While unchecked stress is undeniably damaging, you have more control over your stress levels than you might think. Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that only compound the problem. You might drink too much to unwind at the end of a stressful day, fill up on comfort food, zone out in front of the TV or computer for hours, use pills to relax, or relieve stress by lashing out at other people. However, there are many healthier ways to cope with stress and its symptoms.
Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to dealing with 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.
Learn how to manage stress
You may feel like the stress in your life is out of your control, but you can always control the way you respond. Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation.
Remember the four As: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.
Avoid unnecessary stress. Not all stress can be avoided, but by learning how to say no, distinguishing between “shoulds” and “musts” on your to-do list, and steering clear of people or situations that stress you out, you can eliminate many daily stressors.
Alter the situation. If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Be more assertive and deal with problems head on. Instead of bottling up your feelings and increasing your stress, respectfully let others know about your concerns. Or be more willing to compromise and try meeting others halfway on an issue.
Adapt to the stressor. When you can’t change the stressor, try changing yourself. Reframe problems or focus on the positive things in your life. If a task at work has you stressed, focus on the aspects of your job you do enjoy. And always look at the big picture: is this really something worth getting upset about?
Accept the things you can’t change. There will always be stressors in life that you can’t do anything about. Learn to accept the inevitable rather than rail against a situation and making it even more stressful. Look for the upside in a situation—even the most stressful circumstances can be an opportunity for learning or personal growth. Learn to accept that no one, including you, is ever perfect.
You can also better cope with the symptoms of stress by strengthening your physical health.
Set aside relaxation time. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response.
Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension.
Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Start your day with a healthy breakfast, reduce your caffeine and sugar intake, and cut back on alcohol and nicotine.
Get plenty of sleep. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. Keep your cool by getting a good night’s sleep.
Relieve stress and bring your life into balance
Quick stress relief. The best way to reduce stress quickly and reliably is by using your senses—what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—or through movement. By viewing a favorite photo, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favorite piece of music, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and focus yourself. Of course, not everyone responds to each sensory experience in the same way. Something that relaxes one person may do nothing but irritate someone else. The key is to experiment with your senses and discover the sensory experiences that work best for you.
Emotional connection. Nothing contributes more to chronic stress than emotional disconnection from ourselves and others. Understanding the influence emotions have on your thoughts and actions is vital to managing stress. Life doesn’t have to feel like a rollercoaster ride with extreme ups and downs. Once you’re aware of your emotions, even the painful ones you normally try to avoid or bottle up, the easier it is to understand your own motivations, stop saying or doing things you later regret, gain renewed energy, and smooth out the ride.
Once you’ve mastered these core skills you’ll have the confidence to face stressful challenges, knowing that you’ll always be able to rapidly bring yourself back into balance.