At some point in our lives we assume the position that stress is just a part of life – a part of having responsibilities and navigating life’s unfriendly waters. And to a great degree, this is true. Responsibility often comes with added expectations and pressures – things the body often takes on as stress. Although life is a beautiful thing, there are numerous factors that are indeed unfriendly, which place stress and strain on daily functioning. Stress takes its steady toll on countless individuals in every culture and country across the globe.
Let’s define two words before we launch out further.
Stressors – external or internal pressures or stimuli
Stress – your response to stressors
Stress responses, timing, and severity of the stimulus all impact how stress influences the body. When facing a stressful situation, the body’s adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol. The body quickly processes stressors and information and responds according to the perceived threat. The nervous system reacts with various hormonal or physiological responses depending on the situation. Our bodies are designed with this elaborate fight-or-flight response to react to different stressors in different ways. As a result, every one of us is at risk of the deleterious effects of stress.
What are the risks of stress?
We cope with stress in many different ways. Moderate stress has been linked with facilitating adaptation to environmental demands, which can stimulate intellectual growth and mental development. While stress can be associated with some benefits, adverse effects of stress depend on the type of stressor, the timing, intensity, and duration. [i] All the different activities we engage in during a stressful situation are our coping strategies. Coping with stress requires constant cognitive and behavioral effort as we deal with both external and internal demands. [ii]
Many scientists actually think that all diseases are in some way related to stress. Some of these diseases include heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, memory disorders, suppressed immunity, Alzheimer’s disease, accelerated aging, and premature death. Prolonged stress increases risk of mental disorders, especially anxiety and depression, PTSD, personality disorders, and others. [ii] Both acute and chronic stress can elicit negative coping which include an inability to effectively release tension, limited control of emotional responses, and impaired functioning. Anxiety from improper stress coping can lead to frequent headaches, metabolic disorders, trouble sleeping, depressed mood, and increased irritability. [ii]
All of this underscores what you already know – stress is universally associated with negative health outcomes!
So, how can you manage stress?
Learning ways to identify stressors can help you eliminate or avoid the causes of stress. A healthy lifestyle can make a big difference. Let’s examine 14 ways to help cope with stress. You don’t have to do all 14 things at once or in any order – choose just a few to start with!
1. Engage in Physical Activity
Exercise protects the body from negative effects of stress. [iii] Moderate and vigorous physical activity helps combat stress by reducing cortisol levels. Engaging in daily aerobic exercise not only lowers stress but can also improve mood, reduce life dissatisfaction, improve quality of life, increase positivity, and improve depression. Even exercising as little as two or three times a week improves stress levels. Jogging, weight training, fitness training, flexibility training, and walking are just a few types of exercise to help relieve stress. Bottom line - get moving doing whatever form of activity you can with your current physical capabilities. If you’re feeling stressed right now, go take a walk. [iv] Bonus: Exercise also helps improve sleep!
2. Deep Breathing
When stressed, heart rate and breathing quicken. Deep breathing signals your body’s other relaxation response, the parasympathetic nervous system. Focus on inhaling deeply through your nose for five seconds, expanding your lungs, and filling your chest to the maximum. Exhale slowly through your mouth for five seconds, using the large muscle at the base of your lungs, the diaphragm, to help force residual air from your lungs. Aim for four to six deep breaths per minute. This deep breathing helps combat stress by lowering heart rate and eliciting positive psychological and behavioral effects. [v]
3. Restorative Sleep
Impaired sleep is a marker of prolonged stress and is directly linked with numerous diseases. [vi] Engage in activities that promote restorative sleep such as aerobic exercise, regular hours for going to bed and waking up, eating meals at consistent times, avoiding a heavy evening meal, eliminating electronic usage three hours before bed, and following the recommendations provided in this article.
4. Dispel Persistent, Negative Thoughts
Stress can trigger negative thoughts. And negative thinking causes stress. [vii] The result is a cycle of thinking that sinks you deeper into stress. I recommend taking time on a daily basis to evaluate your thinking. Learn about ten common thinking errors called cognitive distortions. You can read about these 10 common thinking errors here. Learning these distortions help lay the basis for identifying these irrational beliefs in our own thinking, which is needed to dispel persistent, negative thoughts. Learn the four steps to identifying and correcting thinking errors and negative automatic thoughts in our article on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By using CBT to change your thinking, you can literally change how you feel and behave, which impacts your stress level.
