4 Tips for Managing Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of the human experience. In fact, some stress is important. It prepares us to cope with challenges, sparks our motivation (which then helps us meet our goals and build confidence, with the bonus of a fulfilling and healthy life), and allows us to build resilience to move through difficult situations.
However, humans are now dealing with stressors that are relatively new to our species. And they sure are abundant. For example, while many humans no longer need to worry about food scarcity, shelter, warmth, or clean water (this article won’t explore the larger systemic change required to dismantle systemic oppression), we do need to worry about bills, performance, rush hour, criticism, discrimination, the climate crisis, an ongoing pandemic, grades, undiagnosed and untreated traumas/mental health concerns, childcare, insomnia, chronic pain, etc. When these stressors stack up to the point of feeling insurmountable, our bodies will show the evidence. What does that look like?
Inability to focus or finish tasks
Muscle tension/body pain
Increased blood pressure
GI issues (IBS, heartburn)
Emotional ups and downs
Difficulties in relationships
These items sound like a lot of mental health concerns, right? That is because they are. This list (while not exhaustive) are common symptoms of mental health diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and PTSD. And these symptoms are all connected to stress!
So, while some stress is inevitable, too much can have a profoundly negative impact on our mental health and therefore our overall well-being. This brings me to the purpose of this article- how to manage stress and ideally get ahead of it before the above symptoms become an ongoing reality.
When reviewing the strategies below, please be cautious about initiating too many changes at once. If you are already stressed, adding additional homework may be counterproductive. While reading, keep your eye out for one or two things that grab your interest and start there.
1. Pinpoint your stressors
Chances are you have a running log of the things that stress you out- but have you ever put them down on paper? Sometimes we are unaware of what is weighing on us, so it can be useful to identify it, write it down, and tell ourselves “Ah, yes! That is a thing that deeply sucks and of course I am having feelings about it!” (That skill is called validation, and our bodies and minds crave it. In fact, you might even notice a shift in your body as you shine a metaphorical light on your struggles. This could be your body communicating, "jeez, thank you for finally paying attention! I thought I was going to keep up the insomnia until you noticed that something was wrong!")
What are the things that cause you the most distress? Your job? Not having enough time? Demands and responsibilities. Sleeplessness? Relationships? Money? If you want to go the extra mile, you might put a star beside the things that feel the heaviest.
2. Take control of what you can
This is the important stuff. Rather than learning to cope with stress, is there anything you can change in your life to reduce your stress? Of the stressors you have identified, are there any you can delegate? What can you say no to? What can you ask for help with? What can you walk away from? What can you minimize or boundary? Highlight anything that you have a degree of control over changing, and, one at a time, consider making those changes.
3. Nurture your SEEDS
Sleep, exercise, education (or creativity), diet (nutrition) and social connection (or SEEDS) create the foundation for mental health. When we actively, consistently nurture our SEEDS, we are better equipped to manage stress. Consider identifying one element that you would like to turn toward and make a goal to improve that area of your health.
4. Learn to take cues from your body
Arguably, humans have learned to operate on autopilot. A case in point is how we might make it through the day, only to lay down at bedtime only to be bombarded by an avalanche of worries and anxiety. By learning to listen to our bodies, we can tune in throughout the day and notice accumulating stress rather than waiting until bedtime when we are finally un-distracted. Think of it as releasing some pressure throughout the day, rather than waiting for the explosion when you slow down.
Here is a guided body scan that can help teach you how to tune in briefly with your body. Exercises like this are useful because they can be done almost anywhere, and can even be done in under a minute if you are short on time.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you found some helpful tips in this article!
For additional resources, consider the following books:
When the Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Mate
Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk