Stress brings out the worst in us. Not just the worst behavior (such as being more irritable with others), but also the worst choices.
If I’m stressed, my natural response is to reach for comfort food. Cookies, cake or chocolate—and the more, the better. This feels soothing at the moment, but I always regret it after the food is gone. I’m left feeling overstuffed, guilty, and definitely more stressed. My skin will probably break out the next day, as an added bonus. I’ll be even more stressed if I keep up this coping strategy for days or weeks. Inevitably, my clothes won’t fit anymore and then I’ll be really upset.
This “method” of coping with stress is not a very effective one.
Stress eating doesn’t solve anything and typically makes things worse. Other unhealthy responses to stress include shopping, drinking alcohol, overworking, zoning out through video games, gambling, drugs…there is a long list of ways that we try to deal with the troubles of life. Usually, you’ll have a few favourites that you tend to turn to when things get tough.
What are they, for you? And what are the negative consequences, for you?
How about practicing some new responses? Healthier responses that have been proven to help you manage stress, decrease your overall perception of stress, and make your life better (instead of worse)?
Here are some of my favorite constructive ways to deal with stress. Have a look through and pick one or two to start using:
1. Do a breathing meditation to induce the "Relaxation Response."
My natural baseline is slightly anxious and stressed. I practice this as a daily foundation to keep me calm, grounded, and better able to cope with whatever may come. You can use it at any time when you feel really stressed. For example, if I get some stressful news, I’ll find a place to sit quietly and do this.
I use a free app called Relax Melodies, choosing sounds like flowing water and rain. I set a timer on the app, anywhere from five to twenty minutes. I then start a 4-6-8 breathing pattern (in for 4, hold for 6, out for 8) while focusing on a favorite three-line prayer. My mind frequently wanders, but I just bring it back to the prayer again.
This type of practice has been shown to induce the “Relaxation Response” in the body. Your heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, muscle tension decreases, and the production of stress hormones is decreased. Even if you just do this for a few minutes, the calming effects last for up to 24 hours.
When you practice this regularly, like I do, your brain architecture can physically change. Your stress center, the amygdala, will shrink, and your more rational cortex will increase in size, helping you to be calmer and more focused in life. It’s truly amazing—such a powerful and healing way to cope.
2. Go for a brisk walk (or some form of physical activity).
When you’re really upset or stressed, take a time out and go for a walk. Walking off your negative emotions can prevent you from saying or doing something destructive in the heat of the moment.
It doesn’t have to be a fancy or formal walk. One night, when I was particularly worried and upset about something, I just walked back and forth along one safe, brightly lit block about twenty times. It helped enormously.
Physical exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress (going to the gym, going for a bike ride, or whatever you like to do—any activity will work). The one-two rhythm of walking can also induce the relaxation response and help your brain to subconsciously solve your problems.
3. Process your stress in a journal.
Stress can take over your mind. Worries run in circles. Free-floating anxieties float around uncontrollably.
When you put a pen to paper and start detailing what’s going on, things really come into perspective. Worries become concrete and perhaps even solvable. I often find that as I write about my stressors, solutions or next steps become clear.
I always feel better after writing things out, even if I haven’t come up with solutions. The process of writing is so grounding and cathartic.
4. Get counseling help.
Not everyone can afford or access therapy, but if you have access to counseling—for example, as part of your workplace benefits—I strongly encourage you to get that support.
It’s enormously helpful to have a skilled third party to discuss life with. Everyday life is full of challenges for us to work through. And of course, counseling is a practical way to get support, problem-solve, and help you decrease the stress associated with a crisis.
5. Use food as fuel, not as comfort.
Use food to support yourself nutritionally when you’re stressed. Make sure you have a solid, healthy breakfast. Have healthy snacks on hand to keep your blood sugar steady, so you don’t get “hangry” (a sure recipe for a meltdown). Choose foods that support your brain’s chemistry (healthy proteins and fats, fruits, and vegetables) instead of reaching for foods that can put you on an emotional roller coaster (sugary foods and drinks, refined “white” grains, processed foods, etc.).
If you’re a stress eater, figure out other ways to feel better. Find coping strategies that don’t involve food or any other behavior you’ll regret. Making a soothing cup of tea, taking a hot bath, or curling up with a good book are deeply comforting activities that leave me relaxed and regret-free.
6. Change what you can; let go of what you can’t.
Learn to play a strong mental game. If something is stressing you out, first figure out what you can do about it. Make a simple plan and then implement it, one step at a time.
If there’s something troubling you that you can’t do anything about, practice letting it go. Worries will probably come back, trying to hijack your mind. Be determined not to let that happen. Resist worrying about anything you can’t change. Let it go. With time, this becomes easier.
7. Practice gratitude, especially if stressed.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, try switching your focus to a short list of things you’re grateful for. The mere act of coming up with a list will get you out of your stressed, “spinning” right brain and back into your practical, list-making left brain.
Focusing on things that you’re grateful for, or making a list of things that are going well in your life (however small or basic), will also improve your sense of well-being and decrease levels of perceived stress.
While this will certainly work in a pinch, it’s most powerful as a daily practice. I journal every morning and start with a list of things I’m thankful for that day (even if everything else seems to be going wrong). In bed, before I go to sleep, I also say a thank you prayer for things that have gone well that day.
I encourage you to come up with a customized “stress toolkit” for yourself. Have a look through this list of suggestions, and pick the things that appeal to you most, or those that would be easiest for you to implement.
Think again of the unhelpful stress-relievers you commonly turn to, and decide how you might exchange them for a healthier habit (for example, making a cup of your favorite herbal tea after a tough day, instead of pouring yourself a glass of wine).
Life goes so much better when your coping strategies make things better, instead of making things worse.
Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas