Stress is any physical, emotional, or psychological trigger that puts a physical or mental strain on a person. Most people have to deal with stress as part of their daily lives.
How you perceive stress, in large part, determines how stress will affect you. Learning to manage stress can help reduce your risk of mental and physical illnesses.
Many things can trigger the surge in adrenaline that indicates your body is ready to fight or flee. Getting older and cognitive health declines can make it harder to manage stress. It can become a vicious cycle where you perceive stress as all-encompassing and difficult to manage, which triggers the release of hormones in your body, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and stress eating. These, in turn, increase your risk for chronic disease and take years off your healthspan.1,2
Managing stress takes a conscious effort to calm your nervous system. This sounds straightforward, but asking yourself to do something else can feel like a pretty tall order when you are stressed.
The key is to develop stress-reducing habits when you are not experiencing overwhelming stress. If you can control your stress, it can be motivating and help you respond more quickly to the challenges we all encounter daily.
There is a direct relationship between brain and mental health. There is also a direct relationship between mental and physical health. You know that exercise can help you maintain a healthy body composition, but it can also reduce cortisol, commonly called the stress hormone.
Besides lowering cortisol levels, exercise can increase endorphin release. These “feel-good” chemicals reduce pain and induce a feeling of generalized well-being. Lower cortisol, higher endorphins, and a better mood lead to better stress management.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week, along with two muscle-strengthening sessions per week.
Fueling your body with nutritious foods is essential to counteract the effects of stress. The gut and brain are linked. Good nutrition improves brain health.
Stress puts a huge demand on the body, and many people respond by reaching for highly processed comfort foods. These foods are high in fat and calories and low in nutrients.3
Whole foods are as close as possible to their natural, unprocessed form. Making whole foods a big part of your diet gives your brain the nutrients it needs to optimally respond to stress.
Whole foods are also great for your overall health. These foods are not refined or processed, are free of additives, and do not have added sugars, starches, or manufactured ingredients.
Poor sleep quality worsens stress, depresses mood, and increases your risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease and obesity. Sleep affects metabolism, appetite, immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular health.
According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and Sleep Research Society (SRS), adults should sleep seven or more hours per night regularly. Better quality sleep is associated with better health, less daytime sleepiness, well-being, and better psychological health.4
Practice deep breathing so it feels like second nature when you are exposed to stress. Most people breathe using only the small muscles between their ribs. They do not fully expand their lungs.
How can you tell? If you contract your diaphragm when you breathe, your abdomen will move out with inhales and in with exhales.
Deep breathing enhances mood, reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and has no negative side effects.5
Like deep breathing, meditation is free from side effects and has research supporting its positive effects on mood and stress reduction.
Meditation is a practice that uses techniques to help people focus their attention and achieve a heightened sense of awareness. Meditation calms the nervous system, reduces cortisol release, and reduces heart rate and blood pressure.6
Start with just 5 to 10 minutes daily and make meditation part of your day.
How you perceive stress is key to how it affects you. If your inner voice sends a constant stream of negativity, stress levels increase, along with all the negative health effects associated with constant stress.7
Listen carefully for when your inner voice is positive. Pay attention and allow the words to sink into your consciousness.
When your inner voice is negative, question the truth of what it is saying. Look for evidence that your negative inner voice is exaggerating or just plain wrong. Replace these statements in your mind with positive or at least more neutral statements.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help if negative thinking increases your stress and affects your health.
Grounding exercises are mental and physical activities designed to bring you back to the present moment and help manage stress and anxiety.
Examples of grounding exercises include walking barefoot in the grass, touching nearby objects, noticing things around you, focusing on each part of your body, playing memory games, and verbalizing a mantra.
Exposure to fresh air, sunshine, the sounds of nature, and vitamin D can also reduce stress. In one study, researchers found that being outdoors can reduce cortisol levels.8
Some kinds of light exposure can improve your physical and mental health. Timing your light exposure can help your body maintain its circadian rhythm, which improves sleep and reduces stress.
If you identify your triggers for stress, you can better manage your response to them. To identify your triggers, pay attention to when you feel stressed. You may notice your mood changes and your heart rate and breathing increase.
Note the stressors and your body’s response to these stressors in your journal. Knowing your stressors helps you identify trends. When you know your stressors, it may be possible to reduce your exposure to them or prepare your mind and body in advance.
When you know your stressors, you can prepare for them using techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and grounding exercises.
By identifying your stressors and understanding your body’s response to them, you can proactively take steps to reduce their impact on you.
Locus of control is described as a feeling that you are in control of the situation or that the situation is controlling you. People who feel they are in control of the situation have reduced physical and mental responses to stress.
Whenever possible, focus on positive self-talk. If you have setbacks, be forgiving toward yourself. You don’t want to compound your stresses.
Talking about your problems and stressors with others can make them more manageable. Choose a time and place for this conversation so you don’t feel rushed and feel that you have been heard.
Before starting the conversation, let your partner know whether you are looking for solutions or a sounding board. If the conversation does not meet your goals, it can worsen your stress.
Hobbies are enjoyable activities that fill our time, are relaxing, and can reduce stress. If your hobby increases your stress by demanding too much time and energy, it is not a great choice.
Chronic stress harms your physical and mental health. Think about these options for stress management and slowly try to make lifestyle changes that help you feel more in control of stress.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.