When surveyed in 2017, eight in 10 Americans reported they were afflicted by stress. Whether these afflictions manifest as emotional reactivity, memory loss, changes in appetite, or decreased sex drive is largely dependent on the individual, but one thing can be said for all people: stress gone unchecked can pose major health risks.
Sometimes it can be challenging to give stress the attention and treatment it requires.
After all, the digital age propels communications faster than the speed of light and online profiles constantly convey unattainable ideas of perfection. The pressure to perform well and quickly can be subsequently overbearing, and many turn to coping mechanisms that aren’t sustainable in the long-term.
So, let’s talk about changes you can make to cultivate healthier patterns in coping with stress.
While the Information Age may be at fault for the widespread integration of work into our personal lives more than ever before, it’s also helped us compile scientifically proven stress-management techniques that can transform your mental wellbeing for the best.
Here are five proven tips for relieving and reducing stress.
1. Learn Your Triggers
Whether it’s an upcoming job interview, screaming kids, a rent payment, or a growing pile of papers on your desk, stressful circumstances are an inevitable part of life. As such, the solution to stress isn’t aiming for a life free from it. Instead, we can identify what generates feelings of stress at a personal level and learn how to best cope. Sometimes, it’s as simple as taking a moment for a mental reset.
Identifying Types of Stress
If we cannot identify triggers of stress, it can be difficult to know when we need a mental reset. Additionally, the nature of the mental reset may shift based on the type of stress.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are three different types of stress:
- Acute stress – typically occurs in response to a brief, one-time event, such as a job interview or an altercation in the workplace
- Episodic acute stress – when acute stress is experienced more than once, or in ‘episodes’
- Chronic stress – ongoing, deep feelings of stress that impact health and daily life, putting you at risk of developing severe health problems unaddressed
Acute stress is typically less detrimental to health. It can even help with overall performance by releasing internal chemicals, like adrenaline, which may provide the necessary energy to get through a tough situation.
When dealing with acute stress, try to keep in mind that the circumstance bringing stress will pass rather quickly. Remember that your stress reaction may actually be positive, because it lets you know your body’s hormonal responses to your environment are properly functioning.
Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic acute stress, on the other hand, poses a greater threat to your long term health. It’s often more of a comment on the sufferer’s inner thoughts and emotions that it is on their external reality.
Though it’s normal for everyone to experience acute stress when faced with a daunting task or obligation, it’s not healthy to get consistently stressed over any obstacle encountered. Some people, known as Type A personalities, are more prone to frequent bursts of stress.
Over half a century ago, Dr. Meyer Friedman and Dr. Ray H. Rosenman conducted a study in which they labeled people into categories of Type A and Type B personalities. You’ve likely described some individual in your life as being Type A. Friedman and Rosenman used the descriptors “competitive, time urgent, hostile and aggressive.”
According to WebPsychology’s article, “The Differences Between Stressors and Stress,” the deadline-driven Type A personality is more likely to suffer from episodic acute stress. People who experience that fight-or-flight feeling regularly will approach each day with a sense of urgency that ultimately makes their regular bursts of stress a health threat. The article added, “the continual barrage of hormones can lead to tension, headaches, chest pains and anxiousness.”
If you or someone you know experiences episodic acute stress, one solution can be reframing perception. We must ask ourselves: Do my stressors positively benefit me? Is my stress-response appropriate for the given stressors I am responding to, and does the consequent stress contribute to my long-term success? In many instances, the stressor at hand is not proportional to the stress response.
By prioritizing peace of mind and mental wellbeing into their ideal of success, people with Type A personalities can learn to lead lives that take on a more objective approach to problem-solving with decreased emotional volatility.
While the second type of stress is more common among those who would historically be labeled “worry warts,” the third type of stress is seen across the board. The American Psychological Association reports, “Chronic stress can occur in response to everyday stressors that are ignored or poorly managed, as well as to exposure to traumatic events.”
Anyone can fall victim to chronic stress. Chronic stress is not about a pre-disposal to fears about performance or perfection. Instead, it’s about stressors that are poorly managed—both big and small. Since these triggers can come in any shape and vary from person to person, getting familiar with yours is vital to knowing how you can best combat chronic stress.
Try observing your body’s personal stress response symptoms. Rita Schiano, stress-management instructor and resilience coach explains in her article for Life, “when we are under stress, our body sends us signals — our heart beats rapidly, we begin to sweat, our respiration increases, our digestion decreases.” These tell-tale signs can give us insight into our internal mechanisms and help us work through them consciously.”
If you’re not familiar with your stress triggers, investigate the times that you’ve experienced these sorts of stress symptoms most. Keep a journal or make a mental note of these times and utilize your observations to predict future circumstances that might naturally cause you to experience those symptoms again. Knowing yourself means knowing what you need to keep stress acknowledged and under control.
2. Get Enough Sleep
Studies on the relationship between stress and sleep are vast and broad-ranging, as the two are strongly interrelated and complex. You might have personally experienced stress-inducing thoughts keeping you awake at night, but the truth is, a lot of that restlessness may have come from hormonal release.
As Sleepscore Labs reports, “high cortisol levels at night interfere with the release of melatonin, a hormone that is essential for the regulation of sleep-wake cycles.”
