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How to manage stress so that it doesn't hurt your health

We can't eliminate stress, but we change the way our body responds to it.
Image: A woman sits at her desk
Stress can present itself physically, emotionally and mentally.gpointstudio / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Another day goes by and as you fall into bed you’re left feeling, yet again, like you couldn’t fit everything in.

As you ponder the mountain of obligations and concerns facing you tomorrow, that familiar undercurrent of stress courses through you, distracting you from the things that typically elicit happiness. And who could blame you? You’re juggling work, family and personal life while walking on a dental floss-sized tightrope, and it’s only a matter of time before it snaps under all the pressure.

In fact, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America survey, 45 percent of Americans admit to lying awake at night in the past month due to stress, and 75 percent indicated that they experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom of stress in the last month.

Though the never-ending cycle of stress may leave you feeling disempowered and unsure of how to regain control of your life, there’s good news: it can be done. The first step is to identify the specific causes of your stress and acknowledge the symptoms they cause; then you can actively reset your day-to-day routine to alter how you handle the stressors you encounter and minimize their effect on your wellbeing.

What’s Causing Your Stress? The Common Culprits

“My recent research shows the most common cause of stress is the feeling that there isn’t enough time to get it all done,” said Dr. Heidi Hanna, an integrative neuroscientist and executive director for the American Institute of Stress. “People have more demand on their time and energy than they have capacity, and constant connection to technology aggravates the situation.”

Research shows the most common cause of stress is the feeling that there isn’t enough time to get it all done.

She explained that many people also fail to realize that internal stress has a tendency to make external circumstances much more difficult to deal with. For example, if you’re not catching enough ZZZs, eating crummy food or living a sedentary life, your nervous system is more agitated and more likely to respond hastily to perceived stressors or threats in your environment.

“With all the advances in technology, it’s easy to forget that we’re still dealing with a very primitive brain pattern that is hardwired to protect us at all costs,” said Dr. Hanna. “If we think we don’t have enough of something — whether it’s time, energy, money or other resources like social support — the stress reaction system is activated.”

Other common causes of stress, outside of not being able to get it all done, include our finances, health and relationships. These things tend to be at the forefront of our minds anyway, but are exacerbated when we’re facing an obstacle.

“We find stress in our relationships and in wanting to be there for others. We can be stressed by an illness in the family, conflict in relationships, money and general responsibilities,” said Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a New York-based family psychologist. “Stress is everywhere. The important thing to consider is how we manage it effectively, so it doesn’t get the best of us.”

Be On the Lookout For These Symptoms

Stress can present itself physically, emotionally and mentally. Sometimes the signs are obvious while other times symptoms aren’t so clear-cut. Hanna says that the most immediate signal that stress is getting the best of you is that you don’t feel like yourself anymore.

“[You may] start the day with the best of intentions, and suddenly find yourself feeling irritable or quick to get frustrated, over-reacting to things that wouldn’t usually bother you or starting to feel sluggish and tired for no reason,” she says.

Some people experience headaches or stomachaches, which occur when there’s too much stress-induced cortisol flowing through the body.

You may also feel scatterbrained, shift to a perpetual state of worry, feel unusually pessimistic and have a difficult time focusing and following through on your obligations. Emotionally, you may experience depressive feelings, including low self-esteem, worthlessness or loneliness. These issues can then be exacerbated by the fact that many people will have a desire to withdraw and avoid others when they’re feeling this way.

These emotional and mental issues are often accompanied by physical symptoms, too. For example, Dr. Hartstein says some people may experience headaches or stomachaches, which occur when there’s too much stress-induced cortisol flowing through the body.

“In extreme cases, the stomach pain can result in ulcers,” she says. Also, “one’s immune system can be compromised as a result of stress leading to increased colds or infections, and stress can impact one’s sleep cycle due to insomnia. Additionally, the body holds on to the agitation, leading to shaking or feeling nervous, tension in the muscles or a rapid heartbeat.”

Hanna adds that chronic stress may trigger or worsen more serious issues, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, anxiety disorders, depression and other brain imbalances.

Ways to Minimize the Impact of Stress on the Body

Whether you’re dealing with chronic stress or experience it occasionally on a situational basis (anyone else break out in hives when they get an email from their boss at 9 p.m.?), it’s possible to reset and find a more stable sense of peace and happiness in your daily life.

Treat your body well: It may sound obvious, but it’s worthy of repeating: “Anything that helps the brain and body to have more sustainable energy is going to keep stress reactions minimized, because we can adapt more effectively,” explains Hanna. “Sleeping at least seven hours at night, eating healthy foods every three to four hours to stabilize blood sugar, and moving at least every 90 minutes during the day to facilitate optimal circulation can reduce the wear and tear of daily stress.”

Identify and anticipate your stressors: This may require some introspection, but the effort will be worthwhile. “It's important to be aware of what things create more stress for you,” says Hartstein. “Is work a place that is stressful? Do you take too much responsibility for things and then not take care of yourself? Knowing what things trigger your stress is really important. If you can do some coping ahead — some planning for those stressful moments — you can minimize the stress and help yourself through the moments without becoming too overwhelmed.”

Even just three to five minutes of slow, rhythmic breathing can start to train the nervous system to be more adaptive.

Slow down: “Stress tends to cause us to speed up. The first thing to do when feeling stressed and anxious is to slow yourself down,” says Hartstein. “The best way to do this is to take some deep breaths. Breathing helps to regulate our system, allowing us to feel more grounded and in control. Once we can be in that place, we have a better ability to problem solve what to do about the stressful situation (if there is anything we can do).”

Hanna adds that research indicates breathing about six breaths per minute (inhale to a count of five and exhale to a count of five) in an even pattern is ideal for this shift to happen. “Even just three to five minutes of slow, rhythmic breathing can start to train the nervous system to be more adaptive,” she said.

Set aside 15 mindful minutes: “Spending 10 to 15 minutes each morning with some mindfulness or meditation practice, which can also be incorporated with physical activity, helps the brain connect with what’s most important to us,” says Hanna. “It grounds us to an intention for how we want to show up during the day, before we start worrying about what we need to get done.”

She also notes that a nightly ritual, such as taking a hot bath, reading a book, journaling, going for an evening stroll or listening to calming music, is critical to priming the brain to sleep well.

We may not often look at it this way, but stress management is a skill that needs to be developed. In the same way you learn a new instrument or sport, you must learn how to become more equipped at minimizing stressors and their effect on your body. The more deliberate you are in your intentions, and the more time you invest in this skillset, the more easily you’ll be able to use stress as fuel for positive change, instead of a debilitating feeling that sends you right for a pint of Ben and Jerry's.

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