How to Stress Less

A large, airy living room with a comfortable light brown couch.

There’s no question that there’s an abundance of stress in today’s world.

Over the past two years, nearly 80% of Americans said they’ve experienced an increasing amount of stress, and half of those surveyed said that stress has negatively impacted their behavior. Whether it’s the constant email notifications, relentless deadlines or managing the everyday balance between life and work, stress can quickly pile up, but it doesn’t have to rule your day.

Finding ways to stress less aren’t as difficult as it seems either — even when that stress itself can feel overwhelming. Slowing down, taking a breath and grounding yourself in a hectic moment seems cliche, but there’s actually some science behind these methods. 

There’s no way to completely eliminate stressors or the effects they have on your mental and physical health, but you can build a few steps of your own to help you stress less.

What exactly is stress? 

You might call it a number of things — like a busy day at the office, approaching deadlines, even a disagreement with a friend — but scientists explain stress as a physical or mental response to an external cause.

“A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time,” explains the National Institute of Mental Health.

Typically, stress resolves when the external cause is removed, so if you’re stressed over a big test or presentation, you’ll more than likely feel better after it’s over. That’s the main difference between stress and anxiety, which can be persistent and interferes with how you live your life.

Researchers also believe stress isn’t all bad. They’ve actually observed some healthy benefits. 

“In general, chronic or long-term stress can have harmful effects. In contrast, acute or short-term stress can have protective and beneficial effects,” Stanford Medicine researchers say. “We have shown that when short-term stress is coupled with immune activation — for example during surgery or vaccination — the immune response is enhanced.”

However, long-term and ongoing stress can be bad for the body. It is important to find ways to reduce those feelings before you reach a chronic stress problem or burnout.

How to stop it before it starts

Stress has a way of sneaking up on you. It might be in the middle of the night as you try to fall asleep. Did you send that important email? Are you sure?

Or it might be in the midst of a hectic day when everything seems to be happening at once. Or it might be in traffic while you’re running late to dinner with a friend. 

Deadlines, appointments, and scheduling are big stressors for nearly everybody, and it can feel like they're out of your control. However, creating a sense of control around your schedule can significantly reduce your stress.

For some people, avoiding unnecessary stress means using a planner to prepare for each day and setting a strict schedule. For others, it’s a rolling to-do list set each day. For the uber-busy, the Eisenhower Matrix (which helps you easily identify urgent and important tasks) can be a game-changer. 

There are a ton of good tools that can help you stay organized and on track during the day, whatever it is you have on your plate, it just takes some dedication. Visualizing your tasks throughout the day also helps you to audit your workload and figure out when to properly do them, delegate them or save them for another day.

Instead of letting those assignments turn to stress, put them on paper and you’ll be a lot more prepared for whatever the day has in store.

Helpful self-talk 

If you can relate to stress feeling like a spiral, then you may benefit from some tools that bring you back to the present moment.

Changing perspective is important when you’re dealing with stress, especially because we tend to see things in a negative light when we’re stressed. We think things like: I’ll never get this done. This isn’t turning out how I pictured it. I’m late. I feel overwhelmed.

Stressful thoughts are, by nature, negative, but it only takes a little training to snap out of it. That can mean practicing positive thinking, which Mayo Clinic researchers say is probably easier than you think. 

“Positive thinking doesn't mean that you ignore life's less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way,” the researchers say. “You think the best is going to happen, not the worst.”

To get in the habit of positive thinking, they suggest surrounding yourself with more positive people, being more open to change in stressful areas of your life, and giving yourself permission to find humor in an unpleasant situation.

Researchers also say a reality check is a good way to boost positive thinking. After all, things probably aren’t as bad as you’ve convinced yourself they are when you’re stressed. 

“A reality check is all about what you do when your brain starts catastrophizing things,” says brain researcher Dr. Srini Pillay. “It’s a form of self-talk in which you say things like, ‘This too shall pass.’ When you use this form of self-talk, it relaxes your brain and all of the associated structures that are making your anxiety worse.”

Build up a defense

No matter how much you optimize your schedule or tell yourself things will be OK, stress is bound to happen, but you can lessen the effects of it. 

A healthy diet and exercise are a good start. Several studies have found that eating more colorful meals and working healthy fats into your diet can help support good mental health and help people to deal with stress better. 

Regular physical exercise will help you build up stress resistance, but in the moment, stress experts say a different type of exercise can help: “Rapid, shallow, erratic breathing is a common response to stress. Slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. You can learn to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation; the effect, in fact, will be relaxing,” say Harvard Medical School researchers.

Try this: 

  1. Push your stomach out as you inhale so that you’re getting the most use out of your diaphragm. 
  2. Now hold your breath for a few quick moments.
  3. Exhale slowly. A longer exhale than inhale creates feelings of calm.
  4. Repeat this up to 10 times to feel the full effects.
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