While poor sleep may be attributed to stress, a lack of sleep the night before could be increasing the stress levels responsible for keeping you awake the following night. In other words, the relationship is cyclical.
When you stay up late and don’t get enough sleep, your stress responses throughout the day will likely be greater. As stated by Sleepscore Labs, lack of sleep “renders you more emotionally reactive, more impulsive, and more sensitive to negative stimuli.”
“These sleep-driven cognitive impairments can give rise to stress in any number of ways, from creating difficulty in relationships to causing problems with job performance.”
So maybe you’ve found yourself caught up in some detrimental sleeping patterns. That’s okay! We all fall victim to the demands of our schedules and our overactive, media-driven minds sometimes. The solution could be as simple as setting an intention to go to bed earlier the following evening.
Many people also benefit from waking up at a similar time early each day to ensure mental fatigue by the evening. Others may find ease falling asleep when they implement a daily workout into their routine. If you find that you don’t have time to implement a regular exercise regimen or get to bed early enough to substantiate rising earlier, this could indicate a need for a life change.
Alternatively, you could try winding down with a period of quiet time away from technology before bed. Utilizing calming practices like taking warm showers or baths, diffusing essential oils, and sipping herbal teas to set your mind could renovate your relationship to both sleep and stress.
In an article for Science, Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh’s research discussed suggested that holding a warm beverage increases feelings of interpersonal “warmth” and friendliness. Whether you think those feelings are enough to combat stress and help you wind down is up to you, but it could be worth a shot if you haven’t yet tried to chamomile route.
3. Implement An Exercise Regimen
When you think of rest and relaxation, you probably don’t immediately think “exercise.” It makes sense. Exercise does put the body under physical stress, but it may just be the key to relieving mental stress.
According to Harvard Health, “The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.”
Since excesses of adrenaline and cortisol are released during periods of high stress, going to the gym and reducing these levels is a direct hormonal solution. If you’ve felt that “post-workout high,” you’ve most likely felt those positive, exercise-prompted hormonal shifts in your body.
Additionally, exercise provides an opportunity to stop focusing on the workings of your inner life. Sometimes just changing settings from an office to a gym or a studio can give the mind enough distance from burdens to see them from an objective standpoint later.
The benefits of exercise don’t end there. According to the University of Minnesota, exercise can “increase self-esteem, boost self-confidence, create a sense of empowerment, and enhance social connections and relationships.” Every single one of these benefits can help to eliminate stress from your life.
4. Shift Your Dietary Habits
After a hectic day, the last thing you want to reach for to fuel your body is some celery. As reported by Harvard Health, being stressed increases our likelihood of reaching for foods that are high in fat and sugar. Once ingested, these foods act as inhibitors to parts of the brain that produce and process stress.
But even though the brain might signal us to reach for the unhealthier foods to quell its sense of stress, regularly giving into these cravings can lead to weight gain and even higher levels of stress once the initial prohibiting effect has subsided.
Those with negative-eating attitudes may feel guilty after having indulged only to indulge again the following day. Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne, an osteopathic physician and obesity specialist in North Carolina articulated this very phenomenon for U.S. News.
“When people eat sweets or carbs, it increases serotonin,” which causes an improvement in mood. “Short-term, it makes the person feel better, but ultimately, it creates a vicious cycle.”
Sometimes, though it may not be what “hits the spot,” the best thing you can do for yourself is recognize a craving as the brain’s chemical response and choose to feed your body healthy foods instead. Findings from a review in Nutrients, a health journal, reveal magnesium benefits individuals with mild to moderate levels of anxiety. So, what are some healthy foods that are high in magnesium? Almonds, pistachios, spinach, avocados, and even dark chocolate are all good choices.
It may be beneficial to take time away from work while eating. Devoting your attention to the food rather than a task or stressor will alter the pace at which you consume your food and likely aid with digestion. According to a health article for U.S. News, “if you’re feeling stressed while eating, your body will shuttle blood away from digestion and toward your heart and brain in order to help you ‘fight or flee’ from the perceived threat.”
There’s certainly something to be said for you, your own company, quietude, and a heaping plate of food your body will thank you for later.
Hand-in-hand with mindful eating is the practice of meditation. Though it’s easy to put this quiet personal time at the bottom of our to-do-list, its transformative effects prove it shouldn’t be. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation. She tested how mindfulness affects the brain, according to The Washington Post.
Lazar found that subjects who practiced meditation for eight weeks displayed greater brain density and reported enhanced emotional regulation skills. The scientist commented on the effects of meditation and mindfulness, calling it exercise.
“It’s a form of mental exercise, really,” Lazar told the Washingtong Post. “And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.”
Use meditation as a supplemental tool to find quieter spaces in your brain, releasing your stranglehold on the stressful burdens of daily life. It may just be the pick-me-up you’ve been needing. And with apps like “Headspace” providing free guided meditations at the tap of a finger, beginning a regular meditation practice has never been easier.
Ultimately, the choice to implement any of these tips for reducing stress rests in your hands, but so does your future wellbeing.
The bottom line? Stress is impossible to eliminate but important to manage. With the right approach and informed coping habits, you can cultivate a more calm life undefined by stressors you encounter.
Featured photo by Scott Broome on Unsplash