Handle stressful situations with ease using these strategies
Who doesn’t want more joy and less stress? When you take care of yourself and your response to stress, you can be the best, most amazing version of yourself. Managing stress in a healthy way can help you sleep better, get sick less often (and heal faster when you do get sick), and have better moods and relationships with others. If stress affects your weight, managing stress can even help you to better manage your weight.
There are many ways to deal with stress to lessen its impact or even make it work for you. By implementing these stress relief strategies when you feel overwhelmed, you can find more happiness and become your amazing best self.
Remember, the goal isn’t to completely remove all stressors from your life forever but rather to give you tools to reduce them and reduce the negative impacts they have on your mental and physical health.
So, what can you do that can help you deal with and manage stress in a healthy way? I’ve put together some common—and uncommon—strategies to help you reduce your stress so you can live a happier, healthier life.
1 – Recognize when you’re experiencing stress and come back to the present moment
How do you personally experience stress? What are your body’s and mind’s reactions when you feel stressed? For example, do you have trouble relaxing or sleeping, or maybe you feel particularly fatigued? Do you feel irritable, sad, or worried? Do you feel your mind racing and your heart beating fast? Do you experience more digestive issues, headaches, or infections? Is your mind stuck in an ongoing “loop” of negative thinking? Does stress make you feel like you need to take more control of your life because the situation is uncertain? Does stress make you constantly worry? Do you feel the need to reach for alcohol or other substances?
Whatever your personal way of experiencing stress is, recognizing and acknowledging it is the first step toward moving through it. Try to come back to the present moment—what can you see, feel, smell, hear, or taste right now? Remind yourself that your reaction is completely natural and normal. Validate—don’t judge—how you are feeling mentally and physically. Always be kind to yourself.
2 – Remember to take care of your mental health
I want to encourage you to think about what helps you relax and calm your mind when your emotional reactions are on high alert. What positive activity can you do soon—if not right now? Is it a bath? A funny video? A favorite song, movie, or book? Playing with a pet? Chatting with a wonderful friend or family member? Meditating? Taking a nap? Doing a breathing exercise? Picking up a hobby, puzzle, game, or craft? Writing in your gratitude journal? Listening to guided imagery? Taking a “mental health day”?
Whatever works to help ease your mind a bit, try to invest at least a few minutes (if not longer) to relax and calm your mind in a healthy way. Then, try to book some time to do this on a regular basis and whenever you feel you need to.
3 – Remember to take care of your physical health
Another positive thing you can do is maintain your physical health in a kind and balanced way. Stress can sometimes feel as though it’s taking over your life, leading to negative effects on your physical health. Studies confirm that stress can trigger emotional eating and choosing calorie-dense foods that are high in fat and/or sugar. It can feel as though you have zero ability to eat well or be physically active. Or stress may affect you in the opposite way by making you feel as though you need to pay meticulous attention to every single bite you eat and every minute of activity, while neglecting other aspects of life.
Whatever your natural stress response is (and remember, they’re all natural, the goal is to be kind to your body and enjoy the short-term feel-good stress-relief behaviors. Then, step back and focus on the longer-term health implications of some of these natural stress reactions. Sometimes we reach for the joyful, fun, and indulgent foods when we’re stressed. That’s something we naturally do to make us feel better in the moment. I encourage you to balance that out with nutritious, wholesome foods.
During times like these, it’s even more important to take a step back and try to nourish and move your body in a way that’s healthful. Regardless of your health, shape, size, or any other attribute, you can take another step to nourish your body because you are worth it. These healthful activities include having enough nutritious food and doing at least 30 minutes of physical activity five to seven times per week (which has been shown to boost moods).[2,16]
PRO TIP: Physical activity during the day can help improve sleep. Win-win!
If any of these nutrition and fitness goals are too big for you right now, start smaller. Start where you’re at and do just one thing today. Why not try to have a cup of water or your favourite tea, or walk around your block just once? Can you snack on a fruit or vegetable instead of a candy bar or bag of potato chips? A recent study published in the journal Nutrients showed that some people who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to also have improved mood, vitality, and well-being, as well as less stress and fewer mental health issues.
Feel free to take this one step farther and eat and drink at a slower and more mindful pace so that you can enjoy every bit of food or sip of tea.
When it comes to fitness, aim for 30 minutes of physical activity each day. If you can’t get 30, then try for 20. If you can’t do it every day, try every other day. Remember that even a bit of physical activity is better than none! Is there a favourite workout that really gets your heart pumping, muscles moving, and clears your mind? Or maybe you’d prefer a gentle walk, stretches, tai chi class, or yoga moves? Either way, be careful not to overdo it so much that it becomes another thing that drains your resources and causes stress.
