Whether we experience work-based stress, stress resulting from relationships with our friends or romantic partners, or a more generalized form of anxiety and overwhelm, what matters most on our physical and mental longevity is how we deal with these situations. Although life’s smaller stressors are more inevitable and harder to avoid completely, there are often patterns we can recognize as innate to the formation of stressful situations that trigger our anxiety and emotions. For many who experience constant, chronic stress resulting from an identifiable cause such as a particularly stressful job, removing oneself from those environments indefinitely might be a necessary action. However, simply walking out of a job or leaving a relationship suddenly and with no plan of action is not always the wisest decision. This then leaves the dilemma of how to deal with stress in an ongoing capacity or at least temporarily, because if we don’t, there is a myriad of health consequences that accompanies ongoing exposure to stress.
Health Risks of Stress
Stress management techniques are so critical to our health and well-being because they help our bodies and minds adapt or deal with stress in ways that reduce the negative health risks associated with stress. When left untreated with any management strategy, stress can cause both short and long-term adverse consequences, ultimately preventing you from being the best version of yourself. According to the Mayo Clinic, these effects can range from physical symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue, and muscle tension, to mood effects such as lack of motivation, anxiety, and depression. In turn, these symptoms have the power to influence stress-induced behaviors such as drug use, social withdrawal, and even overeating.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, exposure to chronic stress and cortisol in the long-term can increase the likelihood of developing more severe physical conditions such as high blood sugar and diabetes. In the most severe of cases, extreme stress has influenced people to induce self-harm and even suicide. Oftentimes, the worse these conditions become, the more helpless they feel to the victim. However, there is no level of stress that cannot be reversed or return from – with the right management techniques and life alterations, anyone can employ a number of strategies that can help reduce stress-induced symptoms.
How to Relieve and Manage Stress
Many mental health professionals, medical doctors, and alternative medicinal practitioners alike will recommend a well-rounded approach to effective stress management. This includes taking diet, lifestyle changes, and other personal exercises into account, all in service of the primary goal – to reduce the body’s negative response to stress. Many of these strategies also complement each other or magnify the effects of one another when used concurrently. Here are some of the most effective types of stress management techniques that you can incorporate into your routine today.
1. Mindful Breathing Exercises
When you are confronted with a stressful situation or you start to feel the typical emotions of overwhelm as the tension starts to build, one of the best things you can do is take a step back and practice mindful breathing. This isn’t always possible given the situation or your immediate environment, but if it is, the first thing to do is to remove yourself from your immediate environment that’s causing you stress, even if it’s for five minutes. Once you in a place where no one will disturb you for at least five minutes, you can dive into a simple mindful breathing exercise.
As a quick overview before diving into the technique itself, mindful breathing is an extension of mindfulness – a practice that helps people bring awareness to immediate stimuli that can be both meditative and stress-reducing. Rather than trying to clear the mind, mindfulness aims at delivering the experience of being fully present and aware, bringing attention to the senses and emotions as they are happening. There have been a number of scientific efforts that have found mindfulness to produce significant stress-reducing results. For example, one study found that the practice not only reduced emotional reactivity associated with stress, but increased feelings of self-esteem and overall mood.
How to do it – For beginners, you should attempt at committing at least 5 minutes to mindful breathing in a location where you won’t be bothered or feel strange closing your eyes. Then, allow your eyes to close and breath slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth, allowing the air to remain in your lungs for as long as you need to. Focus less on the mechanics of breathing itself, and more on the sensation you feel as the air passes in through your nasal cavity and out past your lips.
2. Break it Down
One of the most effective methods used to manage situational stress resulting from an overwhelming amount of work is to break it does into smaller bits. Although this seems like a common-sense tactic, many people get so caught up in the sheer mass of the work they have to do that they actually unknowingly inflate the tasks at hand, making them seem bigger and hairier than they actually are. By breaking them down into little pieces, it becomes easier to formulate a plan of approaching and managing them.
How to do it – The first and possibly most important step in this technique is to first take a step back. If you have a moment, try doing a breathing exercise first to center yourself. Then, come back to the situation at hand and outline the answers to several questions:
- What are the tasks I have to do in the order of priority and importance?
- For each task, can I identify subdivisions that can be broken down into 3-5 steps?
- Approximately how much time is associated with each of those steps?
- What is the correct order in which those steps need to happen in order to complete the task in the best way possible?
After breaking the bigger tasks down into smaller, easier-to-manage steps, your job at hand will seem a whole lot less overwhelming.
3. Exercise: Work it Out
One of the more obvious ways to manage stress that is oftentimes the hardest to follow through on is exercising. Not only do the physical outcomes of regular exercise make our bodies more resilient to stress and healthier overall, but it gives us a conscious release of tension if we choose to channel that stress into certain exercises such as jabbing a punching bag or sprinting. The combination of increased circulation, better blood flow to the brain, and attention to the release of anger and stress through certain physical actions not only makes for a fitter physique but allows for significant and effective tension release as well.
According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise aids with stress relief in a number of ways such as the increased production of neurotransmitters in the brain known as endorphins. These are “feel-good” chemicals that have the power to reduce and replace the brain’s chemical byproducts of stress. Exercise for stress relief is found to be most effective when done regularly, resulting in a multiplicative and compounding positive effect.
How to do it – Any exercise is good exercise, granted that the motions you are doing are being performed in good form in a way that won’t cause you harm. However, some people find boxing a punching bag to release stress to be especially effective and enjoyable.
4. Take a Daily Adaptogen
Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body and mind manage stress. They combat fatigue and burnout on a chemical level, making the cells more resilient to harmful stress byproducts such as cortisol, while also enabling us to get better rest, focus, and increase overall mood. There are a number of herbal extracts that fall into the adaptogen family that have been used in alternative medicinal systems for thousands of years, one of the most powerful of which is ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha is a powerful herb that is extracted from a plant native to parts of North Africa and India and has been studied for its significant benefits on reducing inflammation, blood sugar levels, and relieving stress and anxiety. In fact, research has shown that ashwagandha inhibits the stress pathway in the brain, which regulates and lowers our body’s natural negative responses to stress. Other studies on human participants found that ashwagandha supplementation significantly lowered cortisol levels (the naturally-produced stress response chemical). Ashwagandha is also an excellent supplement for both better sleep and improved focus as well, such that it balances out the body’s energy levels, allowing for more efficient communication between nerves.
How to take it – For ashwagandha specifically, ½ teaspoon mixed into hot water daily is recommended. There are a number of other effective adaptogenic herbs to try as well such as Turmeric, Ginkgo Biloba, Shankhpushpi, Rhodiola, and Tulsi.
5. Seek Social Support
The benefits of a sufficient social system of reliable friends and family cannot be overstated – making an effort to spend more time with people you enjoy can not only be therapeutic, but can help lift the mood and distract from life’s stressors. Try to combine seeing friends with an activity you enjoy, actively making an effort to diversify how you spend your time. Feeling overwhelmed and overworked is an easy way to kill creativity and lower output. Instead, set time limits for the number of hours you spend working, and make sure to a lot quality time for doing activities you enjoy with people who care about you.
How to do it – Carve out a few hours each week to devote to planning fun activities with your friends, calling your family, or relaxing with your loved ones.