Whether you are chronically stressed out or prone to acute bouts of stress, there are numerous simple yet effective ways to manage your stress response and prevent it from impacting your health and wellbeing. Stress, itself, is not bad, but how you react to it can be. It's time to let your stress know who's in charge!
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If you read the post Stress as a Catalyst for Positive Change, you know that not all stress is bad. In fact, all stress serves a purpose, and some types of stress are actually healthy and quite beneficial, despite how they might feel. However, stress can turn into something ugly and is associated with a long list of health complications when not managed properly. For this reason it is important to learn simple stress management techniques and adopt healthy lifestyle habits that have been proven to effectively manage stress and negate the possible health implications.
Below are 20 basic stress management techniques guaranteed to help when used regularly and properly. They have been divided into two categories: short term and long term. The short term strategies can be done in the moment and are effective for small spikes in stress as well as chronic stress. The long term strategies are habits to adopt to reduce and manage chronic, longer term stress.
SHORT TERM STRESS MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Learning and perfecting a handful of short term stress management strategies can help you effectively calm yourself and navigate stressful situations. Just as everyone's stress response is unique, the strategies that work best are too. Try a range of strategies and determine what works best for you.
Warning - Use discretion when practicing some of these strategies in situations where you could put yourself or others at risk, such as driving or operating machinery.
Learning and practicing specialized methods of deep breathing (which go by various terms such as diaphragmatic, belly, Ujjaya Pranayama or "ocean" breathing) is an extremely effective way to manage and reduce both acute and chronic stress. These breathing methods are all very similar and involve inhaling slowly for at least 4 seconds, holding for 1 second and exhaling slowly for at least 4 seconds. Inhaling all the way to the belly, so that it rises fully with each inhale, is key. When done properly, these types of breathing lower cortisol (the stress hormone) and provide a sense of calmness. Check out the apps Breathe 2 Relax, BreathHacking and Breathing App, to practice and get the hang of the various breathing techniques so you can utilize them as needed.
2. PRACTICE RELAXATION TECHNIQUES
There are numerous simple yet effective relaxation techniques that can help you fully relax and take your mind off your stressors. In addition to diaphragmatic breathing, these include progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, guided imagery and meditation. I recommend using an app., at least initially, to learn and practice each technique and determine what you like and what works best. These are some of my favourite relaxation apps.
Stop Breathe and Think
Oak - Meditation & Breathing
3. TAKE A BREAK
Whether it is taking a short walk, meeting someone for a coffee, or changing tasks for a bit, removing yourself from the stressor, even if it is temporary, can help provide perspective and better equip you to deal with it when you return.
4. CHANGE ENVIRONMENTS
Sometimes a simple change in environment can help you be more efficient and take away some your stress. For example, trying to get your work done to meet a deadline in a noisy and/or messy environment will naturally raise your cortisol levels more than a calm, tidy environment.
5. BREATHE FRESH AIR
Spending even a short amount of time outdoors breathing fresh air (especially in nature) can help provide energy, clarity, happiness and a sense of calm.
6. TRY JOURNALING
Take a few minutes to put your thoughts and feelings on paper. Journaling can help you see things from different perspectives, release emotions, clarify or reframe thoughts and problem solve, which in turn can help manage and relieve stress.
LONG TERM STRESS MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Individuals who live a healthy lifestyle are generally better at managing their stress than those who are unhealthy and neglect their self care. Healthy people do not simply have less stress. A large reasons stress is associated with so many negative health outcomes is because it causes us to neglect key aspects of our health. Adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is therefore one of the best long term solutions to effectively reduce and manage stress. Learn how.
7. EXERCISE REGULARLY
Regardless of your stressor(s), exercise is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. Finding time to exercise (even if it is simply walking) for at least 150 minutes a week is beneficial to your health in many ways (find out how), with stress being near the top. Exercising increases blood flow, provides energy (which stress can deplete), produces feel good endorphins, improves sleep and mood, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and helps clear the mind. Need ideas? Check out these 21 Simple Ideas to Get Moving.
No time to exercise? Time, or lack of, is a common cause of stress. However, time is not the difference between people who exercise regularly and people who don't. Reevaluate how you spend your time and make exercise a priority. If time is your issue I highly recommend this book.
8. FUEL YOURSELF WITH HEALTHY FOODS
Stress is one of the biggest reasons people indulge in unhealthy foods. While the immediate short-term effect may seem beneficial, binging on foods with no nutritional value will generally make you feel sluggish, tired, lazy and guilty. This does nothing for stress and serves as a missed opportunity to provide your body with health boosting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can help counteract the effects of stress.
Alternatively, stress can be the reason for skipping meals, which also negatively affects stress. In addition to depriving your body of essential nutrients, it causes large fluctuations in your blood sugar levels which impacts brain functioning.