5. Lavender Oil
Lavender has been used for countless centuries as an herbal remedy for anxiety and stress. Aromatherapy can help calm nerves and promote better sleep. [viii, ix] Dr. Nedley recommends the lavender essential oil Lavela, prepared for oral use, for managing anxiety. It is free from side effects and not habit forming. Lavela has been shown to foster sleep quality, calm nervousness, and promotes relaxation. [x] I personally find nothing more relaxing than lighting a eucalyptus candle or turning on my diffuser with mint essential oil half an hour before bed, turning down the lights, and reading a good old-fashioned book. The stress of the day quickly fades as I follow a nightly routine for promoting sound sleep.
6. Get A Massage
Massages are surging in popularity. Getting even just one massage can reduce the stress hormone cortisol in your body. There are longer term benefits to getting multiple massage sessions, including lowering cortisol and lowering heart rate, but even one massage helps. [xi] Whether you go out for a professional massage or ask your spouse, family member, or friend for a shoulder or back rub, this simple modality can significantly reduce your body’s stress.
7. Eliminate Caffeine and/or Alcohol
Moderate and high doses of caffeine can increase anxiety and irritability. [xii] Consider cutting back or eliminating caffeine completely if you are experiencing stress in your life. Different types of stress can cause an increase in alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism. Although alcohol at first may act as a sedative, it actually increases anxiety and ultimately makes coping with stress much more difficult. [xiii]
Some people find it helpful to write about their stress while others utilize gratitude journaling to combat worry. Gratitude journaling three to five things a day what you are grateful for has been shown to increase positive affect, happiness, depressive symptoms, and reduce stress. [xiv] Begin journaling today to start combating the stress of life and increase your happiness, wellbeing, and overall life satisfaction.
9. Invest in Social Relationships
Family and friends can offer rich social support to power you through stressful times in life. In fact, social support is essential for maintaining health. Studies show that social support may confer resilience to stress. [xv] Rather than withdrawing when under stress, conscientiously stay connected. This may involve reaching out to someone you trust and letting them know that you need support. If you do not readily have social connections, consider a church family or community support group as you build relationships.
“Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine. - Lord Byron”
Laughter is not only good for improving mental health, but also the immune system. When you laugh, your systolic blood pressure and heart rate decrease while serotonin increases. [xvi] Laughter decreases cortisol and helps to reverse the body’s stress response. When you laugh, your body releases endorphins that trigger positive feelings in your body and help relieve feelings of discomfort and depression. [xvii]
What are things that make you laugh? Take a few minutes to write down ten things that make you laugh. Consider how you can find humor and joy in everyday life.
11. Set Boundaries and Say No
Although there are many stressors you cannot control, there are some that you can. Identify what areas of your life are causing stress and which of these things you can change. It can be difficult to set boundaries and say no to things that are good and helpful; but if things have not been working out for you and you are under pressure, say no. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is time to evaluate your boundaries. Remember, it is not your responsibility to do everything.
12. Own a Pet
Owning a pet has been shown to improve mental and physical health as well as reduce stress. [xviii] For those of us who currently have or have had pets, we more than likely can attest to the fact that pets help reduce stress by keeping us active, giving us purpose to wake up in the morning, and providing irreplaceable companionship. Our bodies release oxytocin, a bonding chemical, when we interact with our pets in loving ways. [xix] Oxytocin has been found to help protect the brain from the negative effects of stress hormones – sounds like a great reason to go adopt a dog or cat from the Humane Society to me! [xx]
13. Meditate on Scripture and Pray
To the Christian, both prayer and reflection on Scripture passages are an effective coping mechanism to stressful life events. If you believe in a Higher Power, taking time to pour out your worries, heartaches, and challenges through prayer can be balm for your hurting soul. Prayer has been studied in the workplace as an effective means of coping with and reducing occupational stress and burnout. [xxi] Finding meaningful Scripture passages to read and reflect on can be a meaningful way to combat worry and bolster faith during trying times. Research shows that reading the Bible promotes better mental health and is an appropriate intervention for addressing mental health. [xxii] Time spent with God can and will calm your heart.
