12 Ways to Cope with Stress
While we’ve been focusing on the physical ailments lately, we now shift gears to the mental and emotional wellbeing by focusing on ways to deal with stress, overwhelm, and burn-out.
None of us are strangers to stress. It can manifest as physical stress (i.e. a demanding work-out) or psychological and emotional (i.e. relationship difficulties, the loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, health problems, etc), and none of us can escape it. How we cope with stress and perceived “problems” as they arrive can greatly affect our overall health.
In this post, we’ll devote our energy to finding ways to better manage our stress so that our bodies, minds, and spirits are a bit happier.
Most of us have heard of meditation, and may even know of the health benefits associated with it. Grossman et al conducted a meta-analysis of mindfulness-based stress reductions studies, and found that mindfulness training may enhance one’s ability to cope with stress and disability in everyday life.
Many think that you have to sit down and think of nothing, which is nearly impossible. This is a bit misleading though, as there is more than one way to meditate, and none of them are wrong. Your head does not need to be empty to meditate, and most likely never will. This doesn’t mean you failed.
Meditation can be a way to see your thoughts go by, but not let them take you away. Some meditations have you focus on a single thing, like your breath. It does not mean you don’t have thoughts anymore. It means you can choose to pay a lot of attention to your thoughts, or to pay them no mind. It means they do not control you, but you can choose whether you follow them or not. It means to not be multi-tasking.
It means to keep your focus on one thing, and one thing only, and when you realize that you strayed for a moment, to bring your attention back to that one thing. It means to be aware of your thoughts, and see if there are any repetitive patterns. It means letting your negative thoughts pass by without believing in them, and without letting them become you.
Meditation can also involve body scanning. This involves noticing where you might feel tightness or unease somewhere in the body, and sitting with it (without trying to make it go away). These are some examples of what meditation is. It’s training for your brain, and it’s typically not easy at first. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try it.
As mentioned previously, there’s more than one way to meditate. Some people like to sit erect and cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Some use a zafu to sit on. Some lie down. Some recommend even elevating your legs while lying on your back. There are even moving meditations that can be done while walking or running.
There’s not really a wrong way to try to meditate. But trying is important. Give yourself permission to screw up, because it won’t be perfect, but start nonetheless.
Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese Medicine. It involves stimulating certain points (meridian points) on the body to improve the flow of energy (qi or chi), and can be done using pressure, change in skin temperature, or insertion of a needle.
While acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, science is only beginning to catch up to the wealth of benefits it offers. Hollifield et al utilized a randomized control trial, which compared the effects of acupuncture, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and no treatment in treating PTSD, and found that both acupuncture and CBT provided benefits in depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of PTSD versus no intervention. These benefits were also maintained at the 3-month follow-up after treatment was over.
If stress or anxiety is something that plagues you (and you’re not a needle-phobe), you may want to consider acupuncture as a way to help reduce their symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Most of us are well aware of the benefits of yoga, as this traditionally eastern practice has permeated western culture. Michalsen et al found that a regular yoga program of 90 minutes twice weekly (over a 3 month period) greatly reduced stress and anxiety in the small group of women they studied (one of the study’s limitations). This study not only used self-reporting, but also salivary coritsol measures (coritsol is a stress hormone), which decreased after yoga class.
One thing to keep in mind here is that there are various types of yoga. Hatha yoga, which combines asana (poses), breath-work, and meditation, is the most common style of yoga found in the west. The type of yoga used in this study was a type of Hatha yoga called Iyengar.
If you find that you’re already very stressed, though, rigorous exercise and the more intense types of yoga may increase cortisol levels and act as a more of a stressor on the body (another reason that exercise won’t be listed in this section on dealing with stress, despite the fact that it can reduce stress, depending on the type of exercise). In this case, yin yoga or restorative yoga may be a better fit for you.
Stress-reduction is touted as one of the main benefits of bodywork and massage. It can lead to lower hear rate, lower blood pressure, and decreased cortisol levels post-massage (Moraska et al). While most of these changes return to baseline levels the next day, this does not mean there can’t be cumulative effects. What this does indicate is that more research is needed in this area, as current research is lacking on the long-term effects of regular bodywork.
That being said, physical touch is essential for humans, and can be very healing. Think of a newborn child. Without physical contact from the mother, the newborn child could die. This also holds true in the animal kingdom. In a world where we’ve gotten used to technological connection over physical contact, it would behoove us to make sure we’re getting enough physical touch from a human being, which includes bodywork and massage.
Many benefit from counseling when stressed. This can take various forms, from traditional talk therapy sessions to yoga therapy. Quick et al included counseling and talk therapy in their prevention program for stress management, citing that interventions at this level are “designed to heal”. They also included it in their program for general well-being.
If this is something that speaks to you, search for a licensed and qualified therapist in your area. Keep in mind that there are many forms of counseling. Some approaches might work best for you while others may not be a good fit. Shop around. Talk to different therapists to see what their approach is and to best determine what might serve you the most.
You may be wondering what in the world floating has to do with stress reduction. Allow me to explain.
Floating is the act of submerging oneself in a sensory-deprivation tank filled with about 1.5 feet of salt water (Epson salt). There’s enough salt in the tank so that everyone can float. The water temperature is essentially the same temperature as your skin, so the feeling of the water disappears once you lie down in the tank.
There’s no light or sound in the tank (hence, sensory deprivation). All of this allows the nervous system to reset, as it’s no longer being bombarded with sensory information (among other things). The results: lower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, lower levels of cortisol, and improved overall we-being (Dierendonck et al). I have personally floated multiple times, and I feel quite relaxed and revitalized upon leaving.
