Stress Management: Definition, Techniques, and Strategies
What is stress management? How do we control, reduce, and cope with our stress? Check out these science-based stress management strategies.
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Stress Management Defined
Stress management is defined as the tools, strategies, or techniques that reduce stress and reduce the negative impacts stress has on your mental or physical well-being. A variety of techniques can be used to manage stress. These include mental, emotional, and behavioral strategies. When stress management is used regularly and in response to stressful life events, we can optimize our well-being (take this well-being quiz to see how you're doing).
Why Managing Stress Is Important
Stress can be acute (e.g., in response to a lion) or chronic (e.g., in response to a stressful job we've had for years). Stress can come from work, finances, relationships, and a variety of other places, but stress can also come from inside the body, from illnesses or inflammation. These stressful events initiate activation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. And the greater the stress we have, the greater the activation of the HPA axis .
When we get stressed, we may at first feel energized. That’s because cortisol gives us the energy we need to escape predators or fight disease and inflammation . But when we are stressed too much, we can start to feel wired. Then after time, we start to feel exhausted. That's because we were designed to get bursts of energy to chase after our next meal or run away from a lion. But now in our modern world, we have this kind of ongoing chronic stress that wears us down over time. This can be devastating for our mental and physical health. And we may even need a stress detox to remove the built up stress hormones and get our bodies working properly again.
Ways To Manage Stress
Given how bad stress is for the body, managing stress is essential. Managing stress is simple, although not always easy. There are lots of ways to do it. In the article below, we'll talk about some of these ways.
Stress Management Activities
Some of the most important activities for stress management include optimizing sleep, eating, and exercise.
Insufficient sleep contributes to greater HPA axis activation . That's why stress management should include improving duration and quality of sleep. To start, be sure to block out blue light (from TVs, phones, and computers) at least 30 minutes before bed . You might also try getting blue-light blocking glasses or getting a sleep-inducing red light bulb (which improves sleep) for your bedside lamp .
Dieting or restricting calories actually increases HPA activation . So if you’re aiming to manage stress be sure to eat enough nutritious food to fuel all your body's systems.
Because exercise increases the demand for energy and cortisol, avoid high-intensity exercise when trying to get your stress under control. Instead, do low-intensity exercise like walking, swimming, or yoga .
Stress Management Skills
In addition to making sure we do stress management activities, we can also build up our stress management skills. Here are some skills that can help you beat stress.
Multiple studies have shown that mediation can decrease cortisol in the context of stressful situations . This suggests that building our meditation skills may be helpful for managing stress. Consider checking out Emily Fletcher's Meditation Masterclass.
Find opportunities to be kind to others
Expressing positivity towards others, for example with compassion, gratitude, and loving-kindness, can buffer us against stress. So finding ways to be kind may indeed be a good stress reducer.
Shift your mindset
When we are stressed, we can view the situation as a challenge that we can handle or a threat that we are afraid of. The research suggests that viewing a situation as a challenge (and not a threat) reduces our stress . So try to remind yourself that “You can do this! And you’re stronger than you think!”
Video: What Are Some More Stress Management Skills?
Stress Management Techniques
Changing our minds is just one avenue for stress management. We can also practice stress management techniques that capitalize on the body-mind connection. Here some science-based stress management techniques to try:
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in and quickly releasing tension as you breathe out. Proceed through one set of muscles at a time. For example, start with the hands, then forearms, then biceps, then shoulders, and so on. Research has shown that progressive muscle relaxation can lower cortisol , so it may be a helpful technique to try.
One effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) is with deep breathing. For example, cycling slow breathing (2-4 breaths per minute) then fast (30 breaths per minute), then ending with three long “Om”s, can reduce anxiety . Breathing techniques like this and others can help turn off your stress response.
Cold water dunk
Another way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is by submerging our bodies in cold water . So, if you’re feeling stressed, jump in a cold shower or pool to tamp down your stress.
Video: Daily Habits To Reduce Stress & Anxiety
Eating For Stress Management
It might surprise you that you can do a lot to manage your stress by changing your diet. The foods we eat often contribute to the amount of stress we experience. So implementing a few healthy dietary strategies can be really helpful to add to your stress management plan. Here are a few to explore.
Cut down on sugar
Sugar increases inflammation so it can exacerbate stress in the longer-term. So eat healthy carbohydrates like whole fruits and veggies.
