Pounding heart. Sweaty palms. A belly full of butterflies.
These uncomfortable sensations may seem like you’re getting sick, but, more likely, they’re signs of stress.
Occasionally, your body’s stress response can serve a purpose, like motivating you to run faster in a race (or to safety). However, it can also cloud your judgment and hamper your well-being.
Repetitive or long-term stress is linked to:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- digestive troubles
Stress isn’t always avoidable, but it can be manageable. By pinpointing tension triggers and tweaking sleep, diet, and downtime habits, you can learn how to stand up to stress — and be healthier for it.
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To start, it’s important to figure out the source of your stress. Everyone’s personal stressors are different. What may rattle one person may barely bother another.
Mental health experts often think of stress in three different categories:
- Routine stress. This is related to everyday challenges, like parenting, work, or financial concerns.
- Acute stress. This is brought on by an unwelcome change, like an illness, job loss, or divorce.
- Traumatic stress. This is triggered by a life-threatening event, like an accident, natural disaster, violence, or abuse.
It’s hard to avoid many acute or traumatic stressors, but you may be able to remove some sources of routine stress from your life.
For instance, if you’re always tense after encounters with a harsh boss, consider exploring a department or job change.
If looming debt fills you with dread, you might work with a financial consultant to reduce your monthly expenses and help you chip away at your credit card balance.
Stress often takes its toll at night. More than 4 in 10 Americans say stress caused them to lie awake in the past month, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Unfortunately, insomnia can make tension worse the next day. Around 1 in 5 adults say that having trouble sleeping makes them even more stressed.
On the other hand, a good night’s rest may help make you more relaxed by day. According to the APA, adults who got at least 8 hours of sleep per night reported feeling less stressed than those who got fewer than 8 hours.
To get more stress-busting Zzz’s, experts recommend:
- going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- spending as much time outside as possible, since sunlight can help regulate your sleep cycle
- shutting down your screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime
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What you eat and drink reflects — and affects — how you feel, physically and emotionally.
Fatty and sugary foods, like chips and cookies, may be comforting in the moment, but they aren’t likely to help you overcome stress in the long run.
However, there’s potential for whole, unprocessed foods to help relieve tension, such as by supporting the immune system.
Foods that may help you de-stress include:
- citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, leafy greens
- whole-grain breads and cereals
- soybean products, such as tofu and edamame
- salmon and tuna
- nuts and seeds
Mindfulness is the practice of paying close attention to your breath or how you’re feeling in a given moment, without judgment.
According to the APA, mindfulness-based activities may help reduce stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Anyone can practice mindfulness. Meditation and yoga classes nurture mindfulness by promoting concentration and controlled breathing patterns. You can find them at many fitness centers, local hospitals, or online.
Alternatively, you can take personal time-outs throughout the day. For example, find a quiet space, close your eyes, and try to focus on your breath rather than your thoughts for 1 to 2 minutes.
Getting your heart pumping may relieve stress, too.
Research from 2013 found that people feel calmer after a 20 to 30-minute stint of physical activity, but regular exercise is best.
The cooling down from a workout may help train the body to calm down after stressful situations.
Tai chi, an exercise practice that includes mindfulness with movement, may be particularly effective in combatting stress.
However, any moderate to vigorous aerobic movement seems to help with stress management. This might include:
- brisk walking
- any movement that gets you a little out of breath and sweaty
Stress is more than an uncomfortable feeling. Over time, it can chip away at your mental and physical well-being.
That’s why taking steps to beat stress isn’t selfish. Whether you’re ending a stressful relationship, making sleep a priority, or committing to a weekly meditation class, everything you do to relieve tension is an investment in your long-term health.
Small changes can go a long way toward helping you stress less and enjoy life.