To help keep your stress in check and counteract some of its side effects, ensure you are eating a healthy balanced diet. Check out the post Get The Nutrition Facts Straight to learn how to read a food label and determine which foods you should be choosing.
9. GET ENOUGH SLEEP
Not only can stress take a toll on your sleep, but a lack of sleep can enhance your stress and contribute to a long list of other health issues. Not getting enough quality sleep leads to fatigue, irritability and reduced concentration, motivation and patience, making it gradually harder and harder to function, and less likely you will maintain your health in other areas such as diet and exercise. Ensure you are going to bed early enough to get at least 7 hours of sleep, utilize breathing and meditation techniques to help clear your mind before bed, and check out these additional 20 Simple Strategies to Help You Sleep Better and Feel More Rested.
10. MAKE TIME TO SOCIALIZE
Taking time to socialize with others can help reduce stress by clearing your mind, improving mood and happiness and providing perspective. Whether it is coffee with a friend, games night, playing on a sports team, volunteering, attending church, or FaceTiming an old friend, making time to socialize at least weekly can help ease your stress, in addition to a long list of other physical and mental health benefits.
11. DO SOMETHING YOU ENJOY, REGULARLY
Take your mind off your stressors and give yourself something to look forward to. Whether you have old forgotten hobbies or want to develop new ones, do something you enjoy and find fulfilling. This could be anything, including but not limited to playing a sport, attending an arts class, painting, playing music, writing, reading, joining a special interests club or volunteering. Find something that makes you happy and make an effort to practice it regularly, regardless of how busy you are.
12. PRACTICE YOGA
All yoga involves some degree of exercise (this varies depending upon the type), however comes with the added benefit of breathing and meditation, which can be extremely effective for both short and long term stress relief. If attending a yoga class isn't your thing there are numerous yoga apps and YouTube channels you can try for free.
13. SET LIMITS/BOUNDARIES
Don't say yes or take on more responsibilities prior to evaluating whether you can realistically do so without compromising your mental health. Learn how to put your own needs first and say no when necessary. Set limits related to work, such as taking lunch breaks, leaving by a certain time, turning off your phone/email after hours, and leaving work at work, both physically and mentally. Know what your limits are and be firm with them. Speak up and advocate for yourself if you find them being crossed.
Set aside time in the day where you stay off social medial and leave your phone and other devices alone. Doing this prior to bed is especially beneficial for the quality of your sleep.
15. LIMIT CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL
Caffeine, in excess, can trigger the 'flight or fight" response, thereby enhancing the body's physiological response to stress. Although alcohol may initially provide feelings of relaxation, in excess it has been linked to increased levels of stress and anxiety (among other health concerns), and can quickly become an habit (or addiction) and mask the underlying issues.
16. SEEK EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
Often times talking to someone, whether it is a friend/family member or a trained professional, can help provide clarity and perspective, and relieve some of the burden.
17. SET GOALS FOR YOURSELF
Most stressors don't simply go away on their own and require some sort of action. Setting long and short term goals can help you properly navigate the situation and better manage your stress knowing there is a plan in place. Check out the goal setting guide to learn how to set goals that stick.
18. DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP
Asking for help can be hard, but sometimes it is necessary if there is no end in sight. Unless you speak up, family members, friends and employers may be unaware of the toll your stress is taking, and a simple request that is easy enough for them can be significant for you. Whether it is asking a family member to help with school pick-ups, having your kids pitch in with chores, or offloading a few tasks at work, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you would be willing to help them out chances are they would be more than happy to help you as well.
19. IDENTIFY AND MANAGE TRIGGERS
Knowing what triggers your stress can give you the upper hand in managing it. Common stressors include new social situations, life changes, work, workload, time constraints, relationships, unpredictable events, or certain environmental stimuli. Remember, what causes increased stress for one person may not cause it for another. Identify what commonly triggers your stress and plan ahead. Anticipate the times and/or situations you might be faced with each trigger and determine the most appropriate response and management techniques to make it easier on yourself. Additionally, consider if there is a way to reduce or eliminate some of your triggers (such as reducing contact with certain people, not watching or reading the news, or staying off social media).
20. KNOW THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
It may be obvious that you are experiencing chronic stress and it is taking a toll on your health, however, if you have been dealing with it for a while you may have adapted to living with some of the symptoms. Stress manifests in many ways, including depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, anger, general unhappiness, loneliness, withdrawal from others, increased heart rate, chest pain/pressure, gastrointestinal issues, nausea, dizziness, weakened immune system, constant worry, concentration and memory issues, racing thoughts, issues with sleep and reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, alcohol, drugs or binge eating.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Instead of fearing and constantly wrangling with your stress, learn the strategies and adopt the lifestyle necessary to effectively manage it, and negate the long list of health complications associated with unmanaged stress.
"It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it." - Lou Holtz