Stress is normal. It’s your body’s way of protecting you when you feel you’re in danger – whether it’s real or imagined. Your brain releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, causing your heart rate to increase, your blood pressure to rise, and your senses to become more acute.
Stress is what gives you extra strength to defend yourself, keeps you on your toes and sharpens your concentration when you need it most.
But chronic stress isn’t good for you. In fact, it can start harming your health and mood if it’s not kept in check.
Research has linked chronic stress to hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke. Also, stress affects your immune system, and if your immune system is chronically stressed, your body could take longer to heal or you could be more susceptible to colds or other diseases.
The causes of stress are different from person to person, and the effects on the body can vary from person to person. Sometimes there are physical signs, like head or body aches, and sometimes the signs are emotional, like irritability or forgetfulness.
The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs and symptoms of stress. They include:
- Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain
- Frequent colds, infections,
- Cold or sweaty hand or feet
- Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms
Some major health problems than can be caused or worsened by stress include
- Heart disease and high blood pressure
- Sleep problems
- Autoimmune diseases
- Skin conditions
- Stomach ulcers
How you decide to respond to stress is the key to reducing it. The most important thing to remember is that even when you feel like stress is out of control, taking control of it — whether it’s your thoughts, your schedule or your environment — will make a huge difference.
10 Ways to Reduce Stress
Here are some ways to take control.
Stress often causes tension in your muscles and shallow, quick breathing. Relaxation techniques, such as self-massage and slow, deep breathing can help you relax the tension and manage your stress response. Try taking a very deep breath and hold it, then breathe out slowly. Repeat a second deep breath in and breathe out slowly. Repeat as needed.
Activities like meditation, yoga, and tai chi can also help you relax, especially when practiced regularly.
Find tips on how to use relaxation techniques here:
It’s true! Laughter can go a long way to alleviating stress. And it doesn’t just help your mind. It can actually cause positive effects in your body.
In the short term, a good laugh can stimulate circulation of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and muscles, leaving you with a nice, relaxed feeling.
In the long-term, laughter may ease pain by stimulating the body to produce its own pain-killers and make it easier for you to cope with stressful situations.
3. Get organized
Planning out your day or how you will approach a big event, like a job interview or a big presentation can go a long way to reducing stress.
Make a to-do list to help you focus on what needs to be done. Break big tasks into smaller tasks to help it seem more manageable and allow enough time to avoid feeling rushed.
Set limits. Don’t be afraid to say no to requests for your time and energy – there are only so many hours in the day.
4. Get moving
Regular physical activity helps muscles relax and it can also help improve your mood. Studies have also shown that exercise can help ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Plus, you get all of the other positive effects of exercise, like lowering your weight and fighting cardiovascular disease.
Activity should be fun, too! Try walking, swimming, biking, golfing or dancing. Aim for some kind of activity 30 minutes every day. No matter what you do, make sure your enjoy it – enjoyable exercise can put you in a good mood.
5. Eat nutritious food
Stress can sap your energy, so it’s important to fuel your body with the most nutritious food – vegetables, fruit and lean protein.
Caffeine and high-sugar snack foods may temporarily give you a boost – but they may leave you feeling more tired than before.
Sleep is important for helping your body recover from stress. Getting enough sleep can also help you think more clearly so you can better handle the next day’s problems.
Aim for seven to nine hours every night.
7. Take a time-out
Everyone needs a break, and taking time out can go a long way toward reducing stress in your life. It can not only take you away from what’s causing the stress, but it can also help your muscles relax and your mind clear. Some people have a hard time “doing nothing” so use a phrase such as “I will now take time to recharge my batteries.”
Your idea of a great time out might be different from someone else’s. You might enjoy lying in a hammock, listening to music or taking a drive into the Hill Country. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you actually like to do.
8. Connect with others
Sharing your feelings with friends or family can help you feel better. They might even be able to help you find solutions to whatever is causing your stress. Experts have found that social interaction helps your brain think better, but be sure you do this with people you can trust to support you not to pull you down.
Visualize and focus on pleasant, calm scenes like lying on the clean sand of a warm beach or walking through a cool, peaceful forest. Choose positive rather than negative thoughts.
10. Seek professional help if you need it
If your stress doesn’t go away or you feel like you can’t cope with it, it may be time to talk with your doctor. Over time, stress can lead to depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Your doctor can help your treat the underlying causes or symptoms of stress. They may also suggest counseling and refer you to a mental health professional to help you learn better ways to manage your stress.