“You look…stressed.” It’s something you’ve probably heard before, whether from a well-meaning spouse, a colleague, or a concerned friend. You’ve probably had to stifle the urge to bitterly reply, “Of course I’m stressed!” After all, the only thing worse than feeling the internal tension of stress is having someone comment on it, proving once and for all that you’re not doing a good job of hiding just how stressed you are. But again, how could you not feel stressed? In a given day you, modern women have to care for themselves, their careers, aging parents, young kids, spouses, and other loved ones. And that’s just the stress that originates close to home. There are also big-picture stressors like divisive politics, global warming, and mass shootings that leave some of us tangled up in one giant ball of tension. And if it seems like you’re more stressed than the men in your life, you’re probably right. The American Psychological Association (APA) has found that women consistently report higher levels of stress than men. For example, 65 percent of women stress about money compared to 57 percent of men, and 56 percent of women stress about family responsibilities, whereas only 42 percent of men experience stress about the same thing. There’s no denying that there is stress in your life. The traditional advice for dealing with stress was to just eliminate stressful situations from your day-to-day, but that’s easier said than done—especially when we have constant access to social media and are inundated with news that exposes us to stressors nonstop thanks to a 24/7 media cycle. Because of this, it makes more sense for modern women to learn to manage stress than to try to eliminate it completely. Fortunately, there are great stress management techniques that will help you relax and have fun while letting go of the tension that stress can cause. HealthyWay spoke with experts about the best stress management techniques that you can use to better handle your stress now—and make 2018 the year you’re not overwhelmed. We promise it will be easy. …Don’t stress about it!
What is stress?
We talk about stress all the time, but how should we actually define it? According to the American Institute of Stress, it’s hard to define, especially because how people experience stress and what they find stressful varies widely. An early definition of psychological stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change” was coined in 1936, but that doesn’t exactly give us lots of information. As psychologists and others studied stress more closely, they began to view stress as “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.” Researchers have also found that stress is associated with feeling a lack of control. If we’re not able to control something, we find it stressful. So what does all that mean for modern life? Each year the APA publishes a report titled “Stress in America: Coping With Change.” The 2017 study found that 80 percent of Americans reported feeling symptoms of stress during the month prior to being surveyed, and that those symptoms included headaches, anxiety, and depression. The report found that both personal and social problems contribute to stress. Americans also anticipate stress. Respondents said that they are likely to stress over money (62 percent), the economy (58 percent), personal health concerns (58 percent), and health problems in the family (57 percent) in the next year. Terrorism and gun violence are also sources of stress for 34 and 31 percent of Americans, respectively. With all these topics weighing on our minds, it’s no wonder that American women feel overwhelmed and are ready to get proactive about relief.
Stress has real health impacts.
You might think of stress as a mental health concern. And while that’s certainly true (and a valid reason to take it seriously), it’s important to know that stress has a huge impact on physical health. Studies including one on biomarkers and chronic stress published in Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews have found that stress can affect nearly all our bodies’ systems, from the immune system to metabolism and cardiovascular health. “Chronic psychosocial stress and consequent physiological dysregulations are increasingly viewed as catalysts of accelerated aging and agitators of disease trajectories,” the study’s authors write. In short, stress can make you age faster and make you more susceptible to disease. Another study concluded, “There [is] a significant relationship between daily stress and the occurrence of both concurrent and subsequent health problems such as flu, sore throat, headaches, and backaches.” The same study found that some people are more vulnerable to the physical impacts of stress even if they have relatively low levels of stress in their lives.
What can stress management routines do to address its adverse impacts?
Stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health, so it’s important to try to navigate stress in a way that allows you to minimize its negative side effects. “While some of us are more resilient in the face of stress than others, at some point all of us will reach our threshold for how much stress we can tolerate,” says Marni Amsellem, PhD, a psychiatrist at Smart Health Psychology, a private practice with offices in Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut. “If we do not find a way to effectively let out our stress, our overall functioning will decline,” Amsellem says. “We will snap at little things that [do not] ordinarily affect us. If we are not checking in with ourselves and are not regularly managing stress, when we hit our breaking point, we may really have a negative reaction.” Having a stress management routine is a way to get ahead of stress, addressing it before it begins to have a negative impact on our sense of well-being. Since stress is constantly coming into our lives, it’s important to have a stress management routine that we practice regularly. Whatever stress management technique you choose to use, it’s important to employ it every day. “It should be practiced as frequently as brushing our teeth—two to three times a day,” says Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Serendipitous Psychotherapy in Chicago. “It’s a self-soothing and emotional regulation necessity.” The good news is that more Americans are finding ways to handle their stress effectively. The “Stress in America” report found that 41 percent of respondents feel they are managing their stress better than they were 10 years ago. So how are they doing it? It turns out there are a variety of techniques.
It’s time to get serious about self-care.
