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Managing Stress

How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress

stressed-womanIt may seem that there’s nothing you can do about stress. The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your career and family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realization that you’re in control of your life is the foundation of stress management. Managing stress is all about taking charge: of your thoughts, emotions, schedule, and the way you deal with problems.

Identify the sources of stress in your life

Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This
isn’t as easy as it sounds. Your true sources of stress aren’t always obvious,
and it’s all too easy to overlook your own stress-inducing thoughts, feelings,
and behaviors. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines.
But maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that
leads to deadline stress.

To identify your true sources of stress, look closely at your habits, attitude, and

  • Do you explain away stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going
    on right now”) even though you can’t remember the last time you took
    a breather?
  • Do you define stress as an integral part of your work or home life (“Things
    are always crazy around here”) or as a part of your personality (“I have
    a lot of nervous energy, that’s all”).
  • Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events, or view it as entirely
    normal and unexceptional?

Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining
it, your stress level will remain outside your control.

Start a Stress Journal

A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the
way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal.
As you keep a daily log, you will begin to see patterns and common themes. Write

  • What caused your stress (make a guess if you’re unsure)
  • How you felt, both physically and emotionally
  • How you acted in response
  • What you did to make yourself feel better
Look at how you currently cope with stress

Think about the ways you currently manage and cope with stress in your life. Your
stress journal can help you identify them. Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy,
helpful or unproductive? Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that compound
the problem.

Unhealthy ways of coping with stress

These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage
in the long run:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
  • Using pills or drugs to relax
  • Sleeping too much
  • Procrastinating
  • Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems
  • Taking out your stress on others (lashing out, angry outbursts, physical violence)
Learning healthier ways to manage stress

If your methods of coping with stress aren’t contributing to your greater emotional
and physical health, it’s time to find healthier ones. There are many healthy
ways to manage and cope with stress, but they all require change. You can either change
the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose, it’s
helpful to think of the four As: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.

Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits
all” solution to managing it. No single method works for everyone or in every
situation, so experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes
you feel calm and in control.

Dealing with Stressful Situations: The Four A’s
Change the situation:

  • Avoid the stressor
  • Alter the stressor
Change your reaction:

  • Adapt to the stressor
  • Accept the stressor
Stress management strategy #1: Avoid unnecessary stress

Not all stress can be avoided, and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that
needs to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the number of stressors in
your life that you can eliminate.

  • Learn how to say “no” – Know your limits and
    stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you
    can handle is a surefire recipe for stress.
  • Avoid people who stress you out – If someone consistently
    causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit
    the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.
  • Take control of your environment – If the evening news makes
    you anxious, turn the TV off. If traffic’s got you tense, take a longer but
    less-traveled route. If going to the market is an unpleasant chore, do your grocery
    shopping online.
  • Avoid hot-button topics – If you get upset over religion or
    politics, cross them off your conversation list. If you repeatedly argue about the
    same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when it’s
    the topic of discussion.
  • Pare down your to-do list – Analyze your schedule, responsibilities,
    and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and
    the “musts.” Drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom
    of the list or eliminate them entirely.
Stress management strategy #2: Alter the situation

If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what
you can do to change things so the problem doesn’t present itself in the future.
Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.

  • Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something
    or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful
    way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation
    will likely remain the same.
  • Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their
    behavior, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little,
    have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
  • Be more assertive. Don’t take a backseat in your own life.
    Deal with problems head on, doing your best to anticipate and prevent them. If you’ve
    got an exam to study for and your chatty roommate just got home, say up front that
    you only have five minutes to talk.
  • Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot
    of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to
    stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead and make sure you don’t overextend
    yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you’re under.
Stress management strategy #3: Adapt to the stressor

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful
situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.

  • Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive
    perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to
    pause and regroup, listen to your favorite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
  • Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation.
    Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month?
    A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time
    and energy elsewhere.
  • Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable
    stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable
    standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
  • Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take
    a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your
    own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in
Adjusting Your Attitude

How you think can have a profound effect on your emotional and physical well-being.
Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were
in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself,
you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as “always,” “never,” “should,” and “must.” These
are telltale marks of self-defeating thoughts.

Stress management strategy #4: Accept the things you can’t change

Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors
such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such
cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance
may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation
you can’t change.

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in
    life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Rather
    than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way
    you choose to react to problems.
  • Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t
    kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them
    as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful
    situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
  • Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend face to face or make an appointment with a therapist. The simple act of expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation. Opening up is not a sign of weakness and it won’t make you a burden to others. In fact, most friends will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your bond.
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect
    world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments.Free
    yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.
Stress management strategy #5: Make time for fun and relaxation

Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your
life by nurturing yourself. If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll
be in a better place to handle life’s stressors.

Healthy ways to relax and recharge
  • Go for a walk.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Call a good friend.
  • Sweat out tension with a good workout.
  • Write in your journal.
  • Take a long bath.
  • Light scented candles.
  • Savor a warm cup of coffee or tea.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Work in your garden.
  • Get a massage.
  • Curl up with a good book.
  • Listen to music.
  • Watch a comedy.

Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take
care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.

  • Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your
    daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time
    to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
  • Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance
    your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.
  • Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities
    that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your
  • Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh
    at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.
Stress management strategy #6: Adopt a healthy lifestyle

You can increase your resistance to stress by strengthening your physical health.

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing
    and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise,
    three times per week. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and
  • Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared
    to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast,
    and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout
    the day.
  • Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary “highs” caffeine
    and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount
    of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel
    more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol
    or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary.
    Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with
    a clear mind.
  • Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as
    your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think