Science-backed, healthy ways to manage stress such as nature walks and laughing can be creative and fun.
Nobody gets through life stress-free and you probably wouldn’t want to anyway.
Our fight, flight, or freeze response is a natural and necessary one to perceived danger. It spikes your adrenaline, sharpens your senses, and urges your body to move it or lose it.
Chronic, or long-term stress, on the other hand, begs a mega-sized toolbox of coping skills. Symptoms of chronic stress run the gamut from headaches to gastrointestinal issues. Over time, chronic stress may lead to memory problems or difficulties with thinking or concentration.
But there are many ways to intervene. Whether it’s work, relationships, or psychosocial or personal issues that are causing stress for you, healthy coping mechanisms can help you find relief and keep your peace.
When an inner or outer trigger affects your body function, you’re experiencing stress. Short-term stress often triggers an increase in:
- blood pressure
- heart rate
- body sweats
These changes help you respond to an emergency or threat.
But when your body overproduces cortisol, a stress hormone, you may begin to have physical and mental health challenges.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), any of the following symptoms may result:
- attention problems
- jaw pain
- appetite changes
Other physical effects of stress include:
- high blood pressure
- frequent colds or illness
- chronic pain
Stress and your life habits
Sometimes chronic stress can ensnare you in a lifestyle that leads to more stress. An example is self-medication.
An estimated 60% reported increased drinking since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an increased number of drinks and an increased number of drinking days.
Those who reported being most affected and stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic consumed the most drinks per day, over the greatest number of days.
Other less helpful habits that may develop when you’re experiencing stress include:
- skipping meals
- lack of sleep or poor sleeping habits
- skipping exercise
Stress and long-term body function
Stress can affect your body function over time, according to this
- structural changes in parts of the brain that impact memory such as the hippocampus
- cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and reproductive problems
The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies two types of stress: Acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress usually comes and goes quickly. Some people enjoy the short bursts of energy and the heightened alertness associated with short-term stress.
It can be a natural response to a traumatic event such as a severe accident or witnessing a tragedy, but if its impact lasts for more than 30 days, it may be serious and consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.
Acute stress disorder (ASD) may result, marked by flashbacks, disassociation or intrusive thoughts lasting for 3 days to 1 month.
Like acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) results from an acutely stressful event but is diagnosed according to somewhat different criteria.
Sometimes stressors keep activating your fight, flight, or freeze response repeatedly over long periods of time. This is called chronic stress.
Different stressors lead to chronic stress, including:
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are those that affect a child’s inner sense of safety and bonding, possibly with lifelong effects.
These may arise from:
- abuse or neglect
- parental separation or death
- witnessing or experiencing violence
- providing for the family while arranging for child care
- worrying that a job or career isn’t meaningful enough
- fearing getting COVID-19 or sickness on the job
- tensions with coworkers or boss
- inadequate pay
- fears of getting fired
These stressors at work can lead to feelings of inadequacy, irritation, burnout, and decreased productivity.
Financial stress and global uncertainty
The APA’s 2022 Stress in America survey reports that financial and national security concerns are the number one stressors for adults. According to the report:
- about 87% of people worry about the rising prices of common items such as gas, energy bills and groceries
- nearly 81% reported global uncertainty, including cyber attacks as a stressor
The same APA survey found that adults feel stress related to relationships. Nearly 73% of parents worry about their children’s development.
Partner relationships, while a potential source of support, are also a primary stressor when communication breaks down.
Stress-related to racial and ethnic disparities
The following are findings from the report.
- An estimated 12.9% of multiracial and non-Hispanic adults of other races or ethnicities reported feeling worried about social repercussions resulting from being blamed for COVID-19 spread, compared to 2.4% of white adults and 3.7% of Hispanic adults.
- Nearly 22% of Hispanic adults reported stress about not having enough food, while 20.7% were concerned about their lack of secure housing. This was compared to White adults at 11.9% and 9.2%, respectively.
- Hispanic survey responders had the highest rates of depression, suicidal thoughts or ideation, and an increase in substance use since the beginning of the pandemic compared to all other racial groups.
The effects of stress may vary among different racial and ethnic groups people, so it’s important to provide resources to meet these unique needs.
We all experience stress in some way at one point or another. Learning ways to manage it can help prevent long-term effects.
Consider trying these techniques.
Find and develop supportive relationships
In a 2022 study of 368 students in their first semester of university, self-reports indicate that those with perceived high levels of support experienced lower levels of stress.
Those who dealt with stress by leaning into family, friends, and counselors did better academically.
You may find these tips from the APA for developing social support helpful, including:
- make the first move and the second
- follow your interests — as the saying goes birds (or bicyclists or readers…) of a feather flock together
- use technology in moderation
- seek community through places of worship and community groups
According to a 2019 study of 200 gastrointestinal cancer patients, those who reported greater dispositional mindfulness also reported perceived lower stress. Dispositional mindfulness refers to practicing mindfulness over longer periods of time.
Mindful patients showed fewer psychological symptoms resulting from their illness, maintaining:
- social functioning
- low levels of anxiety
If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s page on mindfulness for beginners. It offers ways to get started developing your own mindful disposition.
Make time to exercise
To experience improvements in your mental and physical health, including reduced stress, the
Some benefits of exercise include:
- restoring concentration
- boosting energy
- promoting good sleep
Explore humor and laughter
Among the benefits of the training, employees reported:
- greater cheerfulness
- less stress
- improved camaraderie
You might try developing your own humor by taking a standup comedy or improvisation class.
Whether spontaneous or faked, the mechanics of laughing can trick your body into thinking you’re relaxed.
Spend time outdoors
A 2018 review exploring stress responses to real-time outdoor environments suggests that getting outside can reduce stress. Types of outdoor exposures include:
- walking outdoors
- exercising outside
- reduced heart rate
- lowered blood pressure
- feeling calmer
We all have our own personal lines, boundaries we feel comfortable staying within in our relationships. But not all people have the same boundaries.
Setting personal boundaries can help establish the behavior you’ll accept from others and what behaviors others can expect from you.
Consider trying these tips for establishing healthy boundaries:
- Avoid or say no to things that aren’t important or necessary to you.
- Prioritize the things you’re willing to accept according to your values.
- Ask yourself how important something is before doing it.
- Be consistent with your boundaries to ensure your lines remain clear.
These might help you better cope with stress at home or in the workplace.
Stress is our body’s natural response to stressors in our environment. Stress management might mean practicing mindful meditation over self-medication or cultivating humor and laughter.
If your stress continues to interfere with your sleep or life, consider consulting with a healthcare or mental health professional. A diagnostic interview may or may not reveal underlying causes of stress, which will help determine the best way to manage it.
Practicing healthy ways to manage stress can be accessible, free, and effective. They can build self-compassion and boost confidence.