All stress management techniques are forms of self-care. You’re taking the time to connect with your feelings and nurture yourself so you can let go of tension and fear. That self-care component is more important than the specific stress management method you use, says Amsellem. “One strategy that I find is highly effective for my patients is to carve out time each day for self-care,” she says. “What self-care is varies from individual to individual and from day to day. One day, it may mean going to a yoga class after work, another day it may mean leisure reading or catching up with an old friend. On other days it may mean going through that unruly closet in the hallway that is in a constant state of chaos and taking the time to organize it.” The most important thing is to make sure that you’re making time for self-care daily, even when (and especially when) life gets chaotic.
Breathe the stress away.
Having a self-care routine is a great way to keep stress at bay, but it’s also important to have techniques that you can use in the moment when you are feeling overwhelmed. If you open a negative email from your boss or get a phone call with bad news, what can you do to start coping with that stress immediately? Breathe. “When we breathe, we are literally pausing our initial reaction,” Amsellem says. “During that time, we can compose our thoughts to help temper our automatic reactions. Breathing also helps slow down our physiological reactions in our body that can get over-activated in a crisis.” Taking a deep breath (or five) can slow the heart rate and stabilize blood pressure—both of which often skyrocket in stressful situations—and can help you control your physical stress response so that you can react to the situation from a place that is more mentally and emotionally aware.
Take time to unplug.
Most of us are never far from our smartphones. We text with friends and check social media obsessively, often making it the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before falling asleep. That might be contributing to our stress levels, though, so experts say that taking time away from the internet and technology is a great way to manage stress. Some studies have found that social media use can decrease people’s ability to cope with feelings of being overwhelmed. Other studies have found that being on social media can increase chances of depression. In addition to those issues, the blue light emitted by tablets, smartphones, and other technology can disrupt our natural sleep patterns. Since sleep is important to coping and feeling less stressed, unplugging before bed is essential. “Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to the well-being of your mind and body. For a better night’s sleep, consider taking a tech break,” says Neil Shah, founder and director of the Stress Management Society, a U.K. nonprofit that focuses on stress management issues. “Ditch the tech at least an hour before bed.”
If you’re feeling stressed, exercise may be the last thing on your mind. However, moving your body can have powerful stress-busting effects. Studies have found that exercise can lower stress levels and leave you feeling better psychologically (and stronger physically). It also helps you build resilience to stress, which is great if you don’t see your life slowing down any time soon. Scientists don’t understand exactly why exercise helps relieve stress, but common hypotheses emphasize the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that facilitate feeling good, involved with exercise. With more endorphins flowing, you’re less likely to feel the negative effects of stress.
Reach for healthy foods.
If you’re feeling stressed, science says that you’re more likely to reach for high-fat foods and other unhealthy treats. Although people report that they reach for these foods to comfort themselves, unhealthy eating can add to your stress in the long term as you worry about the negative implications of your diet for your overall health. Rather than reaching for an unhealthy treat when you’re feeling stressed, choose wholesome, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. These will help keep your blood sugar stable and your emotions in check throughout the day.
Go on a mental vacation.
Remember how relaxed you felt the last time you were on a vacation without deadlines, carpools, or groceries to worry about? Tap into those feelings that next time you sense stress might overwhelm you—not by booking a flight, but by closing your eyes and visualizing a wonderful memory from that time. “Creative visualizations are very easy and can be done at your desk or on the sofa,” Shah says. “Just slow your breathing, close your eyes, and use all of your senses to remember your last holiday: Hear it, see it, feel it, smell it, and taste it.”
Take time to find what works for you.
There are many ways to manage stress, so the key is finding what works for you. The “Stress in America” survey found that exercise, talking with friends, reading, and praying are among the most common ways that Americans relieve their stress. But if those don’t sound right for you or if you don’t feel like doing them on a particular day, you have plenty of other options. “Everyone’s stress management routine will be different,” says Nicole Archer, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in St. Petersburg, Florida. “It is important to try different methods to see what works best for you. Many find exercise to be a great stress relief. Other examples could be getting fresh air, playing with a pet, yoga, breathing exercises, mindfulness, having a cup of tea, drawing, journaling, organizing your closet, a hot bath or shower, aromatherapy, practicing positive self-talk or self-compassion. The possibilities are endless.” If you don’t know where to start, think about what things have soothed you in the past. If you’ve always loved taking a hot bath, that might be an excellent stress management technique for you. The key is making the time to care for yourself consistently. “Balance is really important,” Archer says. “Our schedules will fluctuate, but try to schedule in self-care and stress management time just like you would a meeting or class. Sometimes you may have time to get a massage; other times you may only have a few minutes to do deep breathing or listen to your favorite song on the way to work.” If you try a few different things and still feel that you’re struggling to manage your stress, Archer suggests talking to a therapist who can help you develop a stress management routine. “Stress is impossible to avoid in life,” she says. “We all have responsibilities, traffic, etc. that we are faced with. Since we can’t avoid stress, we must have a stress management routine so that we can better deal with stress in order to not let it interfere with our well-being, relationships, or responsibilities.” That’s a mission we can all get behind.