Do you ever feel stressed out, checked-out, exhausted or overwhelmed? You are not alone. Many people today struggle to ‘keep up’ with their own lives. Studies are clear that the effects of stress on your mind and body can be deadly. Therefore, it is important to learn how to gain control of the things in your life you find stressful and to learn how to reduce your stress response. Here are five simple ways to reduce and manage stress in your life.
1. Identify the source of the stress and find ways to reduce it
Take a moment to look at what exactly is stressful for you. This might be a difficult boss, a misbehaving child, having too much to do, feeling overwhelmed by chores and time pressure, fear of failure, worry about finances, health challenges, relationship issues…the list goes on and on. Write down the stressors in your life.
Now that you know what is stressing you think about how you might reduce the stress. Is there anything you can do to change the actual stressor? For example, if you have a difficult boss you might talk to him or her about how you feel, talk to human resources about a transfer to a different boss, or do some networking and find yourself a better, less stressful job. If your finances are stressing you out, sit down and make a list of your financial obligations. Create a plan for slowly paying down your debt. Consult a financial planner or an accountant for guidance. Create a budget and stick with it.
If you are overwhelmed with too much to do, list everything that’s on your plate. Cross off anything that simply doesn’t really need to be done right now. Put an asterisk by everything that someone else besides you could do and delegate everything possible. Now prioritize what is left by numbering the items. Then learn to say ‘no’ so you don’t keep recreating this same stressful situation of being overextended.
2. Learn to breathe to lower your stress response (Learn to breathe here)
When we feel stressed out our whole body responds with something called the ‘fight or flight’ response. During the ‘fight or flight’ response heart rate increases, blood pressure raises, and stress hormones flood our system to make us fast and strong. The ‘fight or flight’ response kept us safe back in the caveman days when we were being chased by a tiger. Nowadays it makes us alert and quick if someone pulls out in front of us on the road. Great! But, unfortunately today the ‘fight or flight’ response is often activated nearly all the time as we struggle with constant stress.
A simple way to lower the stress response is to breathe in through your nose to the count of 4 (or your mouth if you nose is stuffy) and out through pursed lips like blowing a bubble to the count of 8. Breathe out twice as long as you breathe in to activate the parasympathetic nervous system or the ‘rest and digest’ response which counters the ‘fight or flight’ response. Do this 3 – 4 breaths at a time and imagine your mind and body relaxing as your breathe out. Repeat this as often as you need to throughout the day. For example, you might try this breathing technique when you sit down to a meal, when you get to work, before you start a difficult project or make a phone call, and particularly if you are feeling stressed. Get my Mindfulness Toolkit CD to learn skills that reduce the stress response.
3. Examine how you respond to stress
Take some time to look at how you typically respond to events in your life. Two different people may respond dramatically differently to the same stressor. Do you take everything personally? Do you always predict the worst possible outcome? Do you focus on the negative and minimize the positive? Are you a perfectionist? Are you usually fearful? Is asking for help difficult for you? Do you have a hard time saying ‘no’?
By taking a hard look at some of these patterns you give yourself the opportunity to make some helpful changes. One way is to replace any negative thought with a thought that feels better. An example might be to replace ‘I have so much to do I will never get it done in time’ with ‘even though I have a lot to do I will get the most important things done first and ask for help if I run out of time’. There doesn’t that feel better already?
If you have a hard time saying ‘no’ try it and see what happens. The next time someone asks for your help with a volunteer project at your child’s school say, ‘Thanks so much for asking me. I am not going to be able to help you this time. But please try me again next time’. Was that so hard? No need to justify or explain why. You know why – you are exhausted from being overextended. Stop that pattern right now.
4. Talk to someone
Sharing your feelings with a trusted family member, friend, or psychotherapist can be a great source of relief. By talking about what’s going on and how you feel about it you may start to release the stress and then begin to find ways to lower the stress and lower your stress response. It is impossible to think clearly and make good decisions when you are really stressed out.
Be careful to avoid a pattern of chronically complaining about everything that is stressing you out. Telling everyone about how stressed out you are will just increase your stress response. Better to talk about what you are doing to manage and reduce it. Even better, talk about how good it feels now that you are starting to get a handle on stress reduction.
5. Get some exercise
Physical exercise is a proven method for lowering the stress response. Plan to get some exercise at least 3 times per week for at least 30-45 minutes at a time. Either find a local gym or pick an exercise you can do at home or during your daily life like walking, riding a bicycle, swimming or dancing. If you have trouble motivating yourself, find an exercise partner and set up a regular time to meet.
Use these five tips to reduce your stress response, increase your energy, improve your health and sleep, and to simply enjoy life more.