Almost anyone you talk to will tell you they’ve had to deal with stress or a stressful situation at some point in their life.
Whether it’s work-related stress, stress related to family members, or the daily stress that many of us feel, learning how to cope with stress and manage the feelings of stress you experience is such an important skill that many people don’t have.
And while having a positive attitude surely does help, finding different ways to cope with the stress that is a normal part of life, can help you to manage acute stress as it pops up in your daily life.
What Is Stress?
The first step in learning how to cope with stress is actually understanding what stress is.
Stress is a hormonal response in the body that is part of our survival mechanisms.
It is the basis of our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response that has allowed the human species to survive, and in our cavemen days, allowed us to outrun our predators.
Whenever our body encounters a stimulus that we deem to be a threat, our body creates a cascade of events to ensure our survival.
Stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body, causing our body to reduce ‘non-essential’ functions (such as digestion) and redirect resources to our large muscles (to allow us to run faster), to our lungs and heart (to allow us to breathe faster and our heart beat faster and stronger to oxygenate our blood and increase blood flow) and to certain regions of our brain (to be able to make decisions faster).
Cortisol and adrenaline aren’t bad hormones, they are actually required for various healthy functions throughout our body.
The modern problem we have with stress is that our bodies see many of our everyday activities in the same threatening way it saw a saber tooth tiger.
Research shows that we are even having heightened stress responses to the notifications on our phones.
What this means is that we have very little non-stressful downtime, and our bodies aren’t able to regulate as easily between non-threatening activities, and those that genuinely do pose a threat to our survival.
Signs Of Stress
Many people show symptoms of stress without even realizing it.
We often think stress looks like someone who is overworked, on the verge of a breakdown, and pulling their hair out, but this isn’t usually the case (for most people).
An important thing to keep in mind is that different people show signs of stress in different ways. Your signs of stress may look different from someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean you or they are more stressed than the other.
Alternatively, you may feel like you don’t have much stress at all, but show many of these signs of stress.
Sometimes, signs of stress can look like:
- low energy
- digestive issues and nausea
- muscle tension
- chest pain and tachycardia (increased heart rate)
- regularly getting sick or unable to recover easily from minor illnesses (decreased immune response)
- nervousness/shaking (even when seemingly without cause)
- jaw tension and grinding teeth
- feeling of worry
- unable to think clearly / brain fog
- poor judgment
- negative thoughts (more frequent than usual)
- decrease or increase in appetite
- weight fluctuations
- sleeping more
- lack of motivation
This isn’t even taking into account the long term effects of stress which can include:
- increase risk of heart disease and stroke
- increase risk of dementia
- increase risk of high blood pressure
- increased risk of respiratory issues such as asthma and emphysema
- increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
- migraines and tension headaches
- chronic pain
- acid reflux
- hormonal imbalances
- menstrual cycle disruptions
- increase risk of obesity (and therefore obesity-related risks too)
You can see the massive effect stress can have in so many different areas of our lives, even when we don’t realize or recognize that we are stressed.
What’s even more alarming is that it doesn’t take high levels of stress to cause these negative effects.
So, what do we do about it?
Stress Management Techniques
When it comes to managing stress, we can easily turn to unhealthy behaviors because they’re simple and often readily available.
These are things like comfort eating (hello block of chocolate after dinner) increased use of alcohol (your glass of wine to relax at the end of the day turns into a bottle of wine), making poor decisions, and withdrawing from things that make us happy such as exercise and time with loved ones.
Managing your stress isn’t about not having any stress at all or completely eliminating it. Stress is a normal part of life and one that can be beneficial in some ways.
This is about being able to recognize when you are stressed (perhaps you have some of the symptoms from above) and being able to take steps to manage that acute stress so it doesn’t take over.
Identify Your Stressors
It’s always a good idea to be able to identify the cause of your stress.
While you may not be able to completely eliminate your stressors, being aware of them can help you to prepare and put a plan into place so you can mitigate the effects the stressor has on you.
You might absolutely hate your job and work stress is right up there on your list of stressors, but if you can’t quit, having some of these stress management techniques up your sleeve can help.
And while family responsibilities certainly cause stress, being able to identify these and put boundaries in place (it’s okay to say no) along with these tips to help you manage, can turn your high-stress levels into something a little more manageable for you.
