What Is Stress Management, And How Can You Apply It To Your Life?

Let’s face it: stress is inevitable. And the holiday season brings stress levels to an all-time high, especially this year. Between the shopping, cooking, and (virtual) party planning, keeping calm amidst the chaos is easier said than done.  

Most health problems are rooted in or escalated by stress, so it’s important to get a handle on it. Chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease and more.

But what if you had tools to cope so you’re ready when stressful situations arise? This is where stress management comes in.

“Stress management involves developing an awareness of what causes you stress,” says Elena Welsh, PhD, clinical psychologist. “It’s taking active steps to either minimize the source of that stress or to manage your response by finding tools or skills to reduce your sense of emotional overwhelm and to relieve associated physical tension.”

While under stress, your body often responds with a fight or flight reaction. This would be effective if you were in real danger, but more often in our modern world, the sources of our stress are things like work deadlines or traffic, Welsh explains. When we enter this fight or flight state, our body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. High levels of stress hormones over an extended period of time can be harmful to your immune system and overall health.

The amount of stress we're dealing with in the short-term can have negative long-term health effects. Being able to effectively manage your own stress and eliminate stressors in your life will significantly boost your overall well-being. 

By learning different stress management techniques and healthy ways to handle stress in your daily life, you can make stress work for you rather than against you. 

Take good care of your physical needs

This includes exercise, getting enough sleep, a healthy diet, and meditation.

“Our mental health and physical health are interconnected, so when we're not feeling well for whatever reason, we are less resilient,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, psychologist and the director of The Help and Healing Center recommends.

Physical activity not only reduces weight gain and is great for overall health, but it combats the effects of stress. It lowers stress levels and releases feel good chemicals that promote overall wellness. Sleep strengthens your immune system and mood. 

Eating foods that make you feel good and support your physical health will have a positive ripple effect on all aspects of your life — including less stress.

Meditation has also been shown to lower your heart rate, support new neuron growth and improve your overall health. If you're a somewhat anxious person naturally and are around a 30 to 40 on a 100-point stress scale, starting a regular meditation practice could bring your baseline down around 10 or 20, Myszak explains. And it’s free! All you need is 10 minutes of daily meditation to reap the benefits.

Get outside at least once a day

Let's face it: Time management is an issue for many of us. Caught up in our endless to-do lists, we neglect self-care and struggle to achieve work-life balance, which eventually leads to burnout.

If you're experiencing a lot of stress, spending time outdoors is one of the best coping strategies. It's scientifically-proven to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. The beauty of nature is that it effortlessly puts you in the present moment, stimulating all of your senses.

Think about when you walk along a beach, watching the waves hit the shore, listening to the birds chirping, and smelling the salty sea. Nothing is more peaceful.

Pro tip: If you want to kick it up a notch in the self-care department, combine your outdoor time with exercise if you can!

Stay connected

Staying social during the pandemic is more challenging, which means you have to get more creative. Connecting with others over phone or video is a simple and easy way to boost your mental health.

“Your brain doesn’t realize that texting or email is social, and since we are inherently social creatures, connecting is crucial,” says Dr. Myszak. “It’s good for you and for them too.”

Social support is one of the best relaxation techniques to fight stress. 

Laugh

Find a way to laugh every day (especially on the days you don’t feel like it). Not only does it release physical tension and stress for up to 45 minutes, it also boosts the immune system, Dr. Myszak explains. 

So, what’s the science behind it? Laughing decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and antibodies, making it excellent for stress reduction and minimizing health issues.

Look for the good

This one is easier said than done, but it's important to stay positive, even during stressful events! If you only dwell on the negative, that’s all you'll see. You'll only attract more negative stress and negative thoughts. Instead, make it a habit to focus on the good and what you’re grateful for. This is one of the best ways to boost your self-esteem and decrease stress symptoms.

Dr. Myszak says, “many people benefit from keeping a gratitude journal and thinking through things that went well and what they’re grateful for. That helps them revisit the day and think about what’s working in their lives. It also gives them a list of things to remember that are good.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, a gratitude journal is a great way to end the day on the right note. When it comes to stress relievers, looking for the good is essential.

Ready to start managing stress effectively and live a healthy lifestyle? It matters less what you do, and more why you do it.

“Simply do something to try to relax or at least not to overreact to stress-provoking situations,” says Dr. Welsh. “Getting started can be as simple as taking a conscious deep breath or two when you start to notice stress creep in or setting an alarm and making time for deep breathing periodically throughout your day.”

For some people mindfulness and breathing exercises, like tracing a square with your finger and following an inhale, hold, exhale pattern with each side of the square, work better than simply trying to breathe deeply, Welsh adds. Stress relief can also mean pausing in your day and doing something you enjoy, like listening to music or cooking a meal.

The bottom line? While stress affects all of us in different ways, it's important to get a handle on it. When it comes to stress management, decide what works for you and refine your approach over time. Just start somewhere!

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