In the fast-paced world that we live in, going through life without dealing with stress is a pipe dream. Stress, originally an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect you, now is a hindrance to leading a happy and productive life.
Although there’s no way to get rid of all your stressors, you can find ways to reduce them, as well as coping skills for dealing with them effectively. Handled correctly, stress can serve as your call to action instead of an anxiety provoking problem.
So what exactly is stress? A trip back in time will answer that question for you.
Understanding Stress: Let’s Take a Trip Back in Time
Stress is your body’s way to keep you safe from threats, either real or imaginary. For the next couple of minutes, imagine that you are a cave dweller in the year 10,000 B.C.
Without a warning, a vicious saber tooth tiger leaps in front of you. Just in the nick of time, stress kicks in to save your life. In reaction to the threat the tiger poses, your hypothalamus stimulates the adrenal gland, a small organ on top of your kidney. As a result, the production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol surges through your body.
The hormonal surge elevates your heart rate, increases your blood pressure and grants a quick boost in energy. While on the stress mode, cortisol puts a lid on all nonessential functions of your body. For instance, cortisol heightens the immune system responses, but suppresses other systems such as digestive system, reproductive system, and other growth and maintenance systems.
These temporary changes enhance your physical and mental abilities, which you can use to fight the tiger or run away. When the threat is no longer present, your hormones revert to normal levels and bring your body back to its default settings.
Thus, stress successfully keeps you alive. Now, travel back to the present world.
Your workstation buzzes and prompts a new email, which says your boss wants to see you immediately. Although your boss is no saber tooth tiger, your body reacts to this threat as if your boss is indeed a brutal carnivore out to get you. Predictably, stress hormones kick in.
But, here’s the catch:
When your body evolved stress as a survival tool, it did not assume that you would be under threat constantly. Therefore, the state of heightened awareness is not sustainable over a long period.
In your personal and professional life, the number of challenging situation you come across is overwhelming. Consequently, the stress system that is supposed to take effect only during emergencies is in play full-time. Unfortunately, because of the radical rise in the number of stressful circumstance, your body begins to fall apart. This snowballs into numerous health problems, such as:
- Digestive Problems
- Weight Gain
- Cardiac Diseases
- Memory Problems
- Trouble Concentrating
- Substance Abuse
- Psychological Disorders
Therefore, if you do not learn to manage stress proactively, the tool designed to defend you could mean your downfall. Fortunately, you are not powerless. A few simple measures will allow you to take back control.
In this article, you will learn healthy ways of managing your stress; but before we do that, let’s look at different types and sources of stressors you are likely to encounter.
Types and Sources of Stressors
In your environment, you will find two types of stressors. The first kind, called acute stressors are new threats that you encounter. The second kind, called chronic stressors, are threats that have been around for quite a long time. Asking someone to go out with you is an acute stressor. At the same time, a long-standing financial burden, such as paying your mortgage, is a chronic stressor.
Usually, acute stressors are not a big cause of concern because you encounter them less frequently, and the resulting physiological reaction from your body is unlikely to be life threatening. However, persistent threats created by chronic stressors tend to be problematic because the effects are long lasting.
In order to manage stress effectively you should be keenly aware of the acute stressors and chronic stressors in your life. The following list highlights the commons sources of stressors:
- Major Life Events: Changes, such as a new job, a promotion, marriage and pregnancy, introduces many stressors in your life.
- Surroundings: Noisy neighbors, traffic pollution and bad odor from the streets are few examples of stressors in your surroundings.
- Unforeseen Events: Events that you did not see coming, such as a sudden illness, could stress you out badly.
- Work: The office might be a brimming source of stress for you.
- Relationships: You live in an environment where you maintain close ties with others. In doing so, you also need to deal with stressors that come by way of relationships with others.
- Self-Limiting Beliefs and Fears: Whether rational or irrational, there are beliefs and fears that hold us back from achieving our best. This dissatisfaction is a prime source of stress.
- Lack of Control: Feeling powerless in a situation also leads to stress.
1. Breathe Mindfully to Calm Yourself Down
Most people are completely unaware of their breathing habits. This is unfortunate because mindful breathing is an excellent way to cope with stress.
During stressful situations, you draw frequent and shallow breaths. However, if you channel your attention towards taking deep and long breaths, your ability to manage your stress increases many folds.
Although monitoring the breath is a part of many meditation routines, controlling your breathing deliberately is not the same as meditating. Unlike meditation, the benefits of controlled breathing are available to you anytime and anywhere.
Here is a simple way in which you can calm your nerves during stressful situations.
- Remind yourself mentally that you are going to be in complete control of your next 10 breaths.
- Breathe in gently and evenly while mentally counting from one to four.
- Hold your breath for the same count.
- Breathe out through slightly parted lips as you count mentally from one to four.
- Make sure the count from one to four is evenly paced.
- When you finish each cycle of breathing in, holding the breath and breathing out, use your fingers to keep count of how many cycles you finished.