The bottom line—especially when you’re stressed—is to do what you can to take care of your physical health through both nutrition and fitness.
4 – Talk to someone you trust
Connection is a powerful way to deal with stress, especially when you’re still feeling all of the stressful feels. That’s because stress can make you feel lonely and isolated, so reaching out to someone and building a stronger relationship can be particularly important.
Remember that when you’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode, your ability for logical thinking can be impaired. That’s why it’s a great idea to recruit support. If you can, reach out to someone you trust (not the person stressing you out!) who will listen to your concerns, give you space to decompress a bit further (maybe with laughter or a social event), and even bounce ideas off of.
Perhaps you can invite them to a phone or video call, a short coffee “date,” or even dinner. What if you also used this as an opportunity to take care of your mental health by chatting while doing a hobby or other creative activity together? You may also consider booking a delicious, healthy restaurant meal or takeout, or inviting them over for a nutritious potluck. Or what about turning this into a fitness opportunity to go for a walk or hike together?
Whatever will work to help you connect with someone you care about (and who cares about you) and build that relationship is a good, positive action toward reducing stress.
5 – Address your reaction to the stressor
This step is all about focusing on your reaction without judgement. It’s best to approach this step when you’re not as acutely stressed. (Don’t worry, the next step is addressing the stressor itself.)
This is where I kindly remind you that stress is your reaction to a stressor. Let me ask you, how can you empower yourself to change your reaction—even slightly—so that the situation has less of a mental and physical effect on you?
For example, when you look back at that moment that stressed you out, do you catch yourself reacting very strongly and feeling extremely “triggered” as though you’re in “survival” mode? Is it at all possible that the situation may not be as devastating as you thought? Is there another angle to consider—even if only for a moment—where the stressor is in fact not going to directly and immediately threaten your survival?
If there is a slight possibility that your reaction is even a tiny bit bigger than the threat, this is a great time to spend a moment and recognize how natural and normal your reaction is, and that you can look at it a bit more clearly when you’re not in the midst of it all. Having said that, I hope that you aren’t going to immediately get seriously injured. If you are, then you do need to react to preserve yourself, so please seek out help right away if you are being seriously threatened.
If part of your natural reaction is to reach for alcohol when you’re stressed, try to stay within the healthy drinking guidelines of no more than one drink per day if you’re a woman and two drinks per day if you’re a man.
MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: If your stress causes you to turn to substances or engage in other behaviors that can possibly harm you, it may be time to ask for help from your doctor or other health or mental health professional or contact a substance use support line.
6 – Address the stressor
All of the previous steps looked at ways to address your reaction. Now it’s time to see what can be done to change your stressful situation.
Take a deep breath. Look for the power that you might have in influencing the stressor itself. Is there a short- or long-term strategy that you can start putting in place to gracefully reduce the stressful demands made on you and lighten your load? Are there some boundaries you can set? How can you communicate your needs in a way that is most likely to get a positive response?
For example, if it’s work-related, can you negotiate a new deadline or request extra help? If it’s school-related, can you get your questions answered or improve your time management? If the issue is interpersonal conflict, can you respectfully discuss the problem behavior?
Other questions to ask include:
- Do you have any flexibility to rearrange your schedule?
- What would happen if you simply declined or said no?
- If you need to recruit help to manage the responsibilities or situation, what help do you need? From whom?
- How can you ask for what you need in a way that’s most likely to get a yes?
Sometimes putting a plan in place to address your stressor can help. If you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it may help to prepare yourself ahead of time. You can start by picturing what you’ll say and then preparing your reaction to several potential responses. Also, consider how you can end the conversation quickly if you need to get out of it.
What would happen if you went out and addressed your stressor?
Reach out to a mental health professional if you need to
Once you’ve identified your concerns and needs, and do the best you can to take care of yourself at the time, you may need additional support. Ask yourself if it’s time to consider reaching out to a professional for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, like you cannot cope, or like you’re stuck in a loop continually replaying your stressful situation, please seek help. This also applies if you find yourself turning to unhealthy avenues to try to de-stress (e.g., substance use, excessive or restrictive eating or exercise, etc.). You can reach out to your doctor or other health professional or even a support line that is listed above in section 5.
Why it’s worthwhile to address stress in a healthy way
While you can’t completely eliminate stress from your life (nor do you want to), what you can do is accept your natural/normal reactions, understand the biology behind them, and cope with them using these uncommon strategies. Addressing stress in the ways outlined above can help give you peace of mind, a better quality of life, and reduce your risks for many mental and physical health issues.
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