How to handle stress effectively
“I’m so stressed!”— How often do we say these words in our heads?
But what is stress? And if stress is a harmful thing, why does the human body even have it?
Stress is, in fact, essential to our survival. It is our body’s emotional and physical response to escape perceived danger, e.g., when a car honks behind us, we run frantically to avoid being overrun. To helps us do that, stress mobilizes all our energy for our body’s fight-or-flight response, which can keep us alive.
But stress becomes a problem when it is chronic or excessive. It is debilitating and can cause a host of health problems (as discussed below).
In this blog, I explore how to effectively manage stress by practicing some simple techniques and cultivating positive daily habits.
But first, let us understand how dangerous chronic stress can be.
4 Effects of unmanaged stress
Uncontrolled stress can manifest in several ways, wrecking your mind and body.
- Impact on physical health: Stress has a direct correlation to deteriorating physical health. It can lead to conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, migraines, fatigue, chest pains, and diabetes.
- Impact on mental health: As stress mounts up, it can manifest in the form of emotional anxiety, a constant feeling of being overwhelmed, irritability, bouts of anger, and restlessness. Long-term effects include sadness and depression.
- Physiological impact: Unmanaged stress can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. It can also reduce the sex drive and impact other bodily functions.
- Impact on habits: In my experience, one of the harmful effects of uncontrolled stress is that it can drive you to adopt various coping mechanisms. For some, emotionally eating is a way to cope with stress. Others turn to excessive amounts of smoking and consumption of alcohol, which cause damage to the body.
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7 Steps to reduce stress
Stress management doesn’t happen passively, on its own, even if you are working with a therapist. It is something that you need to take control of.
As you become intentional in your stress management journey, you’ll see better physical, mental, and physiological health in a matter of days. In fact, you will often feel better in just a few minutes.
Here are seven effective ways to manage stress:
- Identify the sources of stress in your life: This is the most crucial step of the journey. Stress always has triggers, and some of them are very common. If we don’t do something about them, then the root of the problem remains intact. Even if you can’t eliminate them, awareness is a great first step. E.g., if you are aware that criticism from your boss often triggers your stress, you can be ready to use stress-handling techniques when you have a meeting with your boss.
- Start a stress journal: Writing a journal can help you engage with your inner journey with stress. You can fix a time in the day when you will write in your journal. Alternatively, you can keep your journal handy and start writing the moment you feel stressed. Let the thoughts flow organically and express whatever you feel without holding back.
- Practice the 4 As of stress management: This is an effective toolkit to manage stress on a micro-level every day:
1. Avoid: This is an action plan to reduce exposure to stressors in your life. For instance, if the noise in an already stressful workplace triggers you, find a quieter seating location, or use earplugs to listen to music that relaxes you as you work.
2. Alter: This approach is all about communicating your true feelings, expressing yourself candidly but politely, and setting clear boundaries. It helps set expectations in advance, thus building a psychologically safe space for yourself.
3. Accept: This step is about building acceptance for the things we cannot change and forgiving others and oneself for past decisions and actions. These acts help reduce resentment, guilt, and anger and make way for a sense of peace.
4. Adapt: This last step can be extremely transformative as it is all about rewiring your expectations. For instance, if a friend is overtly critical of you, you can choose not to take it as a reflection on you and stay focused on your goals.
- Manage your time better: Overscheduling can lead to missed deadlines, lack of breathing space, and anxiety. Realistically planning your day with plenty of breaks can reduce stress. Use a digital calendar to schedule more effectively.
- Build positive lifestyle habits: A nutritious diet, 20 minutes of exercise a day, time spent with family and friends, and pursuing a passion outside of work, bring balance to one’s lifestyle and have a positive effect on mental health.
- Learn to relieve stress at the moment: The human body is equipped to self-heal in many scenarios. Here are some proven techniques to manage stress in minutes:
1. Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This is a technique where the physical relaxation of muscles can reduce stress in a matter of minutes.
2. Slow, deep breathing: Deep breathing, which makes your belly rise and fall slowly, instantly relieves your stress. Practicing a few minutes of pranayamas or mindful breathing exercises daily can help manage daily stress.
3. Five-finger breathing techniques: This is a simple technique where one closes the fingers of one palm and inhales and exhales while tracing the outline of each finger with the other hand.
4. Try guided imagery: This technique is all about closing one’s eyes and visualizing a soothing sound, place, or memory that has an instant calming effect.
- Meditate The practice of meditation, even just 5-10 minutes a day, has a calming influence on the mind and body. The effects of daily meditation compound over time, making one calmer, resilient, more present, and mindful of one’s surroundings at all times. Even observing your breath mindfully for one minute can calm you down.
11 long-term stress relief strategies
Managing stress is an ongoing journey, and building good habits is an effective way to lead a stress-free life. These 11 habits double up as effective ways to manage stress:
- Make time for leisure activities like sports or pursuing a creative passion.
- Cultivate optimism in your daily life.
- Express gratitude to family, friends, and yourself.
- Prioritize exercising for 20 minutes a day—cardiovascular exercises like walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming are great options.
- Minimize phone use and screen time, two well-documented triggers of anxiety
- Create boundaries and learn to say “no” politely but assertively.
- Spend time with friends and family
- Spend time in nature—walk in a nearby park, or nurture your home garden.
- Practice deep breathing and make it a way of life.
- Consume nutritious food and drink at least eight glasses of water to optimize your health.
- Study and practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and muscle relaxation.
Set realistic goals and expectations
Stressors are not always external. The inability to reach our full potential causes anxiety. It is practical to set specific goals rather than general declarations.
For instance, “swimming three times a week for 20 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday” is more specific and measurable than “losing 10 kilos in a month”. I suggest becoming more intentional and specific when setting goals and expectations.
Stress can’t be avoided but we can handle it much better. I have extensively used these techniques, especially progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing. Simple as they are, they work like magic.
Try out the above techniques and see how your life changes.