- After taking 10 breaths you can continue to breathe mindfully to deepen the relaxation.
Breathing in this manner will help you regain your composure and stabilize the physiological activities in your body. If you continue this practice, the extent of relaxation from each breath keeps on increasing.
Gradually, your breathing will habitually be deep and long; thus, challenging situations will stress you less frequently and less dramatically, as well.
2. Find Support: Phone a Friend
Having somebody by your side during stressful situations increases your confidence, boosts your morale and uplifts your spirits. Soldiers in the United States Marine Corps say that the company of fellow soldiers allows them to get through even the most hellish situations.
You don’t have to talk to everyone about your troubles; this does more harm than good. Instead, identify a close friend or family member who is willing to listen to you patiently. This person should also be someone whom you trust deeply and feel comfortable talking.
Here are a few strategies that can help you put in place a structure that you can use to overcome stressful situations:
- Identify Different People for Different Parts of the Day. For example, someone you can call while you’re at work, someone you can talk to during late nights, and someone who is relatively free for most part of the day.
- Put the Person on Speed Dial on Your Phone. When you are having a panic attack, dialing can be difficult and add even more stress to the situation.
- Be Specific. Communicate clearly to the person you’re calling the specifics of the stressful situation instead of talking vaguely or making general statements.
- Keep the Calls Short. Once you feel better, thank the person for understanding, and then hang up.
- Before Calling Someone, Do the Breathing Exercise. Try the breathing steps, above, to calm yourself down some.
- Create a Support System. Do not rely on any one person to manage your stress, because this could be detrimental in the long run.
Remember, while talking to another person about the stresses in your life, it is important to keep in mind that this person has stressful situations to deal with, as well. Therefore, as soon as you begin feeling good and in control switch the subject to another matter; preferably something that you both like to talk about.
Also, express your gratitude openly and do not take your bond for granted.
3. Move Your Stress Away: Sign Up For an Aerobics Class
Prolonged stress causes a build-up of the stress hormone, adrenaline. Channeling that adrenaline towards mild to rigorous aerobic exercise is an efficient way to cope with anxiety.
Exercise can benefit you greatly, because it:
- Neutralizes the stress hormones that cause various symptoms of anxiety.
- Increases the ability of your muscles to contract and relax efficiently.
- Stimulates the release of feel-good chemicals such as endorphins.
- Improves your breathing and lung capacity.
- Distracts your mind from stressful subjects.
- Enhances your overall health and fitness.
- Helps you maintain high energy levels.
- Gives you a sense of control and well-being.
To get the most out of your exercise routine, you must integrate it into your lifestyle. In order to do that, it is best if you start small, and build up a substantial routine gradually.
Take the support of a friend or a personal trainer to help you stay on track until you reach the point where you can sustain the habit without external support.
4. Delightful Distraction: Take Up a Hobby
Hobbies offer an interesting way to manage stress, as well as add a new dimension to your personality. Hobbies, such as cooking, gardening, playing a musical instrument and raising pets, can distract you from the stressful elements in your life and help you focus your attention on doing things that give you pleasure.
Taking up a new hobby or revisiting an old one can help you:
- Pursue results without unnecessary pressure.
- Find the freedom to make mistakes.
- Gain flexibility in managing the way things you do things.
- Remain powerful and in control.
- Expand your horizons and explore yourself.
- Socialize with others who share the same hobby.
- Build personal accomplishments through your hobby.
- Create more enjoyable moments for yourself and your family.
- Do something unique and different that showcases who you are.
Schedule blocks of time to pursue your hobby. These blocks of time may not be long; just 15 to 30 minutes is sufficient. For example, you can take 10 minutes a day to water your plants or practice a couple of chords on your guitar. What’s important is that you like doing that activity and look forward to the part of the day when you are indulging in your hobby.
However, be careful that your hobby does not create stressors of its own.
5. Mindfulness and Balance: Learn and Practice Meditation
People have been using meditation as an instrument of spiritual growth for thousands of years. Even if you are not spiritually inclined, the benefits of meditating regularly are too good to ignore.
Usually there are too many things running helter-skelter across your mind. Given such clutter, making the right decisions becomes extremely difficult. Moreover, decisions made without clarity can come back to haunt you. That is why meditation is such a wonderful tool to enhance your ability to act based on clear thinking.
In addition to reducing your stress levels dramatically, other advantages of meditating regularly, even if it is for a small period, are as follows:
- Slows down the aging process.
- Increases the efficiency of your working hours.
- Helps you feel more connected with the world around you.
- Makes you and those around you happy.
- Improves your brain’s capacity to function well.
- Enhances the quality of your sleep.
- Builds your immunity and wards of diseases.
- Allows you to maintain a healthy weight.
- Increases your attention span and inability to concentrate on your work.
The list certainly doesn’t end here. In fact, there are studies documenting more than a hundred benefits of meditating regularly. You may find it a little hard to begin practicing meditation. That’s why it’s a good idea to join a meditation class.
