If you are feeling a lot of stress lately, you’re not alone. According to the Stress in America survey, most Americans say they are under “overwhelming” stress levels. The fact is, dealing with stress is a natural part of being human. It is now known that people have been stressed since prehistoric times.
The problem is not that stress exists; it always has and always will. The problem is when stress becomes excessive or chronic, it can wreak havoc on the body, mind and spirit. The answer is not to eliminate stress altogether. It’s learning how to manage stress and keep stress levels balanced and healthy. That’s what stress management is all about.
Why is stress management so important?
Stress management is a somewhat academic-sounding term. Yet, it is simply a set of tools and techniques people can use to reduce everyday stress, cope better with personal and professional challenges, and restore a healthy, manageable level of stress in their lives.
For people who suffer from stress-related symptoms, reducing stress or getting stress relief should be on the top of their priority list. That’s because stress affects every aspect of life, including physical health, job satisfaction, relationships, self-esteem and day-to-day functioning.
On the upside, the benefits of learning to manage stress are immense: feeling more calm and centered, improved emotional regulation, the ability to experience joy, better connections with others, increased creativity, improved health in just about every way (better sleep, better cardiac health, lower blood pressure, better digestion…) The list goes on.
3 risks associated with excessive stress
A stress management plan can help prevent the most serious consequences of stress, and that is absolutely key to a healthy and satisfying life.
Here are three ways the body and mind may react to overwhelming or chronic stress:
- Burnout: Nearly 3 in 4 Americans are feeling burnt out at work due to stress. This shows up as lack of interest or motivation in their jobs, physical and emotional fatigue, and increased absenteeism. But burnout can happen outside of work too. People burned out from stress can have disrupted sleep, lack of energy and little enthusiasm or joy in their everyday lives.
- High blood pressure and heart disease: There is a strong link between excessive amounts of stress and cardiac health. Studies show that stress may lead to hardened arteries, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart attacks. Indeed, when people are diagnosed with heart disease, one of the common pieces of advice given by doctors – along with exercise, healthy eating and quitting smoking – is to reduce stress.
- Relationships suffer: Severe stress often leads to emotional dysregulation, making people more prone to anger and sadness, and less equipped to deal with their feelings. This can be hard on relationships, and people may find themselves becoming more isolated from their loved ones. This reduces their network of social support, which only increases stress.
4 ways to deal with stress quickly
Dealing with chronic stress requires a comprehensive and long-term approach (more on that below). For the everyday stress that is a normal part of life, it is a good idea to “nip it in the bud” with relaxation techniques before it gets out of control. The following techniques are great for quick stress relief in the moment.
- Go for a walk: Fresh air and physical movement are excellent antidotes to stress. Being outdoors clears the head, takes you away from the stressful situation and helps put things in perspective. Walking helps release pent-up energy, get blood flow going and reduce tension in the body. A brisk 10-minute walk can do wonders, and you can do it almost any time and anywhere.
- Breathe deeply: One of the physical effects of stress is a rapid heart rate, and shorter, shallower breaths, which reduces oxygen in the bloodstream and can create a sense of anxiety. Deep breathing is an easy and effective technique to reduce stress fast. Wherever you are, simply inhale through your nose to the count of 5, filling your lungs deeply, and then exhale to the count of 5 until all the breath is expelled. Repeat 5 times and feel the relaxing sensation.
- Sip a glass of cold water: Similar to deep breathing, taking a few moments to get up, pour a cold glass of water and drink it slowly can help you restore a more regular breathing pattern. It also gives a soothing ‘jolt’ to the system that can take the edge off rising stress.
- Play uplifting music: Research has shown the power of music to uplift or change one’s mood. If you are feeling stressed, put on some soothing or inspiring music. This can help cope with feelings of stress or pain by engaging different parts of the brain and distracting from stressful thoughts.
