Stress is an inevitable part of life, and not all of it is harmful. But, when the total amount of stress you experience at a given time exceeds your ability to cope with it, that’s when it can wreak havoc on your health. The long-term activation of the stress-response system, and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, can disrupt almost all of your body’s functions. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including anxiety and depression.
Stress management is often the most difficult practice for people to implement in their lives, however its importance can not be emphasized enough. Clearly stated, if you’re not engaging in some form of stress management, you will probably sabotage your best efforts with diet, exercise, and supplements—it’s that essential. Taking time for yourself is not selfish, and in fact, self-care helps you to be the best mother, father, spouse, partner, friend, employee, and person you can be.
Since you can’t avoid all stress in life, try your best to minimize its impact by:
- Reducing your total exposure to psychological or physiological stress
- Mitigating the harmful effects of stress you can’t avoid
- Adopting strategies for stress management
Reduce the Amount of Stress You Experience
- Learn to say no. Know your limits and be aware of over-committing yourself.
- Avoid people who stress you out. Limit your time with people who might be prone to drama or conflict, if you can’t avoid them entirely.
- Turn off the news, or at least limit your exposure. So much of the media coverage today is sensationalistic. Try looking for more neutral sources of news.
- Give up pointless arguments.
- Limit your to-do list. Ask yourself which items on your list are essential and see if you can cross anything off your list.
- Reduce your exposure to online stress.
Your Patterns of Thought Affect Your Perceptions of Stress
- Reframe the situation and look for a more positive perspective. For example, if you find yourself stuck in traffic, can you enjoy a podcast or use the time as an opportunity for contemplation and solitude.
- Lower your expectations and standards. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good—allow good to be good enough.
- Practice acceptance. Learn to accept the things you can’t change.
- Be grateful. Try keeping a gratitude journal and writing down three things from each day that you are grateful for, and how your actions contributed.
- Cultivate empathy and compassion.
- Manage your time. Setting careful boundaries for your time can be helpful.
Find a Stress Management Practice That Works For You
There are a number of different clinically proven ways to manage stress, from yoga to deep breathing to biofeedback. Below are several points to consider, and a few options for specific techniques.
- Start small. If you’re new to meditation, start with just 5 minutes each day. Gradually increase that time as you become more accustomed to the practice.
- Make it a priority. Consider putting it on your calendar, just as you would any other important task for the day.
- Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay if you miss a day, and it’s okay if you don’t feel like you’re “good” at it.
- Choose a mix of practices. Some days sitting still on the cushion may feel near impossible, and yoga or another movement-based practice may be a better fit for the day.
- Try progressive relaxation, or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). There is a free guided body scan at http://www.buddhanet.net/audio-meditation.htm
- Guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn (the pioneer of MBSR) can be purchased at http://www.soundstrue.com/store/guided-mindfulnessmeditation-3947.html
- If sleep is a significant issue, consider the Sounder Sleep System: http://www.soundersleep.com/marketplace/?category=audio
- Biofeedback is another option that some people prefer, since it provides a more tangible measure of how we modify our physiological response through relaxation. There are many options available that work with a tablet or smartphone, such as Emwave2, BioZen and Quantum Life.
- Research has proven that spending time outdoors, including contact with nature, is just as important to health and well-being as sleep, exercise and a healthy diet.
- Get outside when you can, and aim for 15-20 minutes of midday sun exposure (without
sunscreen) 2-3 days each week. The amount of time will vary based on skin tone, time of year and latitude.
- Spend as much time in nature as your schedule and lifestyle permit. Aim for a minimum of two excursions into nature, including urban parks and green spaces, each week.
- Put plants in your home and workspace. If you have outdoor space, plant a simple garden.
- Exercise outdoors whenever possible, and on varied terrain that includes hills, trails, rocks, and other natural features.
Bring Play Back Into Your Life
- In our culture, play is often dismissed as a waste of time. However, research suggests that play may encourage flexibility and variability in behavior and adaptation to a changing environment. Some research (specifically studying bears) even suggests that play may contribute to living longer and healthier lives, along with directly contributing to the growth of certain brain regions.
- Try adding more play into your life. Think about what you enjoyed as a kid and see if you can bring that joy back into your life.
- Make a list of play activities. Write down a list of ways you love to play and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day. It’s easy to leave out play when we are caught up in everyday life, trying to get through our to-do list, so leave the list where it will nudge you to find a few minutes for play.
- Create opportunities for play. Throw a ball for your dog, play hide-and-seek with your kids, or just go for an aimless walk in your favorite park.