Tips to Manage Stress
Our bodies have a hard time differentiating between real and perceived stressors, which means we can end up in a cycle of chronic stress. People are usually good at managing acute stressors that show up and and are quickly resolved. But we tend to struggle with long-term, ongoing stressors. In a state of chronic stress the sympathetic nervous system is almost always primed and ready to go, with hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol regularly being produced.
If you can't turn off your fight or flight, you'll be chronically stressed. Unfortunately, some stressors such as unemployment, poverty or abuse are impossible to control. But if you are dealing with other forms of stress, you can use some tools to manage your stress levels.
- Learn to say no. A significant cause of stress can be taking on too much responsibility at work, in your friend circle, or within your family. Learn that "no" is a complete sentence and that you don't have to explain yourself when it comes to requests that wear you down or stress you out.
- Practice deep breathing. By breathing deeply into the diaphragm, you can stimulate the vagus nerve, activating your parasympathetic nervous system. This tool is the simplest and easiest way to help calm your stress response.
- Meditation. Lots of people find the practice of meditation relaxing and can help calm the stress response. There are many types of meditation, so if sitting quietly and breathing doesn't work, you can try guided meditations, walking meditations, or any other form that interests you.
- Exercise. Moving your body is a great way to help burn off the nervous energy we can experience when stressed out. It can be a fun and effective tool for stress management.
- Yoga. This practice often combines the benefits of deep breathing with exercise and meditation, giving you a triple-layered approach to managing your stress levels. If you really struggle to slow down and relax, restorative yin is an excellent choice.
- Make time for your hobbies. We are often so focused on work, family, and our to-do lists that we forget about the hobbies and activities that make us happy and help us relax. If you're feeling stressed, try reconnecting with your favorite hobbies such as painting, knitting, drawing, reading, hiking, and writing to name a few.
- Take a break and slow down. Sometimes, we really need to stop focusing on doing and shift our focus to just being. Learning to slow down can be challenging, but it can greatly impact your stress levels if you take the time to rest and relax.
What Are the Different Types of Stress?
Generally speaking, there are two main categories of stress: eustress and distress. Stress is our body's physiological response to real or imagined danger that releases cascades of hormones that prime us for our stress response. While stress gets a bad rap in general, we need some stress in our lives for our bodies to grow and stay resilient.
Eustress is any moderate or normal physical, psychological, or biochemical stress that positively affects the person experiencing it. This type of stress can be positive, motivating, and enhance your overall function, such as:
- Roller coasters.
- A fun challenge, such as the first day at a new job.
- Scary movies.
- Anything that provides a moderate amount of stress that can make you stronger and more resilient.
What counts as eustress can vary depending on the person, but overall, it should benefit your life.
On the other hand, distress is a type of stress that can be overwhelming and lead to adverse health outcomes by over-activating the fight, flight, fawn, or freeze part of the nervous system. Distressing events include things such as:
- Death of a loved one.
- Injury, illness, or hospitalization.
- Fights with friends or family.
- Poverty, money troubles, or worries.
- Overwhelming work or school stress.
- Being abused or neglected.
- Time management issues.
- Anxiety, depression, or rumination.
- Over or under eating.
When to Seek Help for Stress
Sometimes our stress levels can become so overwhelming that we feel like we can no longer manage on our own. If any of the signs below become chronic, it might indicate that you need outside support to help you deal with your stress levels:
- Feelings of hopelessness or despair.
- Constant anger, irritability, anxiety, impatience, or tension.
- Inability to focus or concentrate on things you used to enjoy and mental fatigue.
- Tension headaches, muscle aches, jaw pain, or issues with your tendons and ligaments.
- Chronically elevated blood pressure levels and rapid heartbeat.
- Chronic digestive issues such as diarrhea or constipation, IBS, heartburn, acid reflux, gas, and other bowel issues.
- Insomnia and racing thoughts.
- Cold or clammy hands and feet.
- Problems with your immune system such as constant colds and cases of flu. Cortisol suppresses immune function, so you may find yourself getting sick more often if you are constantly stressed out.
If left untreated, chronic stress can eventually lead to serious issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or IBS.
How to Seek Help for Stress
When it comes to managing stress, talk with your doctor about whether they can refer you to a therapist or counselor specializing in your specific type of stress. They may also be able to prescribe particular medications if you are struggling with anxiety or depression.
You can also search online for therapists or counselors in your area to help you learn how to deal with your stress if you can't get to your doctor or don't have one. There are often sliding-scale counselors available to work with online or in person, depending on your preference.
The important thing is that you find someone who has qualifications (degrees and certifications) to work with the type of stressors you are experiencing, whether they stem from trauma and abuse or work-related issues.
- The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Effect of Meditation on Stress-Induced Changes in Cognitive Functions)
- Health & Fitness Journal (Stress Relief: The Role of Exercise in Stress Management)
- The Medical Journal of Australia (“Stress” and coronary heart disease: psychosocial risk factors)
- National Library of Medicine (Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome)