Whether you’re racing to catch a bus, striving to meet a big deadline at work or trying to balance your family’s needs with your own, stress is part of our modern life. We’ve all got it, and most of the time we take it in stride.
In many ways, a little stress can be a positive thing. For example, if you didn’t have those deadlines, would you ever finish a project?
But too much stress or low-level stress that endures without a break for long periods of time can become problematic. “Low levels of stress release the same types of stress hormones that are produced by the fight-or-flight response,” says Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director for behavioral health for L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly-operated health plan in the U.S.
The fight-or-flight response is a hard-wired physical response to stress that evolved to help protect our ancestors from predators and other threats back at the dawn of human history. The system survives today and can be triggered by many less physically threatening — but no less upsetting — situations that we face in modern life.
“The same hormones that help humans when confronted with a mortal danger, like a tiger, are produced at lower levels by day-to-day stressors like a dissatisfied boss, family conflict or poor customer service,” Brodsky says. And this can become problematic.
[See: 8 Proven Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Ease Anxiety Now.]
Effects of Stress
The system is designed to protect us, but the problem is, over time, chronic exposure to these stress hormones have been associated with a number of health issues, including:
— Heart disease.
— Anxiety and depression.
— Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
— Gastroesophageal reflux disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
Because of these potential problems, it’s important that you manage your day-to-day stress levels and find healthy ways of reducing some your sources of stress. You can’t avoid all stress. But developing some strategies for better management may lead to numerous health benefits over the long term.
[Read: How to Handle Extreme Stress]
How to Manage Stress
— Build a routine, particularly around your sleep habits.
— Reduce your consumption of digital media.
— Write it down and make a plan.
— Create healthy rewards.
— Exercise and breathe more.
— Set goals, but stay flexible.
— Get support.
Build a Routine, Particularly Around Your Sleep Habits
Brodsky says that “we all benefit from structure in our daily lives,” and as much as possible, building some predictability and routine into your day-to-day life can help you feel less stressed about all the little things that demand your attention. The key is to create, as much as possible, a reliable and predictable schedule to help you stay grounded in time and place.
Particularly with regard to sleep, setting a regular routine can pay big dividends in stress reduction and health promotion. Establish a routine of getting up and going to bed at the same time each day. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of good quality sleep each night. If you have sleep apnea or insomnia, talk with your doctor about how to manage those conditions for better sleep.
Reduce Your Consumption of Digital Media
Brodsky notes that for many of us, the constant pinging of devices and barrage of news alerts, text messages and other intrusions from the outside world can pile on additional stress. A digital detox can help calm the mind. He recommends “building in daily breaks from cable news and the internet, especially around bedtime. Consider setting a curfew for electronics use for 30 to 60 minutes before you go to sleep.” Limiting your time on social media platforms to just once a day for a short time period can also help you stay calmer.
In addition, exposure to artificial light, especially the blue light that emanates from our smartphones, tablets and computer screens, can disrupt the body’s ability to release enough melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle, so when that gets messed up, getting enough or high enough quality sleep becomes more difficult.
Write it Down and Make a Plan
Trying to keep all the things you need to do each day in your head can contribute to feelings of stress, says Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist based in the greater New York City area. Instead of having to carry that all around without forgetting, she recommends writing everything down. Make a prioritized to-do list to help you manage your time and help you navigate a busy day.
“Break down your day and make a plan to make it easier to see what’s in front of you. You can make a to-do list or a plan for the day either the night before or first thing when you wake up. Ask yourself, ‘what’s my day look like? Where’s my inroad to maybe give myself a treat or a break?'”
Create Healthy Rewards
Fox also recommends establishing a healthy way to reward yourself for getting through difficult situations and staying on track. This means building some time into your day to do the things you love most once you’ve finished your work.
Brodsky recommends unwinding at the end of the day with a crossword or jigsaw puzzle or by watching an episode of your favorite show or reading a few chapters of a book each evening. Simple, quiet activities that can be performed on a regular basis can help alleviate stress and anxiety.
But be cautious when it comes to using food as a means of alleviating stress. Though it’s totally fine to enjoy a small glass of wine or indulge in some chocolate now and again as a means of treating yourself, moderation is the key. Some people turn to alcohol or food to soothe stress, but this can create additional problems such as alcoholism or weight gain.
Instead, focus on rewards that meet a spiritual need. Go for a walk through a pretty park, call an old friend or listen to your favorite music for a healthier, calorie-free treat. Eating an overall healthy diet all the time can also help your body manage stress better and be ready for the demands of each day.
[See: 11 Foods and Beverages That May Promote Calm.]
Exercise and Breathe More
Exercise is good for both physical and mental health, and getting plenty of physical activity can help you destress. Making time to exercise each day can support the development of a healthy, stress-reducing daily routine, Brodsky says.
— Getting up for a walk or a bike ride every morning first thing is a great way to make sure that you get in that very important exercise session every day.
— Perform easy chores around the house at the same time every day, such as walking the dog in the morning and evening.
— During a busy work day, get up and move, even if it’s just 5 minutes here or there or walking to go pick up lunch, Fox says. “Shifting locations is good. The brain shifts with us, and it takes some of the pressure off.”
In addition, consider establishing a regular practice of yoga or mindfulness mediation. Both emphasize the power of breathing, which can help soothe an overactive fight-or-flight response and can do wonders for reducing your stress level.
Similarly, in the moment when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, Fox recommends stopping for a moment and just breathing. “If you’re in a place where you can close your eyes, do so. Visualize slowing your heart rate down. Take a deep breath and count to 10.” In that short time, you may be able to derail a panic attack and restore more calm to your day.
Set Goals, but Stay Flexible
Having a to-do list each day can help you manage your time and stay focused on what you need to achieve each day. But you also have to give yourself a little grace sometimes and understand that staying flexible and going with the flow can also be part of a healthy approach to daily stress.
When it all gets to be too much, know that you can say, “actually, I can’t do this much today or I’m not holding myself to get through all this, it’s too stressful. So, I’m going to adapt a little differently,'” She says. Doing so can help you “remember what’s the bigger picture.”
In our busy 24/7 existences, “we seldom stop and look at the bigger picture of things,” Fox says, but keeping all the small day-to-day activities and goals that add up to a bigger goal can help you keep perspective and stay calmer. “We don’t always have to be running and stressing all the time. We can back down a little.” Being able to identify moments when you should hit the pause button can alleviate a lot of day-to-day stress.
“Even if it’s a horrible day, remind yourself, ‘if I get to Thursday, for example, it’ll be good.’ Thinking like that automatically relieves some of that stress,” Fox says. So use the promise or a better day ahead to keep you on track now.
Connecting with other people can help you feel a lot less stressed out. Ask for help when you get really stressed and make time to connect with loved ones and close friends to shore up the relationships that sustain you through difficult times. Even when you’re practicing social distancing, setting up a weekly Zoom check-in with loved ones can help you feel less isolated, Brodsky says.
To keep social interactions from snowballing into an additional stress point, Fox recommends setting some boundaries. “Tell your friend that you’ll meet them for lunch, but set a hard stop at a specific time so that you can leave when you need to,” she says.
If stress becomes a major issue in your life, you might also consider reaching out to a mental health professional for additional support. We all face extremely stressful situations from time to time, and having a strong set of coping skills can help you navigate such. A mental health professional can help you establish useful strategies.