The main point here is to develop your resilience against situations that are stressful. From this perspective, meditation does not subscribe to any form of religion or belief system.
Begin meditating now, because each day you postpone is a day you have to live with too much stress.
6. The Power of Song: Listen to Uplifting Music
Music has the ability to evoke any emotion from the miserable end of the spectrum to the euphoric end. The reason why music has a direct hotline to your emotions is not clear. Fortunately, we are not to bother about how it all happens. The bottom line is that listening to the right kind of music has the potential to take you to do a better feeling place.
Although people have the tendency to listen to the kind of music that reflects their present state of mind, the practice does not help manage stress. On the contrary, listening to angry or sad music while you are dealing with a stressful situation can cause you to focus on the negativity and make things worse.
That’s why important that you listen to the kind of music that resonates with how you want to feel and not to how you currently feel. For instance, while in pursuit of an ambitious goal, would you listen to the theme music from Rocky or the background score for Jaws?
Some of the benefits of listening to music to manage your stress are as follows:
- Allows you to connect to something familiar. This brings a sense of security when you feel you’re in strange waters.
- Diverts your attention to happier thoughts.
- Provides a temporary isolation for you to collect your thoughts.
- Invokes the change immediately.
- Does not require extensive preparation. All it takes is your phone, a playlist and a pair of earphones.
- Available to you at any time and in any place.
You can either use a playlist that others have created or make your own playlist. The key thing here is that the music empowers you.
7. Hormone Help: Reinvigorate Your Sex Life
The hormonal upheaval caused by stressors shuts down nonessential functions in order to channel more resources to critical functions that help the body to either flee from danger or fight it.
One such function that closes shop during stressful situations is your reproductive system. Thus, stress reduces your sex drive dramatically. This is unfortunate because sexual intercourse can actually be a great stress reliever.
Here’s how making love can help you manage your stress:
- Elevates your mood and improves your outlook.
- Brings down your blood pressure.
- Physical contact with partner lowers heart rate and cortisol levels.
- Improves your breathing and decreases muscle tension.
- Increases emotional health.
- Provides social support.
- Releases feel-good hormones called endorphins.
- Gives you a good workout.
Encourage yourself to exercise this option if it is available to you. However, if you are not in a relationship or if there isn’t someone in your life that you are intimate with, you needn’t go out of your way to relieve your stress in this manner.
Excessive reliance on this method can sometimes lead to addiction. Therefore, use this as a secondary, or even tertiary, method to combat stress.
8. Toss Out Your Past Problems: How to Live in the Present
Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, once said:
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
More often than not, people stress over imagined threats. Most of the fears they fret over never even happen. If you really think about it, are you under any threat right now?
You are probably worrying about something that is likely to happen in the future, but right now, you are free. Some day in the future may bring challenging situations that you need to address; however, that day is not today.
If you have a clear idea regarding the general direction in which you want your life to go, then break down your goals and aspirations into tiny packets that you can manage in a day. Treat each day as a steppingstone towards where you want to get to in life.
If you pay attention to giving each day your best, your year will automatically turn out great, and even if not, you’ll be far less stressed. Grasping this intellectually will not help you reduce your stress; however, living this philosophy day by day will definitely move you towards a less stressful life.
9. Arm Yourself: Pursue Self Improvement
We are fortunate to live in a time where we have access to a vast variety of resources that can help us acquire and hone any skill we choose.
Mostly people get anxious because they believe that the results they intend to produce is beyond their ability. Therefore, stress management can be seen as an endeavor to build your skills such that tasks that overwhelm you in the past no longer worry you.
Think back to the time when you were learning how to drive. Wasn’t driving stressful? But with time, your ability to drive increased and as a result, the stress associated with driving decreased.
Choose a few results that you are struggling to produce. Then look for skills that will allow you to produce the results you seek. Acquire those skills and apply them. Soon you will realize that one of your stressors has disappeared from your life.
Eventually your skills at acquiring skills will increase and your stress levels will drop.
Eliminating stress completely is not possible because stress is a mechanism that’s hardwired into your system. Therefore, fighting to remove stress from your life is a futile undertaking. Instead, improve your ability to deal with stress.
Managing stress is an ongoing process you need to repeat day by day. Nevertheless, the efforts are well worth it. The feeling of power you get from living life on your terms is unsurmountable.
A little attention and carefully planned actions will certainly help you win you day, and even your life back. Your actions will be richly rewarded, because you’ll feel better and be more productive. This will not only help you feel better, your friends and family will be happier, too. No one wants to witness a friend or loved one suffer from anxiety, depression or panic attacks.
If you’ve tried all these tips and they still are helping, don’t hesitate to see your doctor. They can determine the source of the problem and give you the best treatment plan possible. In addition, your doctor will monitor your progress along the way and make helpful suggestions to keep you going in the right direction.
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Anxiety and depression due to stress is running rampant these days, and doctors are prepared to help their patients deal with it better. Talk to your doctor if you struggle. You’ll be glad you did.