Stress is your body’s normal response to trying events and emotional challenges in your daily life. But while some stress can be healthy, too much can lead to high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, insomnia, and other health problems. Stress management can provide you with tools to protect your health, relationships, and quality of life.
Anything that your brain interprets as a threat can cause a reaction that triggers stress in your body. This response has been termed “fight or flight.” It causes your body to release the hormone adrenaline, which prepares you to take action.
Often, situations involving change—even positive change—can cause feelings of stress or anxiety. Some common causes of stress include:
- having a child
- death of a loved one
- job loss or change
- relationship problems
- trouble at work
- health problems
- ongoing deadlines
- lack of support
- balancing work and family life
Some stress is fleeting and once the stressor is gone, your body returns to a more relaxed state. But stress that is chronic, or continues for a long period of time, can cause your body’s “alarm system” to stay on almost constantly. When this happens, the hormone adrenaline stays in your system, your breathing and heart rate remain high, and your blood pressure stays elevated.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), chronic stress can weaken your immune system, cause headaches and stomach problems, and even damage the walls of your arteries.
Other physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of stress include:
- feeling tired
- having trouble sleeping
- having a hard time concentrating
- being forgetful
- having trouble making decisions
- having low self-esteem
- being moody
- losing motivation
- eating too much
- drinking too much alcohol
The Cleveland Clinic has identified four effective stress management approaches: relaxation, cognitive techniques, behavioral changes, and relationship review.
Relaxation helps you to slow down your breathing, quiet your racing thoughts, and stop thinking about things that make you feel stressed. Relaxation skills improve with practice. Several techniques can help you relax, including:
- deep breathing
- positive mental imagery
- alternately tensing and relaxing your muscle groups
More active pursuits can also be relaxing, such as:
- tai chi
- walking in nature
This form of stress management involves changing your perspective. The idea is that the way you perceive events affects your stress level more than the actual events do. Cognitive stress management techniques include:
- thinking about your attitude and values
- setting goals
- mentally shifting your mood
- using positive imagery
- taking time to plan ahead and schedule
These actions can address negative thinking and help change the way you view and cope with stressful situations.
Once you change your thinking, the next step is take new actions that reflect these healthier thoughts. Changes such as being more assertive, sharing what you feel with others, and taking responsibility can help you better manage difficult situations. These strategies can also help to prevent or minimize your stress reactions and reduce the frequency of stressful situations in your life.
Many stressors are caused by difficulty relating to others. In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, the most important strategy you can use to protect yourself against stress is to maintain emotionally supportive relationships.
Relationship review focuses on working with your partner to:
- forgive past hurts
- communicate your feelings
- learn to listen
- problem solve
One way to help develop these skills is to expose yourself to simulated stressors in order to practice your skills in real-life situations. For example, try communicating with a trusted friend or family member about a difficult topic before you do so with the person you actually need to confront.
Your overall lifestyle affects how you manage life’s stressors. Besides practicing the techniques listed above, healthy lifestyle habits can help you deal with stressful situations. Get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and take a little time every day to engage in enjoyable activities. These are important strategies in helping to moderate stress and improve your coping skills.