Stress Management Techniques
Understanding what stress is, knowing what stress looks like for you, identifying your stressors, and using these stress management techniques can help you to cope with the stress you experience in different situations, and allow you to bring yourself back to a place where you feel in control.
These are some healthy ways for you to cope with stress:
1 – Move Your Body & Exercise
Regular exercise is one of the easiest but most overlooked forms of medication. Yes!! Medication! Because it can reverse so many health problems and has so many positive effects on the body.
This is why exercise is a great way to manage and cope with stress.
While it may be one of the last things you want to do when you are feeling stressed, it can actually have really rapid effects on reducing stress, and being able to deal with the problems at hand.
Exercise has also been proven to be one of the easiest ways to release feelings of anger or anxiety by releasing endorphins (those feel-good hormones) through physical activity.
On top of that, exercise strengthens the immune system and improves cognitive functioning so it’s an excellent method for reducing stress levels naturally, and can help offset the negative effects stress has on the immune system.
If you’re working on changing how you currently handle stressful situations in life, try adding some form of physical activity into your daily routine.
It will help release tension from the body while giving you plenty of time to examine what might be causing your stress (as well as give you better mental capacity to create a plan to deal with the stressful situation).
Whether it’s going on a walk or long run, putting on your favorite music and dancing around, or playing with your dog, it can all be a helpful way to deal with stress.
Do whatever it is you enjoy doing and get your body moving on a regular basis.
2 – Slow Down With Meditation & Deep Breathing
Mindful meditation has long been proclaimed as a way to reduce stress and has been used throughout the ages in varying capacities through many different regions of the world.
The practice of meditation can enhance self-awareness and reduce the effects of stress on the body.
Studies have shown that deep breathing and breath control, like those used in meditative practices, have linked parasympathetic activity, and central nervous system activities related to emotional control and psychological well-being.
What this means is the deep diaphragmatic breathing (in a healthy person, at a rate of approximately 6 breaths per minute) can have physical effects on the nervous system, which in turn creates a positive effect on our ability to control our emotions and mental health.
We also know that meditation prior to bed can help induce deeper sleep, including REM sleep, which is another way to help cope with stress.
3 – Prioritize Self-Care
Self-care is an effective way to not only reduce stress but help you to cope in various stressful situations.
Whether you curl up with a good book, take a long warm bath, get out to your happy place, or sit and drink some herbal tea and just zone out – taking time for yourself and doing something that feels relaxing and allows you to step away from your stressors is important.
Taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do and regular self-care practice can make it a lot easier for you to use self-care as a way to cope with stress.
Schedule regular time each week for self-care, and make sure you include at least one self-care practice daily.
While this might sound overwhelming (and dare I say, stressful) to start, your self-care doesn’t need to take any more than a few minutes each day to have positive effects.
While you’re at it, be sure to speak kindly to, and about, yourself. Positive self-talk can have a big impact on how you see yourself and therefore how you cope in a difficult situation (such a stressful one).
4 – Quality Sleep
The stress sleep relationship is quite complex, in some cases stress can cause a person to sleep more, and on the other hand, some types of stress can cause impaired sleep. It can all be quite confusing.
However, the one thing that is consistent is the need for quality sleep and the positive effects it has on stress.
Not getting enough quality sleep can play a big part in your stress levels. When you’re stressed it can cause you to lose sleep.
While we often hear that we need 8 hours of sleep a night for healthy function, 8 hours of broken, restless sleep is not as good as 6 hours of restful REM sleep.
Focus on creating positive sleep associations for yourself, a nighttime sleep routine, and removing phones and other devices that have been shown to have a negative impact on our sleep.
While it is still important to get enough sleep, rather than worry about how much sleep you’re getting, focus on getting better quality sleep, and then go from there.
5 – Take Time To Connect With Others
You know that feeling when you just need a hug, or need to talk to someone who understands, or how darn good a vent session can make you feel?
This is because as humans, we need connection. We need to connect with others, feel like we belong, and find others who have similar views and experiences to us.
Thankfully, we live in a world where connection can be just a few clicks away.
While in-person connection is often the preferred choice (there’s just something different about face-to-face interactions), online connections can be beneficial too.
Having someone to share the load, someone to talk to, and someone who makes you feel like you’re not alone can quickly help bring your stress levels down.
Bonus points you can share in a good belly laugh too.
