Stress, loosely defined as the brain’s response to any demand, is normal and short-lived. Attributable to anything from being late for work to having to complete a paper that’s due the next day, stress only becomes a serious problem when it reaches a level that is no longer manageable. Prolonged mental stress can have a major impact on your emotional and physical well-being. While there’s no magic wand that’s going to stop the bills from coming or keep the kids from fighting, there are productive ways to feel in control of your life. The core of stress management is learning how to take charge of your time and your schedule while developing effective ways to cope with the unexpected twists and turns of life.
Do You Have a Problem Managing Stress?
Determining whether or not you have a problem managing stress starts with being honest with yourself. While you may feel stressed by work deadlines, for instance, a habit of putting off things until the last minute may be the true cause of your stress. You must also be willing to take productive steps to deal with (or at least minimize) outside sources of stress. In order to identify the sources of mental stress in your life, take a moment to consider habits and excuses you may rely on to justify your stress by truthfully answering these questions:
- Do you always brush off stress with excuses? (“Being stressed is just a part of being a mother.”)
- When is the last time you took a break just for yourself without being prompted to do so by a friend, boss or co-worker?
- Do you find yourself placing the blame for your stress on others without making the effort to actually confront the people in your life who may, in fact, be contributing to your stress? (“I wouldn’t be so stressed if my co-workers would do their jobs right.”)
It’s understandable to have trouble dealing with stress that’s brought on by a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one or stressful life event like going through a divorce. What tends to a do number on your health, however, is chronic stress that’s a part of your daily life. You’re not going to be able to manage the stress in your life until you’re willing to admit your part in contributing to it on some level and accept stress as a normal part of your life.
Identifying Your Stress Triggers
Take a random week of your life and track your moments of stress in a journal. When you find yourself feeling stressed, jot down what you’re feeling at the time, who may be contributing to your stress and what, if anything, you plan to do to relieve your immediate stress. When you go back to read your entries, you should be able to identify patterns. Take note of the following points in your journal entries:
- What were you doing when you felt stressed?
- What do you think caused the stress (even if it’s a guess)?
- How did you respond the stress?
- What made the stress of the moment go away?
Developing Healthy Ways to Manage Stress
Your journal can serve as a basis for developing your own effective coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. You’ll also be able to identify some not-so-healthy ways you may be dealing with stress, some of which may lead to other health-related problems. Unhealthy ways of coping with stress in your life can include:
- Excessive drinking
- Overeating or under-eating
- Escaping with video games
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Sleeping longer than normal
- Over-scheduling your day to avoid dealing with problems
- Turning to pills or drugs
- Angry outbursts for no apparent reason (or getting angry over minor issues)
If your methods for handling stress include any of the above-mentioned means, realize that you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Unhealthy coping mechanisms will eventually take a toll on your physical and emotional health over time. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing stress, there are certain steps you can take to reach a point of calm and control. These kind of reactions can turn stress into depression, take the HealthStatus depression self-check and see if you are affected.
Get Some Exercise
Exercise releases endorphins, so-called “feel good chemicals” that can boost your mood. You don’t have to be an athlete or a gym hound to reduce stress with exercise. Light exercise can be just as effective. While a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise is recommended to achieve the maximum benefits of endorphin release, shorter periods of activity can get your heart rate going and give you a quick burst of energy. Exercise shouldn’t feel like another thing on your “to-do” list, so pick activities you like to do or you’ll negate any stress-relieving benefits from getting active. If you’re limited on time, consider these activities:
- Walking your dog around the block
- Going for a casual stroll around a neighborhood park
- Walking or biking to the store
- Using the stairs instead of the elevator at work
Developing a healthier lifestyle can also help you deal with stress. Studies show that getting a proper amount of productive sleep, meaning uninterrupted REM sleep, can help rejuvenate key systems within the body. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs only makes problems seem worse, resulting in even more stress. Even the “jolt” you get from multiple cups of coffee or making several trips to the snack machine is going to wear off eventually. Well-nourished bodies are better at handling stress, so avoid skipping meals all together.