14. Create a Realistic Schedule
It’s easy to be hard on ourselves for not accomplishing the things we intended to, which can create a cycle of negativity that feeds stress. Establishing and keeping a healthy routine is important for managing stress and anxiety. A realistic personal routine may include creating a bullet point or hour-by-hour schedule. Rather than putting down everything you want to accomplish, evaluate what tasks or responsibilities must be done versus which you would like to accomplish. And be kind to yourself; scheduling personal time is important for your mental wellbeing. Choose something today that will help you mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually every day. Do not sell yourself short in your attempt to help or please others. If you create a schedule and you’re still hustling to accomplish everything, refine it.
While this is not an exhaustive list of ways to combat stress, it provides you with numerous suggestions to begin implementing today. We realize that recognizing your stressors is important. That’s why we are giving you a handout from the Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™ workbook from the session Stress Without Distress. This downloadable activity sheet will help you identify stressors, determine how they are affecting your life, and give you room to create a solution. Use some of the tools outlined in this post to help you make practical steps toward reducing stressors and living a more fulfilled life with less stress.
Please contact us first before publishing this or other Let’s Talk Mental Health articles.
[i] Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., et al.(2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057–1072.
[ii] Orzechowska, A., et al. (2013). Depression and ways of coping with stress: a preliminary study. Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research, 19, 1050–1056.
[iii] Salmon P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clin Psychol Rev. 21(1):33-61.
[iv] Koo, K. M., & Kim, C. J. (2018). The effect of the type of physical activity on the perceived stress level in people with activity limitations. Journal of exercise rehabilitation, 14(3), 361–366.
[v] Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., et al (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353.
[vi] Herr, R. M., Barrech, A., et al 2018). Long-Term Effectiveness of Stress Management at Work: Effects of the Changes in Perceived Stress Reactivity on Mental Health and Sleep Problems Seven Years Later. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(2), 255.
[viii] Seo, JY. (2009). The effects of aromatherapy on stress and stress responses in adolescents. J Korean Acad Nurs. 39(3):357-65.
[ix] Chen MC, Fang SH, Fang L. (2015). The effects of aromatherapy in relieving symptoms related to job stress among nurses. Int J Nurs Pract.21(1):87-93.
[x] Kasper, S., Gastpar, M., Müller, et al (2010). Silexan, an orally administered Lavandula oil preparation, is effective in the treatment of 'subsyndromal' anxiety disorder: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 25(5):277-87.
[xi] Moraska, A., Pollini, R. A., Boulanger, K., Brooks, M. Z., & Teitlebaum, L. (2010). Physiological adjustments to stress measures following massage therapy: a review of the literature. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 7(4), 409–418.
[xii] Richards, G., & Smith, A. (2015). Caffeine consumption and self-assessed stress, anxiety, and depression in secondary school children. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 29(12), 1236–1247.
[xiii] LA Pohorecky. (1981). The interaction of alcohol and stress. A review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1981 Summer;5(2):209-29.
[xiv] Cunha, L. F., Pellanda, L. C., & Reppold, C. T. (2019). Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 584.
[xv] Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 4(5), 35–40.
[xvi] Yoshikawa, Y., Ohmaki, E., et al(2018). Beneficial effect of laughter therapy on physiological and psychological function in elders. Nursing open, 6(1), 93–99.
[xvii] Yim, J. (2016). Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. Tohoku J Exp Med. 239(3):243-9. doi: 10.1620/tjem.239.243.
[xviii] Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., et al (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 31.
[xix] Marshall-Pescini, S., et al 2019). The Role of Oxytocin in the Dog-Owner Relationship. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 9(10), 792.
[xx] Matsushita H, Latt HM, Koga Y, Nishiki T, Matsui H. (2019). Oxytocin and Stress: Neural Mechanisms, Stress-Related Disorders, and Therapeutic Approaches. Neuroscience. 417:1-10.
[xxi] Chirico, F., Sharma, M., Zaffina, S., & Magnavita, N. (2020). Spirituality and Prayer on Teacher Stress and Burnout in an Italian Cohort: A Pilot, Before-After Controlled Study. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2933.
[xxii] Hamilton JB, Moore AD, Johnson KA, Koenig HG. (2013). Reading the Bible for guidance, comfort, and strength during stressful life events. Nurs Res.62(3):178-84.
About the author
Cami Martin, MPH, is the Health Education Director for Nedley Health Solutions. She is an international trainer for the community-based health education program Optimize Your Brain™ and the 8-week Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™. Her passion is disseminating information on living a mentally healthy lifestyle to people around the world. Cami works closely with all NHS programs to continually enhance and expand each program.