Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Stress is a deeply unpleasant state that saps out all the texture, beauty, and joy of being alive. It is an important cause of anger, depression, suicide, accidents, headaches, heart attacks, cancer, and countless other ills. Stressed people live poorer and shorter lives. They live less.

Although stress is often related to life events, such as losing a loved one, getting divorced, or falling ill, most of the day-to-day stress that we experience comes from smaller "background" stressors, such as constant deadlines, tense relationships, painful memories, isolation, discrimination, poor housing, and unpaid bills.

The amount of stress that a person can handle is largely related to her thinking styles and social skills. People with positive thinking styles and social skills are in a better position to diffuse stressful situations — for example, by doing something about them, putting them into perspective, or talking through them with someone. 

1. The first step in dealing with stress is to recognize its warning signs.

  • Emotional symptoms: Anxiety, fear, irritability, anger, resentment, loss of confidence
  • Cognitive symptoms: Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, confusion, repetitive or circular thoughts
  • Physical symptoms: Dry mouth, tremor, sweatiness, pounding or racing heartbeat, chest tightness and difficulty breathing, muscle tension, headache, dizziness
  • Behavioral symptoms: Nervous habits such as nail biting or pacing, drinking more coffee or alcohol, eating too much or too little, sleeping poorly, acting brashly or unreasonably, losing your temper, being inconsiderate to others, neglecting your responsibilities

2. Next, make a list of situations in which you feel that way.

3. For each situation on your list, come up with one or more strategies for preventing, avoiding, or diffusing it. Here's an example:

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

You can also use some more general strategies for reducing stress.

Deep breathing involves regulating your breathing:

  1. Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds.
  2. Purse your lips and gradually let the air out. Let out as much air as you can.
  3. Carry on until you feel more relaxed.

You can combine deep breathing with relaxation exercises:

  • Lying on your back, tighten the muscles in your toes for 10 seconds and then relax them completely.
  • Do the same for your feet, ankles, and calves, working up all the way to your head and neck.

Other general strategies for reducing stress include listening to music, particularly classical music like Bach or Chopin, taking a hot bath, reading a book or surfing the internet, calling or meeting up with a friend, practicing yoga or meditation, and playing sports

Lifestyle changes can assist both to reduce stress and to increase your resilience to stress. Lifestyle changes to consider include:

  • Simplifying your life, even if this means doing less or doing only one thing at a time.
  • Drawing up a schedule and sticking to it.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Exercising regularly (e.g., walking, swimming, yoga, etc.).
  • Having, or giving, a massage.
  • Eating a balanced diet.
  • Restricting your intake of coffee.
  • Restricting your intake of alcohol.
  • Taking time out to do the things you enjoy.
  • Connecting with others by sharing thoughts and feelings.
  • Altering your thinking styles: be more realistic, reframe problems, test your thoughts and feelings, and maintain a sense of humor.

These lifestyle changes are useful not only for reducing stress, but also for improving your overall health and quality of life. Though individually small and simple, their cumulative effect can be transformative.

If you continue to struggle with stress, discuss the issue with a professional or seek relaxation training. 

Neel Burton is author of Growing from DepressionHeaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

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