How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with StressIn This Article
It may seem that there’s nothing you can do about stress. The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your career and family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realization that you’re in control of your life is the foundation of stress management. Managing stress is all about taking charge: of your thoughts, emotions, schedule, and the way you deal with problems.
Identify the sources of stress in your life
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Your true sources of stress aren’t always obvious, and it’s all too easy to overlook your own stress-inducing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines. But maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that leads to deadline stress.
To identify your true sources of stress, look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses:
- Do you explain away stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going on right now”) even though you can’t remember the last time you took a breather?
- Do you define stress as an integral part of your work or home life (“Things are always crazy around here”) or as a part of your personality (“I have a lot of nervous energy, that’s all”).
- Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events, or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional?
Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.
Start a Stress Journal
A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal. As you keep a daily log, you will begin to see patterns and common themes. Write down:
- What caused your stress (make a guess if you’re unsure)
- How you felt, both physically and emotionally
- How you acted in response
- What you did to make yourself feel better
Look at how you currently cope with stress
Think about the ways you currently manage and cope with stress in your life. Your stress journal can help you identify them. Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unproductive? Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that compound the problem.
Unhealthy ways of coping with stress
These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run:
Learning healthier ways to manage stress
If your methods of coping with stress aren’t contributing to your greater emotional and physical health, it’s time to find healthier ones.
Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to managing it. No single method works for everyone or in every situation, so experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control.
Stress management strategy #1: Get moving
Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress, but you don’t have to be an athlete or spend hours in a gym to experience the benefits. Just about any form of physical activity can help relieve stress and burn away anger, tension, and frustration. Exercise releases endorphins which boost your mood and make you feel good and it can also serve as a valuable distraction to your daily worries.
While the maximum benefit comes from exercising for 30 minutes or more, you can start small and build up your fitness level gradually. Short, 10-minute bursts of activity that elevate your heart rate and make you break out into a sweat can help to relieve stress and give you more energy and optimism. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day. The first step is to get yourself up and moving. Here are a few easy ways:
- Put on some music and dance around
- Take your dog for a walk
- Walk or cycle to the grocery store
- Use the stairs at home or work rather than an elevator
- Park your car in the farthest spot in the lot and walk the rest of the way
- Pair up with an exercise partner and encourage each other as you workout
- Play ping-pong or an activity-based video game with your kids
Managing stress with regular exercise
Once you’re in the habit of being physically active, try to incorporate regular exercise into your daily schedule. Activities that are continuous and rhythmic and require moving both your arms and your legs are especially effective at relieving stress. Walking, running, swimming, dancing, cycling, and aerobic classes are good choices.
Pick an activity you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick with it. Instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts while you exercise, make a conscious effort to focus on your body and how it feels as you’re moving. Adding this mindfulness element to your exercise routine will help you break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that often accompanies overwhelming stress. Focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements, for example, or notice how the air or sunlight feels on your skin. Getting out of your head and paying attention to how your body feels is also the surest way to avoid picking up an injury.
Physical activity can be the gateway to other stress relieving strategies
When you’ve exercised you’ll likely find it easier to put other stress management techniques to use. There are many ways to manage and cope with stress, but they all require change. You can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose in any given scenario, it’s helpful to think of the four As: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
Dealing with Stressful Situations: The Four A’s
Change the situation:
Change your reaction:
Stress management strategy #2: Avoid unnecessary stress
Not all stress can be avoided, and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate.
- Learn how to say “no” – Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress.
- Avoid people who stress you out – If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.
- Take control of your environment – If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off. If traffic’s got you tense, take a longer but less-traveled route. If going to the market is an unpleasant chore, do your grocery shopping online.
- Avoid hot-button topics – If you get upset over religion or politics, cross them off your conversation list. If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when it’s the topic of discussion.
- Pare down your to-do list – Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely.
Stress management strategy #3: Alter the situation
If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem doesn’t present itself in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.
- Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.
- Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
- Be more assertive. Don’t take a backseat in your own life. Deal with problems head on, doing your best to anticipate and prevent them. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty roommate just got home, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk.
- Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead and make sure you don’t overextend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you’re under.
Stress management strategy #4: Adapt to the stressor
If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.
- Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favorite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
- Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
- Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
- Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.
Adjusting Your Attitude
How you think can have a profound effect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as "always," "never," "should," and "must." These are telltale marks of self-defeating thoughts.
Stress management strategy #5: Accept the things you can’t change
Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change.
- Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
- Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
- Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend face to face or make an appointment with a therapist. The simple act of expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation. Opening up is not a sign of weakness and it won’t make you a burden to others. In fact, most friends will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your bond.
- Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.
Stress management strategy #6: Make time for fun and relaxation
Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by nurturing yourself. If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors.
Develop a "stress relief toolbox"
Come up with a list of healthy ways to relax and recharge. Try to implement one or more of these ideas each day, even if you're feeling good.
Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.
- Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
- Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.
- Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
- Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.
Stress management strategy #7: Adopt a healthy lifestyle
In addition to regular exercise, there are other healthy lifestyle choices that can increase your resistance to stress.
- Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
- Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary "highs" caffeine and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.
- Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.
Stress management self-help checklist
Use this checklist to track your progress using these strategies to manage stress. Compare how you feel on days when you make lots of ticks on the checklist to those when you make few or none.
Click here for a printer-friendly weekly checklist.
- How to Stop Worrying: Self-Help Strategies for Anxiety Relief
- Relaxation Techniques for Stress: Finding the Relaxation Exercises That Work for You
- Stress Relief in the Moment: Using Your Senses to Quickly Change Your Response to Stress
- 12 Ways to Reduce Stress with Music: Fill Your Life with Music that Reduces Daily Stress
- Stress Relief Guide: Articles that help you recognize and understand stress, and take steps to bring stress into balance.
- Preventing Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies
- Stress at Work: Tips to Reduce and Manage Job and Work
- Job Loss and Unemployment Stress: Tips for Staying Positive During Your Job Search
- Caregiver Stress and Burnout: Tips for Recharging and Finding Balance
Causes of stress
- Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes: The Effects of Stress Overload and What You Can Do About It
Resources and references
General information about managing and coping with stress
Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students – Offers a total wellness lifestyle plan for managing, reducing, and coping with stress. (University Health Center, University of Georgia)
Stress Management: How Do You React During Stressful Situations? – Evaluate the way you react to stress and learn how to transform your negative responses. (Mayo Clinic)
The Road to Resilience – Learn how to increase your resilience, the trait that allows you to bounce back from adversity and stress. (American Psychological Association)
Managing Stress for a Healthy Family – Tips for dealing with stress in the family better and modeling healthy behavior to your kids. (American Psychological Association)
Stress management strategies
Assert Yourself – Self-help modules designed to help you reduce stress, depression, and anxiety by improving your assertiveness. (Centre for Clinical Interventions)
Put Off Procrastinating – Work your way through a self-help series on how to stop procrastination problems. (Centre for Clinical Interventions)
Stress – Learn all about stress, including stress reduction suggestions, including diet, exercise, herbal remedies, and cognitive-behavioral techniques. (University of Maryland Medical Center)
Download Meditations – Download or stream a dozen free meditation recordings to help you cope with life's inevitable hurdles. Comes with handouts. (Sitting Together)
Exercise Fuels the Brain's Stress Buffers – Explains how regular exercise helps reduce and manage stress levels. (American Psychological Association)
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