5 ways to manage stress in the longer term
Stress is a normal part of life, and the human body is designed to cope well with small amounts of stress. It can even cope with highly stressful events of short duration, by kicking in the body’s natural “fight or flight” response. The problem with stress is when it becomes chronic. Chronic stress is when stress levels are heightened over an extended period of time.
The individual may become accustomed to the ongoing stress, which becomes ‘background noise’. They may not be consciously aware of it, but it causes damage all the same. Chronic stress can lead to all sorts of physical and mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic fatigue, hormonal issues, high blood sugar and more.
If stress becomes chronic, you need to make stress management a part of your lifestyle and routine. There are many healthy ways to reduce stress so that it doesn’t become or stay chronic. Here are 5 suggestions for effective stress management over the long term:
- Exercise regularly and eat well: The importance of a healthy, balanced diet and making time to exercise regularly cannot be overstated. It is probably the most important building block for reducing stress. Eating well means consuming nutrient rich foods and reducing the intake of foods that are known to damage health, such as sugar, preservatives and highly processed items. Exercising regularly is proven to be beneficial to both physical and mental health on just about every parameter. You don’t need to become an athlete or take out expensive gym memberships. Even walking for 20 minutes every day will make a significant difference to stress levels.
The key is consistency; try to eat healthy and exercise most days. It is ok to indulge sometimes too; after all, pleasure is also a great stress reliever.
- Keep a journal: There are several reasons why keeping a stress journal is important for stress management. Firstly, writing a journal increases one’s self-awareness. As you come to know yourself better, you’ll be better equipped to understand your feelings and how stress manifests in your life. Secondly, by journaling, you are transferring the energy of your stressful thoughts and feelings from inside your body onto the page. This is extremely cathartic, and over time, can help reduce the buildup of stress. Thirdly, by tracking your daily life and stress responses, you gain a better picture of your life, so you can pinpoint areas that you’d like to work on. Then you can build constructive strategies to achieve the changes you’d like to make.
- Identify and avoid stressful triggers: There are many things that can trigger a stress response. Some may be easy to avoid, such as caffeine or horror movies. Others can be much harder to identify and understand. For example, a difficult relationship or unfulfilling career can be major sources of stress, but the reasons why or learning how to change the situation may require the help of a therapist. Everyone is different, so it is important to pay close attention to your individual stressors and learn to identify what causes you stress. Only then can you take the steps to avoid or minimize the impact. The stress journal discussed above can be a great way to work out what your stressors are.
- Examine your life and live according to your values: Human beings crave meaning and purpose. Without it, there is a nagging sense of discomfort or unfulfillment that can lead to chronic stress. Existential anxiety – worries and doubts around life’s big questions – is not uncommon. The way to reduce existential stress is by having clear values that are meaningful to you, and then living your life in accordance with your beliefs. The search for meaning is universal; some people find meaning in religion or family, or volunteer work, or creative expression. However you find it, make sure to devote time and energy in discovering your life’s meaning and then commit to it.
- Try biofeedback: Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that helps train your mind to be calmer and control the physiological symptoms of stress. With a biofeedback device like Reflect, you can measure and track your heart rate, breathing and other physiological markers while you practice relaxation techniques and see what works for you. Then you can take that knowledge and apply it to your daily life, so you can reduce stress more quickly and effectively. The Reflect biofeedback device is easy to use; simply place your hands on the orb and begin your guided imagery, meditation or breathing practice. You’ll soon learn how your stressed mind impacts your body, and how to manage your stressors.
Embrace stress management
Life without stress is like the earth without gravity. No resistance, no challenge and therefore no development. Stress in our lives is what motivates and drives us. It’s what keeps us up late studying for an exam, and it helps us identify that something’s not right, so we can make the necessary change.
A little bit of stress is normal and even good. Extreme overwhelming stress, or even mild yet chronic stress, is not. That’s why stress needs to be managed, so it doesn’t get out of hand. By understanding what causes stress for you, and practicing relaxation techniques, you can maintain a healthy balance and make stress a manageable part of your life.