6 – Use Time Management Techniques
Managing your time can also be a helpful factor in lowering your stress levels.
Creating routines to manage your day helps keep your thoughts organized and can help you to be more efficient and productive with your time.
Routines are different from schedules – schedules require you to stick to certain time constraints, which can be helpful to some and more stressful to others.
However, routines are a series of tasks completed in the same sequence. This can be something like your morning routine that is the same regardless of what time you get up, or your nighttime routine which can be started at any time that suits you.
Be sure to set aside times of the day where you can take breaks from your main activities throughout the day. Rest time is important for your mental health and actually increases productivity.
Do something every day to make your day enjoyable. Don’t overcommit yourself to tasks you don’t enjoy, and always try to break big projects into smaller steps.
To-do lists are another great way to get thoughts out of your head and onto paper so you can organize and prioritize them too.
7 – Ask For Support
Sometimes the most you can do to help yourself is ask for support.
Support comes in many forms, whether it’s professional help with our mental health and coping strategies, or love and connection from family and friends, or even delegating tasks and removing things from your mental load is considered support too.
Seeking help from a counselor or psychologist can help you in so many different ways. They can help you to identify your biggest causes of stress (these aren’t always what we think), and work towards the recovery process from chronic stress.
Asking for support is one of the best ways to reduce stress and can also help your emotional health as it makes you feel like you don’t have to ‘do it all’ yourself.
8 – Eat A Healthy Diet
Did you know there are certain foods that can actually increase your stress and making it a lot more difficult for you to cope with stressful situations?
One way to ensure you’re in top shape to deal with stress is to ensure you eat a balanced diet.
Your physical health is deeply connected to your mental health, and studies have even shown that your gut health, which can be negatively affected by stress, can cause detrimental effects to your nervous system and mental health.
It’s a cycle that can just keep going.
Changes such as moderating your caffeine intake and reducing the amount of processed sugar you have may seem like simple things in the short term, but they really do have a compounding effect on how you manage ongoing stress and your overall health.
The good news is, the more you create positive and healthy habits to manage your stress, the less you will feel the need to turn towards things like alcohol, caffeine, and sugar to get your quick fix.
9 – Try Journaling
There’s a reason why so many professionals recommend journaling for the management of stress, and that’s because it really does work.
You might think that writing a few things down doesn’t really equate to feeling better, but there’s power in getting thoughts out of our heads and onto paper, and it allows us to process things differently too.
The key is to not overcomplicate things when it comes to journaling.
Set aside a little time, and just start writing.
If you’re having trouble getting those first few words onto the page, you can use journal prompts to help you, or simply start with ‘Today I feel….’
10 – Head Outdoors
Did you know Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to have an impact on how we process stress and anxiety and the solution to the deficiency is right outside your home?
Spending 10-15 minutes outside in the sun (with your forearms and legs exposed) a few times a week is in most cases all you need in order to achieve adequate blood levels of Vitamin D. But so many people aren’t getting this!
Even a short walk in the sun, breathing in the fresh air, can make a huge difference to how we feel and how we cope with stress.
Plus it’s such an easy thing to do that doesn’t take much work to reap the benefits.
11 – Listen To Your Body
When was the last time you took a moment to really listen to your body? Close your eyes, think about how your body feels, what areas of your body are aching, what feels good, what do you feel your body needs?
This is such a simple thing to do but because we get so caught up in the stress and busyness of our lives, we forget that our body is incredibly smart and will help us figure out what we need.
Laying on your back with your eyes closed and taking time to think about how your body feels is not only a good way to connect with your body, but also is one of the effective relaxation techniques associated with meditation.
You may find that your body feels tense so a stretch or massage may help.
Perhaps it feels sluggish and low on energy, so good nourishing foods to aid digestion could help.
It might feel tired and need good quality sleep?
Dry and itchy skin could mean you’re dehydrated or spend too much time in the air conditioning indoors.
Sore eyes might mean you’re not getting enough breaks from screen time.
Our bodies hold so many answers if we just take the time to listen.
As you can see, there are so many different things you can do and various ways to cope with stress, that can also have positive changes to your overall health, and reduce the effects ongoing stress can have on your long-term health.
Many of these things don’t take too much extra effort and the changes can be almost immediate.
Take some time to figure out which of these stress management techniques can work best for you (or maybe use a few) and practice them regularly to help you manage your stress and keep your stress levels at bay