Everyone has stress. But when it’s too much or lasts too long, it can throw off your body’s balance and cause health problems. You can take better care of your health by learning how to manage stress.
The Link Between Stress and Health
“Stress weakens your immune system,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. It can make current health conditions worse or cause new problems. Stress is linked to conditions like heart disease, cancer, lung problems, and cirrhosis of the liver.
Stress also takes a toll on your emotional health. You may have anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. To relieve stress, you may also do things that are harmful your body, like use drugs and alcohol, smoke, or eat poorly.
Common symptoms of stress include:
- Chest pain
- Cold, sweaty palms
- General aches and pains
- Grinding your teeth
- High blood pressure
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Muscle tension
- Racing heart
- Rapid breathing
- Sexual problems
- Sleep problems
- Upset stomach
- Weight gain or loss
How to Manage Stress
You can’t eliminate all the stress in your life, but you can keep it at bay with these steps:
Just say no
Don’t accept tasks or activities that cause stress. Say yes to things you enjoy and can manage. Say no to stressful situations. Be realistic about what you can do. Set limits. Assert yourself.
Make time for yourself
Take a break from stress with activities that make you feel good. Take time for favorite hobbies or discover new ones, like cooking, gardening, or reading. Sit quietly. Listen to soothing music. Clear your mind.
Surround yourself with good people
Spend time with friends, family, and people you love. Connecting with others can give your mood a boost and lower your stress. Build your support network. Volunteer, take a class, or join an online group.
Change your mindset
You can’t control everything in life. Learn to roll with it. Try to have a positive attitude. Use your sense of humor. Keep things in perspective.
Let go of perfection
When you expect too much from yourself or others, your stress level goes up. Remember that perfection is unlikely and unnecessary. Be realistic. Lower your expectations. Ask for help when you need it.
To manage unavoidable stressors, do something. Try tackling a problem in brief, 10-minute chunks. Set a timer. Think of one small action you can take to handle it. Then move on.
Try relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques like mindfulness, deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and tai chi are powerful stress relievers. Find a smartphone app to guide you, says Elena Welsh, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles. If you don’t like one technique, try another until you find one that works for you.
Meditation can relieve stress in just 10 to 20 minutes. Find a quiet spot. Sit in a comfy position. Focus your attention. Repeat a mantra or stare at an object. Relax and breathe naturally.
Deep breathing relieves tension and stress. Inhale deeply through your nose and feel your belly expand for a count of four. Hold it for a count of seven. Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.
Use your thumb to press on trigger points. Press between your eyebrows, the upper shell of your ear, and the crease of your wrist between your pinky and ring finger, says Elizabeth Martin, a licensed acupuncturist in Stony Brook, NY. Press for 30 seconds with a clockwise, circular pressure. Breathe deeply as you press.
“When emotions take over, you may act impulsively. To stay in control, try the STOP skill,” says Romanoff.
- Take a step back.
- Proceed mindfully.
Move your body
When you feel stress, get your blood flowing. “Move your body with a dance party in the kitchen, a few minutes of stretching, or a quick walk around the block,” says Bianca Riemer, a certified health and life coach in Los Angeles.
Regular exercise makes you feel good and helps your body fight stress. Join a gym. Take an exercise class. Take a 30-minute walk on most days, or break it into three 10-minute chunks. Try weight training.
A healthy diet helps your body and mind cope with stress. Eat foods that are different colors of the rainbow to get a variety of nutrients. “Have as many different colored fruits and vegetables on your plate as possible,” Riemer says.
When you get enough sleep, you manage stress better. If stress keeps you up at night, schedule “worry time” during the day, Riemer says. “By giving your worries a chance to air during the day, you can come up with a solution and stop ruminating about it at night.”
Connect with nature. Stroll around a park. Walk through the woods. Research suggests spending time in nature reduces stress, boosts your mood, and gives you feelings of happiness and well-being.
Avoid drugs and alcohol
Drugs and alcohol can make stress worse. Limit yourself to one or two drinks a day. Watch your caffeine intake. Drink water instead of coffee. Avoid smoking.
Manage COVID-19 worries
It’s normal to feel stress about the pandemic. Be prepared, but don’t panic. Limit your computer time and news intake. Get information from trusted sources. Try mindfulness and other relaxation techniques to keep stress in check.
Talk about it
Talking eases stress. Open up to a close friend or family member. Join a support group. Talk to a professional therapist, especially if you have trouble handling stress or it gets worse.