Stress is a normal reaction to change, and can be beneficial for the body in some ways. In most cases, we are able to cope. But when stress becomes chronic and interferes with your daily routine, it can take a heavy toll on your health and wellbeing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 80% of health care is spent on stress-related conditions, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, sleep disturbances, depression and weight gain. Although we can’t avoid stress, there are ways to help manage it.
Breathing exercises. Your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid when you are under stress. Simply being aware of this allows you to be better prepared to focus on taking longer, deeper breaths. Directing thoughts to relaxing your body while slowly inhaling and exhaling is a tried-and-true method for feeling calmer. You don’t have to wait until you are feeling tense to practice deep breathing; this technique can bring relief any time of the day.
Exercise. Physical activity is the perfect outlet for releasing negative thoughts and emotions. Problems seem less intrusive when we are active, yet become harder to deal with during times of inactivity. Whether heading out for a walk, joining a gym or finding an exercise video to use at home, working out is a golden opportunity to get away and take care of yourself.
For those who tend to get agitated or angry when they are stressed, more intense forms of activity such as punching a heavy bag or going for a long run or power walk can do wonders. For others, feelings of fatigue, sadness or hopelessness surface. In this case, motivation is hard to come by, and the idea of exercise may seem out of the question. If this happens to you, it’s important to re-focus on what research clearly shows, which is that exercise creates a shift in body chemistry, automatically increasing the feel-good hormones responsible for helping you feel better.
Massage and stretch. When you are under stress, you may not realize that your muscles involuntarily contract, which can leave you feeling stiff, achy and out of sorts. The neck, back and shoulders are the most commonly affected areas. Recognizing that you may be tensing up when stressed is step one. Getting a massage, or taking just a few minutes to gently stretch, can make all the difference, leaving you relaxed and refreshed.
Positive thinking. Worry, anger, disappointment and frustration are emotional states that come about as a result of our perceptions and expectations. If you find yourself in a negative-thinking pattern, practice replacing those thoughts with positive ones. This can be as simple as recalling a pleasant memory, or looking forward to a vacation.
Do something good. Reaching out to others who need your help is another way to change a negative mindset into a positive one. By helping someone less fortunate, you are being proactive instead of reactive and making a difference in someone’s life.
Spend time with your pet. Studies have shown that people who enjoy the company of pets have a significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure while resting. They also have much smaller increases in blood pressure and heart rate while under stress. Pet owners had the lowest increases in pressure and rate while their pets were present.
Write it down. When circumstances come about that you cannot control, write down the sources of stress as well as your responses to them. Putting thoughts to paper makes things clearer and provides the opportunity to think logically instead of emotionally about the situation.
Take good care of yourself. Everyone deserves some downtime, so make time to relax and unwind as often as possible. If your schedule is packed, a simple 15-minute nap can make a huge difference in your energy levels and mood. Try distancing yourself from the telephone, computer and television when you get home. Treat yourself to a new outfit, manicure, pedicure or massage; curl up with a good book; or take a relaxing bath. People who are overly stressed often find it difficult to sleep, so do your best to spend an hour or so before bedtime unwinding and relaxing.
Some stress is good. Luckily, not all stress is counterproductive. It can act as a motivator or as an energizer, depending on the person. Instead of dreading a stressful event, use the situation as your opportunity to practice your coping skills.
Just as it takes time and practice to learn a new job or new sport, it takes time and practice to learn how to successfully manage stress, so take it a day at a time.
Don’t go it alone. If despite your best efforts, your stress is unmanageable, seek help. Any situation affecting your ability to live a happy, productive life should be taken seriously and dealt with as soon as possible.