a request.
11. Avoid stressful people
Some people are constant sources of stress in our lives. If you’re currently dealing with someone like that and it’s causing problems, make an effort to spend less time with that person. You may even want to consider ending the relationship.
12. Manage your environment
Stress can sometimes be triggered by things in our environment. The good news is that you have more control over your environment than you realize.
For example, watching the evening news causes some people to become fearful and anxious. If this is the case for you, stop watching the news, or watch it less often. Manage your environment to create a reality for yourself that’s as stress-free as possible.
13. Streamline your responsibilities
In many cases, the more we have to do, the more stressed out we become. Take a hard look at the responsibilities that are currently on your plate. Is there anything there that isn’t truly necessary? If so, drop it to the bottom of your list of priorities or get rid of it entirely. Lightening your load in this way can pave the way for a more peaceful existence.
14. Reframe challenging situations
You always have a choice in deciding how to view a situation. If you’re in the middle of a difficult circumstance, try to see the positive aspect, and view it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
For example, if you’re stuck in traffic, instead of fuming, see it as an opportunity to slow down, relax and listen to your favorite song on the radio. Know that everything in life has the potential to enrich our experience in some way.
15. Cultivate gratitude
Most of us have things in our lives that we’re grateful for, and reflecting on these things can shift our mood and lift our spirits. If stress is getting you down, take a few minutes to think about the people and things that you appreciate most. Shifting your focus in this way can help you leave stress behind.
16. Become more forgiving
Holding on to grudges and resentment can poison your life experience. If someone has made a mistake or offended you in some way, make it your goal to forgive them. This forgiveness will help you release stress and lead a less burdened life.
17. Set aside time for self-care
Many of us spend most our lives taking care of other people. If you want to lead a happy, balanced life, it’s important to make time to take care of yourself.
Dedicate some time in your schedule each week for self-care. This can be something as simple as taking a relaxing bath or treating yourself to your favorite meal. These moments of self-care can have a powerful impact when it comes to reducing stress.
18. Consume less caffeine and sugar
A lot of us rely on caffeine and sugar for a quick rush of energy. This may be somewhat effective over the short term, but foods that contain these ingredients can eventually cause a crash that darkens our mood and causes our energy level to take a nosedive. Also, caffeine and sugar can cause our sleep to become less restful, and this can have a negative effect on our well-being and productivity.
Make it your intention to consume less caffeine and sugar in your daily life.
19. Stay away from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
Self-medicating with alcohol, cigarettes or drugs may seem like a quick fix for stress, but these substances only serve to mask the true problem. The best way to deal with stress is to face it directly with a clear mind.
Using alcohol, cigarettes and drugs to try and cope with the problem can prevent you from seeing the true picture. If you can’t see what’s causing the stress, you won’t be able to resolve the issue.
These habits can also create dependencies that may wind up making your stress even worse over the long term.
20. Consume more magnesium
Your body’s nervous system needs magnesium to function efficiently. Unfortunately, estimates indicate that up to 50 percent of the U.S. population is magnesium-deficient.
Make sure your body’s nervous system has the magnesium it needs to combat stress by eating foods that are rich in this mineral. These include:
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale
- Nuts such as almonds and cashews
- Seeds such as hemp seeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds
- Lima beans
- Brown rice
- Dark chocolate
You can also supplement with magnesium. Oral supplements are offered.
There are also supplements available that are absorbed via the skin. These can be particularly effective, since certain health conditions can hinder the body’s ability to absorb this mineral via the digestive system.
21. Eat a healthy diet
Certain foods can have a negative impact on our overall health and mental state. If we’re not feeling our best due to our diet, this can magnify the impact of stress.
Instead of processed foods, choose whole foods and meals made with clean, natural ingredients. For example, the healthy fats in fish and nuts can help your body handle stress more efficiently. And some vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, are packed with nutrients that can help reduce anxiety.
22. Take responsibility
If there’s a stressful circumstance in your life, it’s important to acknowledge the role you play in sustaining it. Doing so can empower you to take action in improving the situation, instead of casting yourself as a trapped victim.
Benefits of stress management
Stress management can improve your life in meaningful ways. Here are a few benefits that come with taking steps to banish stress:
- Better sleep
- Healthier weight
- Stronger immune system, which means you’re less likely to get colds
- Better mood
- Easier relationships with family and friends
- Improved productivity at work
- Sharpened focus and greater mental clarity
- More energy
Now you have the insight you need to practice effective stress management. Whether your first step involves something physical such as getting more exercise or something mental such as reframing challenging situations, take action. By making stress management a priority, you’ll be implementing changes that have the power to improve your life in profound ways.
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