Stress can wreak havoc on many areas of our lives, including our career, relationships, physical health, and overall wellbeing. When we feel stressed at work, we may snap at our coworkers or clients, have trouble focusing and overlook important details. We may also indulge in sugary snacks from the vending machine, develop aches and pains, feel depressed and have trouble sleeping.
It's impossible to avoid all stress, and some stress is good for us. “You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not,” says Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.”
Stress stops being helpful when it becomes too much to manage and goes on for an extended period of time, even months. Not everyone can handle the same amount of stress, and what may be empowering to one person may be overwhelming and debilitating to another.
Take Care of Your Body
Since the body and mind are so powerfully connected, we need to take care of our bodies in order to have a peaceful mind. Incorporate as many healthy, whole foods into your diet as possible, such as fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods, since they contain chemicals that may make you feel worse. Moderating your intake of sugar and alcohol is also helpful.
Another way to combat stress is to exercise, which releases feel-good chemicals into your brain, such as endorphins, norepinephrine and serotonin. These mood boosters may help relieve depression and anxiety and also improve your body's ability to handle stress.
“What appears to be happening is that exercise affords the body an opportunity to practice responding to stress, streamlining the communication between the systems involved in the stress response,” says sport and exercise pyschologist J. Kip Matthews, Ph.D. “The less active we become, the more challenged we are in dealing with stress.”
If you're one of the many people who loathes exercise, think beyond your neighborhood gym. Exercise for you could mean taking your dog for a long walk after dinner, trying a yoga, dance or martial arts class, playing ultimate frisbee or joining an indoor rock climbing gym. There's also loads of YouTube exercise videos out there, so you can sweat it out in your own living room, on your own schedule, for free.
Get Some Sleep
Sleep deprivation is another culprit of stress, and giving yourself a regular bedtime is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health. Decide on a realistic bedtime that you can stick to and set a timer on your phone to go off at that time. That way, if you get distracted by a Netflix binge or you've fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, you won't forget to go to bed.
It's also important to wind down before bed. Put your phone on silent, do some relaxing stretches, take a hot bath or curl up with a favorite book. Some people swear by no screens one hour before bed, but other people find that TV helps them fall asleep. At the very least, turn down the brightness on your laptop or phone, or wear orange glasses that block disruptive blue light. You can also try using an app like f.lux, which will automatically change the brightness of your laptop throughout the day, making sure to eliminate blue light by the end of the day.
Take a Moment
If you're feeling stressed in the moment and need instant relief, take a break for a few minutes. Go for a walk, sit outside and observe what's around you, talk with a friend or listen to a favorite song. All of these things will bring you out of what's bothering you and into the moment, where you can relax and let go.
Breathing exercises are another great way to manage your stress instantly. Deepak Chopra recommends breathing in for four seconds, pausing for one second and breathing out for six seconds.
“The normal breathing rate is about 14 breaths per minute, but if you follow this simple practice, you actually decrease your breathing to somewhere between eight to 10 breaths per minute. Doing so has a very direct positive effect on your biggest nerve [the sciatic nerve], which is your stress-reliever and what brings about cell regulation.”
Change Your Perspective
Sometimes the answer to relieving stress is not physical, but involves changing your perspective. If something at work is bothering you, think about how in a year from now, it won't matter in the slightest. Or take a tip from Jerry Seinfeld and hang up pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of galaxies that are billions of light-years away.
“That would calm me when I would start to think that this was important,” he said about hanging the photos up in the “Seinfeld” writers' room. "I've often said this and people say, 'It makes me feel insignificant.' And I don't find being insignificant depressing. I find it uplifting." The next time you feel stressed, remind yourself that you're just a speck in the universe and see if it makes your problems seem smaller.
Be Kind to Yourself
Above all, be kind to yourself. Know your limits and don't push yourself too hard. Give yourself treats like a massage, a pedicure or a night out with friends. As happiness expert and author Gretchen Rubin says, “If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself.” Give to yourself and let the stress melt away.