How to Reduce Stress
Simple advice for better living.
Posted Feb 11, 2017
[Article revised on 26 April 2020.]
Stress is a deeply unpleasant state that saps all the texture, beauty, and joy out of being alive. It is an important cause of depression, suicide, anger, 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 them through 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:
You can also use some more general strategies for reducing stress.
Deep breathing involves regulating your breathing:
- Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds.
- Purse your lips and gradually let the air out. Let out as much air as you can.
- 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, having a hot bath (add in a few drops of lavender essential oil), reading a book, calling or meeting with a friend, exercising, practising yoga or meditation, and giving and receiving massage.
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.
- Getting enough sleep.
- Going for a daily walk, or some other form of exercise.
- Eating food that is tasty, nutritious, and varied.
- Restricting your intake of coffee and alcohol, e.g. limiting alcohol to just wine with dinner.
- Taking the time to do the things you enjoy.
- Connecting with others by sharing thoughts and feelings.
- Altering your thinking styles: being more realistic, reframing problems, testing your thoughts and feelings, and maintaining a sense of humour.
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 absolutely transformative.
If you continue to struggle with stress, discuss the issue with a professional or seek relaxation training.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.