Eat high-quality protein
Protein is important in the stress response. So be sure to eat antibiotic-free beef, chicken, eggs, fish, and meat substitutes (if vegetarian). And be careful to avoid processed meat, which can increase inflammation.
Eat high-quality fats
Trans fats contribute to inflammation which can put pressure on the HPA axis and vegetable oils are not much better. That’s why avoiding trans fats (in margarine, hydrogenated oils, and many processed foods) and vegetable oils like soy and canola is important. Instead consume fruit oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil when trying to reduce stress.
Stress Management Strategies
Although diet is important for reducing stress, sometimes diet isn't enough. We can also benefit from taking supplements or making other changes that produce calm. Here are some suggestions:
Ditch the caffeine
If we've been stressed for a while, we may be exhausted and feel like we really need caffeine. In fact, the more we feel we need caffeine, the more likely it is that we really just need to rest and help our body recover from past stress. But even worse, caffeine activates our HPA axis, making us feel more anxious . So ditch the coffee, caffeinated tea (like green and black teas), and energy drinks.
Take adaptogen herbs
Adaptogens are plants that help the body manage stress. Some effective adaptogens include Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Eleuthero, Jiaogulan, Rhodiola, & Ginsing .
The amino acid theanine appears to help protect the body against HPA axis hyperactivity . Theanine can be taken as a supplement or by drinking green tea, white tea, oolong tea, or black tea.
Stress Management Tips
We've covered a lot of the best stress management strategies, but some of the smaller things can make a big difference for people whose stress is still tough to beat (people like me! here's my story). Here are some more little things you can do to further beat stress:
Stress Management Exercises
Want to do some quick stress management exercises to help you calm your stress right now? Try these:
Stress Management for Work
For many of us, work is the most stressful thing in our lives. It involves high demands, difficult co-workers, financial fears, and more. So how do we manage the stress associated with work? Well, we can use any of the strategies already discussed, but we may also want to focus specifically on skills that help us better control and navigate the workplace. The skills can include:
How we communicate with people is so important for how we get along with them, how we get what we need from them, and how stressful it is to be around them. So building our communication skills is probably one of the most important stress management techniques for the workplace.
One of the challenges of work is that our employers want to get the most out of us, but we only have so much we can give without becoming exhausted or burnout. Learning to negotiate what we are and are not willing to do is essential to maintaining a lower stress workplace.
Positive social interactions
One of the absolute best ways to de-stress and thrive is to have positive social connections with others. If we can create some positive connections with others at work, they can help buffer the negative effects of a stressful workplace.
Books for Stress Management
There are lots of people who have devoted their careers to stress and learning how to manage it. Here are some of the most popular stress management books:
Stress Management Articles
Although we've covered a lot of stress management techniques here, there are a few other good stress management articles worth reading.
Stress Management Tools
Stress management is about working with our stress from all angles—preventing stress, relieving stress, and tolerating stress. Stress relief is just that middle piece. We need stress relief when we've already gotten stressed out and need some fast-acting strategy. Here are some tools that can relieve stress in the moment.
Box breathing includes deep breaths in and out. There are a bunch of videos that can help you with box breathing online. We've included one of these below.
Guided stress reduction meditation
Taking a few minutes for a guided mediation can be another good strategy for quick stress relief. We've included a guided meditation for you below:
Mindfulness and visualization
Mindfulness involves being aware and accepting of the present moment. Visualization involves bringing to mind positive emotions, experiences, or thoughts. Doing these exercises can be a way to quickly calm your mind and body. Check out the video below to try it.
Stress Management Examples
Stress management is different for each of us because we all are coming from different places and have different experiences to cope with. Here are some examples of using stress management in real life.
As you can see from these examples, stress management usually involves changing thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, but also doing something to change the situation to reduce the causes of stress.
Your Stress Management Plan
So which stress management strategies do you think will work best for you? What do you plan to try? Take a moment and jot down a few exercises or tools you plan to use and which situations you'll use them in. By planning ahead, you'll make it more likely that you'll actually use these tools when you need them and to prevent future stress from arising.
Articles Related to Stress Management
Final Thoughts on Stress Management
In our modern world, stress management is needed by almost everyone. Learning how to implement stress management strategies in your daily life can be extremely helpful in improving your quality of life.
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