Ways to Manage Stress

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on November 24, 2020

Stress is part of being human, and it can help motivate you to get things done. Even high stress from serious illness, job loss, a death in the family, or a painful life event can be a natural part of life. You may feel down or anxious, and that’s normal too for a while.

Talk to your doctor if you feel down or anxious for more than several weeks or if it starts to interfere with your home or work life. Therapy, medication, and other strategies can help.

In the meantime, there are things you can learn to manage stress before it gets to be too much. Consider these suggestions:

Exercise

To start with, physical activity can help improve your sleep. And better sleep means better stress management. Doctors don’t yet know exactly why, but people who exercise more tend to get better deep “slow wave” sleep that helps renew the brain and body. Just take care not to exercise too close to bedtime, which disrupts sleep for some people.

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Exercise also seems to help mood. Part of the reason may be that it stimulates your body to release a number of hormones like endorphins and endocannabinoids that help block pain, improve sleep, and sedate you. Some of them (endocannabinoids) may be responsible for the euphoric feeling, or “runner’s high,” that some people report after long runs.

People who exercise also tend to feel less anxious and more positive about themselves. When your body feels good, your mind often follows. Get a dose of stress relief with these exercises:

If you don't have the time for a formal exercise program, you can still find ways to move throughout your day. Try these tips:

  • Bike instead of driving to the store.
  • Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park as far as you can from the door.
  • Hand-wash your car.
  • Clean your house.
  • Walk on your lunch break.

Diet

The benefits of eating health foods extend beyond your waistline to your mental health. A healthy diet can lessen the effects of stress, build up your immune system, level your mood, and lower your blood pressure. Lots of added sugar and fat can have the opposite effect. And junk food can seem even more appealing when you’re under a lot of stress.

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To stay healthy and on an even keel, look for complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and fatty acids found in fish, meat, eggs, and nuts.

Antioxidants help too. They protect your cells against damage that chronic stress can cause. You can find them in a huge variety of foods like beans, fruits, berries, vegetables, and spices such as ginger.

Stick to a healthy diet with a few simple tips. Make a shopping list. Carry healthy snacks with you when you leave the house. Stay away from processed foods, and try not to eat mindlessly.

Scientists have pinpointed some nutrients that seem to help lessen the effects of stress on the body and mind. Be sure to get enough these as part of a balanced diet:

Sleep

A common side effect of stress is that you may struggle to fall asleep. If this happens three times a week for at least 3 months, you may have insomnia, an inability to fall and stay asleep. Lack of sleep can also add to your stress level and cause a cycle of stress and sleeplessness.

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Better sleep habits can help. This includes both your daily routine and the way you set up your bedroom. Habits that may help include:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get out in the sunlight.
  • Drink less alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime.
  • Set a sleep schedule.
  • Don’t look at your electronics 30-60 minutes before bed.
  • Try meditation or other forms of relaxation at bedtime.

The role of your bedroom in good sleep hygiene also is important. In general, your room should be dark, quiet, and cool -- 60-65 degrees is thought to be an ideal temperature to stay asleep. Your bed also plays an important role. Your mattress should provide support, space and most of all, comfort.

Relaxation Techniques

Yoga. This is a form of exercise, but it can also be a meditation. There are many types of yoga. The ones that focus on slow movement, stretching, and deep breathing are best for lowering your anxiety and stress.

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Meditation. It has been around for over 5,000 years for a reason. Meditation works well for many people and has many benefits. It can lower stress, anxiety, and chronic pain as well as improve sleep, energy levels, and mood. To meditate, you will need to:

  1. Find a quiet place.
  2. Get comfortable (sitting or lying down).
  3. Focus your attention on a word, phrase, object, or even your breath.
  4. Let your thoughts come and go and do not judge them.

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Deep breathing. When you practice deep breathing, you turn on your body’s natural ability to relax. This creates a state of deep rest that can change how your body responds to stress. It sends more oxygen to your brain and calms the part of your nervous system that handles your ability to relax.

Try belly breathing. Get comfortable, close your eyes, and place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose. You should feel your belly rise more than your chest. Now, exhale through your nose and pay close attention to how your body relaxes. Repeat.

Biofeedback. Learn how to manage your heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure when stress hits. Biofeedback gives you information about how your body reacts when you try to relax. Sensors are placed on your body that call out changes in everything from your brain-wave pattern to your muscle tone. Working with a biofeedback therapist, you can start to take control of the signals by changing how your body reacts to the sensor.

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Connect with people. Spend time with a friend or family member who will listen to you. It is a natural way to calm you and lower your stress. When you connect with people in person, your body releases a hormone that stops your fight-or-flight response. You relax.

Behavior. How you respond to people directly impacts your stress levels. Manage your response with these tips:

  • Try not to overcommit yourself
  • Share the responsibility
  • Count to 10 before you respond
  • Walk away from a heated situation
  • Distract yourself with music or podcasts

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Inner voice. Nothing affects your stress levels like the voice inside your head. The good news is you are in control. You can exchange negative thoughts for positive ones. There are more benefits to positive self-talk than reducing stress. These include a longer life, lower levels of depression, greater resistance to the common cold and cardiovascular disease, and better coping skills for when hard times hit.

Laugh therapy. When you laugh, you take in more oxygen. Your heart, lungs, and muscles get a boost and your body releases those feel-good hormones. Laughter also improves your immune system, lessens pain, and improves your mood for long periods time.

Talk therapy. Long-term talk therapy helps some people deal with stress. One approach, cognitive behavioral therapy, helps you change negative thought patterns. Your therapist can guide you toward other approaches that might be helpful.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

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