Avoid Unnecessary Stress (as Much as Possible)
You’re not going to be able to avoid all stressful situations; however, there are ways you can eliminate some unnecessary stress from your life. If traffic jams shake up your nerves, take a less-traveled route; it may take longer to get home, but the stress-free ride more than makes up for the inconvenience. If you’re bothered by the news of the day, turn off the TV and look up the news online so you can pick and choose which stories you read.
Learn to Say ‘No’
Know your limits. Passing on extra PTA duties or politely turning down a request to work voluntary overtime for the fourth day in a row can keep you from feeling overwhelmed by what seems like a never-ending list of responsibilities. While you’re not always going to be able to easily say “no,” establishing priorities can help you set reasonable limits. Consider making “to-do” lists with one stipulation: nothing can be added once you’ve finished making your list. If you make exceptions, you’ll be back where you started.
Limit/End Stressful Relationships
There are always going to be people in your life who either intentionally or unintentionally elevate your stress level. When possible, consider ending such relationships. If that’s not realistic, limit your time around that person or consider having a friend or family member act as a “buffer” to tactfully defuse stressful situations by changing the subject or finding a middle ground to keep stress from reaching a boiling point.
Avoid Heated Topics
If you’re prone to getting frustrated over “hot-button” topics involving religion, politics or controversial issues in the news, try to avoid such topics as much as possible. If you’re around people who constantly bring up such topics just to get a reaction from you, limit your time with those people or quickly change the subject.
Take Control of Stressful Situations
Take control of stressful situations you can’t avoid. This often involves changing how you process stress. For instance, if you usually keep your feelings bottled up, learn to express yourself sooner rather than later. Internalizing stress can lead to health-related issues like high blood pressure, tension headaches and nervous habits like over-eating. You can further take control of stressful situations by:
- Making an effort to compromise
- Being more assertive
- Learning better time-management skills
- Developing better organizational abilities
- Knowing when to ask for help
Develop a New Perspective
If there’s nothing you can do about a stressful situation, change your perspective on that particular situation. When stuck in traffic, for example, consider it an opportunity to listen to your favorite radio station, regroup your thoughts, go over what you have to do at work that day or enjoy some quiet time. Sometimes taking a look at the bigger picture can help. Is the issue that’s stressing you out now going to matter tomorrow? Is it something that’s worth getting upset over? If the answer is “no,” then focus your energy elsewhere.
Don’t Be a Perfectionist
While there’s nothing wrong with being motivated, establishing unrealistic expectations for yourself and those around you is only going to make things stressful for everybody involved. Instead of insisting that everything you do has to be “perfect,” realize that “good enough” can be alright, too. Achieving this goal means eliminating a self-defeating attitude. Instead of using words like “never” or “always,” as in “I am never late for anything” or “I always expect perfection,” in relation to your mindset, allow room for occasional failures by having realistic expectations for yourself and those around you.
Make Time for Your Own Relaxation
There’s nothing wrong with taking time for yourself. In fact, doing some things that are solely for your own amusement is a great way to keep stress levels in check. List things that you find relaxing in your life. Get out of the mindset that doing things entirely for your own mental health is somehow selfish. Nurturing yourself is just as important as tending to the needs of the people in your personal and professional life. For some much-appreciated stress relief, try to implement some of the following suggestions into your life:
- Calling up a good friend you haven’t talked to in a while just to catch up
- Taking up a hobby that you’ve always wanted to try
- Making time for a daily walk (without your cellphone)
- Enjoying a quiet cup of coffee or tea
- Playing with your pet (instead of just tending to its basic needs)
- Scheduling a massage at a day spa or local resort
- Watching a movie that you actually want to watch (instead of going along with the group consensus)
- Taking a long bath (while making it clear that you are not to be disturbed)
- Finding the humor in situations (or enjoying a good laugh)
- Playing a game with a friend
- Curling up with a good book (again, with the stipulation that you’re not to be disturbed unless it’s a legitimate emergency)
- Finding something enjoyable to do around the house (working in the garden, setting up a craft area)
When stress reaches a point where you can’t determine the underlying issues yourself, a trained therapist or psychologist has the skills necessary to help you find a healthier perspective. Oftentimes it helps to talk to someone who will listen to your concerns without passing judgment or dismissing your feelings. Finally, take a moment to think of the positive things going on in your life when you feel bogged down by stress. There’s something to be said for seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.