From time to time, everyone experiences stress. It’s a natural reaction to situations where you feel threatened or anxious. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that raise your heart rate, change the way you breathe, and prepare your muscles to respond. Learning how to manage stress is an important part of taking care of yourself and maintaining good overall mental and physical health.
Low to moderate levels of stress can be positive, like when you need to meet a deadline at work or deliver a wedding toast. But chronic stress can take a toll on your health and affect your well-being. It can cause everything from irritability and fatigue to anxiety, depression, headaches, and insomnia. And poorly managed stress can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and obesity.
If you feel like your stress is getting out of control, here are some healthy ways to restore calm to your life, change unhealthy behaviors, and protect your body from the effects of tension and anxiety.
Eat well. When you’re under stress, rather than reaching for sugary or starchy comfort food, eat healthy meals that include a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and high-fiber whole grains. Taking care of yourself is a great way to reduce stress.
Exercise regularly. Physical activity relieves stress and releases endorphins—your body’s natural mood-boosters. If you’re healthy enough to exercise, go for a walk, ride your bike, swim some laps, or practice yoga. Strength training is also an effective stress reliever. In fact, almost any activity helps, including gardening and housecleaning.
Get enough sleep. If stress keeps you up at night, or if you to have trouble falling asleep, take steps to quiet your mind before bed. Cut back on caffeine and alcohol at night, remove TVs and computers from your bedroom, and try to go to bed around the same time each night. Give your brain and body a chance to recharge.
Avoid alcohol. People often cope with stress by drinking too much alcohol or engaging in other self-destructive behaviors. Having an extra glass of wine may seem to relieve stress, but abusing alcohol can create additional problems and increase your levels of stress.
Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking causes many diseases, and nicotine is a stimulant that can add to your stress. Check with your health insurance plan to see if it offers resources to help you quit the habit.
Spend time with loved ones. You may want to isolate yourself when you’re stressed, but reaching out to family and friends is a healthier way to cope. Loved ones can provide support and offer a fresh perspective on what’s causing your stress. And socializing can help distract you from your problems.
Laugh more. Laughter is a great stress reliever. Watch a YouTube video or a favorite old comedy. Or read a funny book. Get together with friends and tell some jokes. Laugh your stress away.
Count to ten. If someone or something is stressing you out, take a deep breath and count to ten before you react. Sometimes just giving yourself a short break can help put things into perspective. (Deep breathing helps, too.)
Try meditation. Meditation is a simple practice that can reduce stress and help you relax. Find a form of meditation that works for you. After you learn the basics, you can meditate almost anywhere—even for just a few minutes—at work, on the bus, or while you wait at the dentist’s office.
Unplug. For a lot of us, the 24-hour news cycle and social media add to our levels of stress. Take a break. Turn off the TV, set your phone down, and choose “me time” over screen time.
Set realistic goals. You do a lot of things really well, but no one succeeds 100 percent of the time. You don’t have to be perfect. Realize that you can’t do everything—or control everything. Learn to say no and be willing to ask others for help with household responsibilities, work assignments, and other tasks on your to-do list.
Take time out for yourself. Life gets hectic, so it’s important to make time for yourself. If you have vacation time, use it. You don’t necessarily have to go anywhere. Take a staycation and do simple things—reading, cooking, spending time on a hobby you enjoy, or just kicking back and listening to some music. Soon, you’ll forget about the things in life that cause stress.
If you continue to feel overwhelmed after trying these stress relievers—or if you have trouble carrying out daily activities or performing at work or school—talk to a counselor, doctor, or faith leader. Together, you can identify the sources of your stress and learn new coping skills.