We’ve talked about the benefits of going for a walk or hiking during our exercise post. It can help reduce blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular disease, risk of certain cancers, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, in addition to helping control weight and leaving you with healthy muscles and bones (American Hiking Society).
Human beings are meant to walk much more than we do in today’s society. If you don’t have time for a long hike, a short walk can still benefit you. Don’t overlook something so simple and accessible for your stress management.
Time in Nature
In addition to hiking, time spent outdoors can do wonders for your overall well being. There are many correlation studies that link time spent in green space with improvements in health, including improvements in perceived stress (Roe et al).
Thompson et al even found that the more green space near by, the better the diurnal cortisol levels. While I was not able to find randomized control trials (the gold standard today for scientific rigor), the correlational studies I did find were fairly large, and seem to prove something we already know: that having a connection with nature is important for our health.
While it may be hard with busy schedules and uncooperative weather to spend time outside every day, do what you can to connect to nature. If it means sitting on your front porch in the morning to have your morning drink or taking a 15-minute walk after dinner, so be it. I even take my laptop outside and do computer work from my porch on nice days. Every little bit helps!
Connection and Socialization
Connection and socialization are different today than they were even 20 years ago, and have altered even further during pandemic life. Technology has allowed us great opportunity to connect with people far and wide quite quickly. And while being able to face time with someone overseas helps to maintain vital connections to our loved ones far away, it does not replace physical interaction and socialization that we all need from time to time.
Even the most introverted person requires some social interaction on occasion. Making sure you put time aside in your busy schedule to see friends for a meal or have tea with someone special can add years to your life. Umberson et al reported that having sufficient social interactions could lead to lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and improved stress hormones.
Our friends and family offer us emotional support, an ear to listen, and laughter therapy. If you’ve been drowning in work and can’t remember the last time you went out with friends, scheduling in some leisure time may be just what the doctor ordered.
If you’re already overwhelmed or burnt out, and you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re digging yourself a bigger hole to get out of. Sleep loss can result in higher cortisol levels (stress hormone) the next day (Leproult et al).
One small study of 14 showed that low cortisol levels in the morning (when cortisol should be at its highest to encourage waking up and preparing for the day’s activities) were correlated with sleepiness upon awakening, anxiety, exhaustion, and poor health the prior day. High evening levels of cortisol (when cortisol should be at its lowest levels to allow a good night’s rest) were associated with increased stress and poor self-rated health (Dahlgren et al).
While it may be easy to think that 5 or 6 hours should be enough, and that we’ll be tired but “functional” is misleading at best and harmful at worst. Sleep seems to be the first thing we sacrifice when we find ourselves drowning in work. Add kids into the mix, and it somehow manages to get worse. The truth is that most of us need 7-9 hours of sleep per night to function at our best.
If you’re already stressed and overwhelmed, making sleep a priority isn’t optional; it’s a must. Often, that takes a little discipline and improvements in time management, but it’s doable.
I don’t mean that you have to be more productive during your waking hours or fit more in. When I mention time management here, it’s probably a bit more about not watching TV too late at night or putting your laptop away earlier so that your brain can unwind, stop being over stimulated, and prepare for sleep a little earlier than usual.
What usually happens as a result of getting more sleep is that you’re more productive during the day and are able to check things off your to-do list more easily. Start with making sleep a priority, and watch the trickle down effect, from your perceived levels of stress to what you actually accomplish in a day.
While this may be easier said than done, if you’re completely burnt out, taking some time off may be in order. Not everyone gets vacation days, and several factors dictate when vacation might be possible.
If you have any flexibility here, taking a long weekend may be quite beneficial. Stay-cations can also be just as wonderful as vacations, so travel isn’t a must in this situation.
Keep in mind that if you are able to get away or take some time off at home, not having scheduled activities would probably benefit you most, especially if your typical schedule is a bit on the rigid and hectic side. Trying to adhere to a strict schedule can be as stressful on vacation as when you’re home and working like usual.
If the point is to rest and rejuvenate, get plenty of sleep and relaxation time in during your time off. This is a great time to employ some of the above suggestions, like sleeping in, taking a walk in nature, getting a massage, or meeting a friend for coffee.
Food choices can exacerbate conditions in an already stressed body, or they can help heal them. Higher cortisol levels (seen with high stress levels) impact blood glucose levels, inhibit protein synthesis, and reduce calcium absorption. If these conditions persist for long periods of time, impacts can be felt in the body far and wide.
Exacerbating things further, stressful situations can cause us to want to eat more processed foods and refined sugar because of the reward pathways it activates in the brain, including the release of the “motivating” neurotransmitter dopamine. While this may benefit us in the short-term, it wreaks havoc on our systems in the long run.
These foods can cause cravings, impair memory and learning, increase depression and anxiety, and lead to metabolic issues such as insulin-resistance. In essence, processed foods, junk food, refined sugar, and fast food will tax an already taxed system.
On the other hand, eliminating or limiting these foods will give your body a chance to recover from stress. Filling your plate with green vegetables, healthy proteins and fats, and a small amount of starch will literally nourish your body. You won’t overeat because your body will have the nutrition it needs.
With the nutrients it needs to function properly, your brain can think clearly, your liver can get rid of toxins, and your kidneys can eliminate waste. Supporting your body in this way allows for good decision-making and provides your body with the nutrients it needs to function at an optimal level.
Breaking bad food habits and food addictions is never easy. But if you’re stressed and overwhelmed, neglecting your nutrition will only make it worse. If you can stumble upon that “better nutrition habits” wave, ride it for as long as you can!