Effective Stress-Management Strategies

by Susan Axtell, Psy.D.

Everyone has experienced stress at one time or another. It’s impossible to remove stress from your life but you can learn to minimize its effects on you. Understanding the difference between stress and stressors is important. Stressors are the events or issues in your life that cause you stress.

Stressors can be brief and situational, like being stuck in traffic, or more persistent like loss, relationship problems, or economic struggles. Stress is the effect of stressors acting on your life–a temporary rise in blood pressure and heart rate, in the case of a short-lived stressor, or ongoing fatigue, concentration problems, or irritability in cases of prolonged stress. Prolonged stress can also exacerbate preexisting depression or anxiety.

Of course, stress can also affect your physical health. Stress is associated with certain cancers, interfering with your body’s immune response, and contributing to cardiovascular disease.

While you will always encounter stressors, the way you choose to react to those stressors can have a significant impact on how much stress you will experience.

Part of a healthy attitude towards stress management involves incorporating active coping strategies in your daily living.

10 Beneficial Coping Strategies:

Working out regularly (getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 to 5 times a week) has been proven to improve mood. It can lessen anxiety and has been shown in studies to be as effective as antidepressants in individuals with mild to moderate depression. But even less intense, less lengthly bouts of exertion have been shown to ease stress, so if you can’t meet this ideal exercise goal, don’t let it stress you out further, just get moving!

–Learn to practice mindful awareness. Activities that emphasize mindfulness by focusing attention, such as Yoga or Mindfulness Meditation, allow you to take your mind off of your worries, providing a much-needed break for mind and body.

–Get enough sleep. Honestly assess your sleep needs (most people need 7 to 9 hours to function well) and then take steps in protecting your bedtime from encroaching demands on your time. Having a firm bedtime and rising the same time every day will go a long way towards alleviating any insomnia your anxiety or depression might be causing too.

Have sex. Sexual activity releases feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin which can help to balance out a mood that’s negatively impacted by stressors. Plus, physical intimacy with a partner helps strengthen emotional intimacy, which can facilitate a mutually-supportive relationship.

–Make time to do those activities that you enjoy and take your mind off of stressors. Rather than falling into the trap of lounging in front of the TV for hours on the weekend because you feel exhausted from the work week, plan an outing that will recharge your battery–visit the Farmers’ Market or get together with friends–or engage in quietly restorative activities at home, like listening to music or reading a good book. Doing positive things that you enjoy sends an unconscious message to yourself that you are worth caring for and that you deserve to enjoy yourself.

Talk about it. Expressing your feelings to a friend or loved one can help you figure out solutions to the problem that is causing you stress, and enables you to benefit from emotional support they can offer. If the stressor feels too overwhelming to bring to a friend, find a therapist to help you sort through your feelings and move toward solutions.

Figure out which aspects of your troubling situation you can control. Sometimes when we find ourselves hit by unforseen and uncontrollable circumstances we fall prey to learned helplessness, a state of mind in which you are no longer able to see the features of the situation that you can shape, but instead hold a global perspective that there is nothing you can do about it. You may not always be able to control what happens to you but you always have control over how you choose to respond to crises.

Modify your expectations of yourself and others. Having unreasonable standards will only worsen your stress. Try to move away from expecting perfection.

Play with your kids or pets. This may seem like the last thing you feel like doing, but building a fort with your child or wrestling with your dog can help to put things in perspective again. Kids remind us of the magic of play and petting your canine or feline baby is a proven blood-pressure lowering behavior.

–Don’t forget to breathe! When we are stressed out our breathing tends to become shallow, which can worsen anxious feelings. Practice deep and even breathing. It may be helpful to not focus on breathing deeply at first, but rather becoming aware of your breathing, noticing how many counts long the in breath is and out breath is, and attempting first to make your exhale as long as your inhale. Then try to gently increase the length of the exhale to be double that of the inhale.