Everyone gets overwhelmed and stressed out at times. Stress is beneficial when it gives us the boost we need to get through situations like work deadlines or exams. However, extreme stress has adverse health consequences that affect many of the bodily systems. Unless you learn how to manage your stress, you will suffer mentally, emotionally, and physically. Managing your stress can take some practice, but it is possible.
April is National Stress Awareness Month - a time to reflect on our own levels and causes of stress and learn how to manage them. Below is a list of 10 easy-to-do practices that will hopefully help you better manage your stress.
Get regular physical exercise. The familiar "fight or flight" response is still activated when we feel stressed. More adrenaline and cortisol is generated to prepare us for action. Physical exercise metabolizes these excess stress hormones and restores the body to a calm, relaxed state. Any exercise is better than none at all. At the very least, try to exercise for three to five times a week for half an hour. Try to include some vigorous exercise like swimming or jogging to get your heart rate up and running. When you feel particularly stressed, take a quick, brisk walk.
Learn and practice relaxation techniques. If you can slow down your mind and body long enough to realize that you are not in mortal danger, you can remain calm. One way to do this is by breathing deeply. Another straightforward technique is to focus on a word or phrase that has significance for you. Repeat this word or phrase if you find yourself becoming tense. Relaxation lowers your pulse rate, respiration, and blood pressure. When you combine different techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga, you can significantly lower your stress levels, elevate your mood, and improve your ability to focus.
Change your attitude. Everyone experiences stress, but how you manage it makes the difference. Try to think of it as a challenge, because you are unlikely to be able to avoid it altogether. Reversing negative attitudes can help reduce tension. For instance, your stress may be triggered by a problem that you think is impossible to solve. Try writing down your question and come up with as many solutions as possible. Write down the pros and cons of each one. Once you have settled on a possible solution, note all the steps you will need to take to put it into action. This process can help you get out of a negative, panic-stricken state of mind and puts the rational part of your brain back in control.
Learn how to say 'no.' A common cause of stress is having too little time to accomplish what you have to do. Often, we create stress because we can't say "no." We take on additional responsibilities even when we know we don't have time for them. There are many reasons people can't say "no." They may fear conflict or rejection. Try to understand why you find it difficult to say "no." You have to know and accept your limits. You don't have to respond with a blunt "no." Learn how to phrase your "no" in ways that let people down gently.
Journal about your stress. Keeping a stress journal can help you to learn how to manage your stress by making you more aware of situations that cause it. Keep a record of the date, time, and place when you feel stressed out. Perhaps you could give each occasion a stress rating on a scale of one to ten. Note what you were doing at the time and who you were with. Use this journal to try to understand your personal stress triggers. Identify activities you can modify or eliminate. Think of ways you could handle stressful situations differently and coping techniques you could use.
Reduce caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugar consumption. Try to reduce your consumption of drinks containing caffeine or alcohol. These are stimulants, so they increase your stress levels. People tend to use alcohol to alleviate stress but unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking or drugs just replaces one problem with another. Try to replace caffeinated drinks with water, natural fruit juices, and herbal teas. Green tea contains less caffeine than coffee, has healthy antioxidants, and contains an amino acid that calms the nervous system. Refined sugars are well-known for giving your body a temporary boost and then causing an energy crash, which leaves you feeling tired and irritable. A healthy, nutritious, and well-balanced diet can go a long way towards helping you to cope with stress.
Talk to others. Expressing your feelings to others can help to reduce your stress levels. When you feel stressed, take a break and call a friend. A reassuring voice that makes you feel nurtured and understood will help you to keep your problems in perspective. If you don't want to talk to family members or friends, talking to a therapist may help. If talking to someone else is not an option, then giving yourself a little pep talk may help. Research suggests every thought and emotion can release chemicals into our bodies. Negative self-talk is damaging. Tell yourself that you can deal with the situation and that everything will turn out fine.
Make it a priority to do something you enjoy. Some people enjoy pursuing hobbies like music, art, or gardening. Others find enjoyment in solitary activities like meditation or walking. Don't give up on your favorite activities because of the stress and pressure in your life. Taking a break and listening to some relaxing music or pulling up some weeds in the garden may be exactly what you need. The break will enable you to return to a stressful situation with a different perspective and a renewed state of mind.
Smile and laugh. Laughter goes a long way to reducing stress because it releases endorphins and decreases excess levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Laughing can trick your nervous system into making you feel happy. What you are experiencing inside your brain is often reflected on your face. A smile or a laugh can immediately help to relieve the tension. Watch your favorite comedy and feel your stress dissolving as you laugh your way through it.
Sleep better. Stress can affect your ability to sleep, but lack of sleep is also a fundamental cause of stress. It's a vicious cycle that's hard to break. Your brain and body are out of whack and even when you feel tired, you may toss and turn for hours. Try turning off the TV earlier, dimming the lights and giving yourself some time to unwind and relax before going to bed. Getting enough sleep is essential to fuel your mind and body. If you feel exhausted, it may cause you to think irrationally, and this only increases your stress.
If you experience stress in your own life - like most of us do - or you know other people who are stressed, you should take the time to make a positive change. This could include getting involved with events or simply talking to those around you about this important subject.
Stress Awareness Month is a great opportunity to start some serious conversations about stress, but you shouldn't stop talking about it when April has come and gone.