While stressful situations are inevitable, you can control how you respond. Taking a pause, noticing the stressors, and setting boundaries can help ease the stress.

Whether you’re preparing to give a presentation, stuck in traffic and late for an appointment, or have trouble reaching a sustainable work-life balance, stressful situations are all around us.

Stress is part of the human experience. In fact, stress is our body’s way of protecting us. In the face of danger, going into fight, flight, or freeze mode could save your life. But when we face overwhelming or prolonged stress, it can damage our mental and physical health.

If you have a high-stress lifestyle, many responsibilities, or you live with a mental health condition such as an anxiety disorder, you might find that stressful situations come up relatively often — even daily.

Learning to navigate stressful situations can help reduce your daily stress levels. If stress is getting in the way of your day-to-day life, you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional.

First thing’s first: When you notice that you’re in a stressful situation, pause for a moment.

Take a minute to relax your muscles and take a deep, mindful breath. It might help to breathe in time with a guided breathing video. The mind and body are connected, and your breathing rhythms can affect your emotions, so focusing on your breath can help calm your body and mind.

“Focusing on slowing breathing can return the body to a resting state,” says Neena Lall, MPH, a licensed clinical social worker and a therapist at the online group therapy service Grouport.

“Breathing exercises are probably the most accessible coping mechanism to everyone, so that is where I would recommend a person starts.”

Taking a breath can help you hit the “reset” button, creating a small pocket of space between you and the stressful situation. This gives you more room to respond intentionally to what’s happening instead of reacting emotionally.

Research supports the idea that deep breathing can reduce stress, with a 2017 study suggesting that controlled breathing could improve mental function and reduce stress.

Box breathing

Here’s an easy way to practice deep breathing using an exercise called box breathing:

  1. focusing on your breath, inhale for a count of 4
  2. hold your breath for a count of 4
  3. exhale for a count of 4
  4. hold for a count of 4
  5. repeat several times until you notice feeling calmer

When faced with stress, the body responds with the fight, flight, or freeze response. This might look like an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, or muscle tension. These physical reactions are the body’s way of responding to a threat.

Moving your body can help you relieve some of these physical stress responses, which, in turn, can soothe psychological stress. Movement can help your body complete the stress response cycle, allowing you to come back into balance when you stop the activity and rest.

Making time to move and stretch your body throughout the day can help you dispel stress-related energy and stay on top of stressful situations.

In the long-term, moving more doesn’t necessarily have to involve a gym or a workout session, says Lall.

“It can be a 10-minute solo dance party in the middle of your day, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking in the furthest spot and walking to your destination.”

Sometimes, a small shift in mindset can make a big difference.

“Changing the way you view stress and stressors, and noticing and reframing self-blame, can help reduce stress,” Lall says. “Recognize what you can control and what you can’t control, and do not take on responsibility for the things you cannot control.”

When facing a stressful situation, try grabbing a pen and paper and writing about the stressful situation. Explain on paper why it’s stressful and describe how it’s making you feel in your body and mind.

This quick journaling exercise can give you some extra perspective and insight into your feelings, which might help you make decisions or realize that the situation won’t last forever.

Also, creating a brain dump or making a list is helpful. This way, you can see anything and everything that you have on your mind.

“This will allow you to categorize and compartmentalize your stress in a way that helps you be more productive and feel less overwhelmed,” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, a licensed clinical social worker.

“Checking things off from a list can feel satisfying and motivate you to accomplish more.”

Schedule downtime into your week when possible.

“Set boundaries with others in your life to make this possible,” Lall says.

“You do not have to earn your right to rest. Rest is a necessary human function. Your worth is not measured by your productivity,” Lall says.

“Rest and pleasure are fuel for the rest of your life and for your spirit. Make time for pleasure, even if it is a small moment of enjoying a cup of tea by yourself.”

Even if this isn’t always possible, do what you can to enjoy these types of small, simple moments throughout the day.

When everything feels like it’s happening all at once, you have to triage your stressors just as you would if you went to an emergency room.

“The staff has to triage the emergencies by the level of severity and urgency of the matter,” says Suarez-Angelino.

“In order to do this, you need to take a brief pause so that you can take a look at everything that is stressing you out,” she says. “Oftentimes, trying to keep everything accounted for in our minds can become overwhelming.”

Research shows a link between high-stress levels and the consumption of highly processes foods.

Stress can also lead people to overeat or choose sugary and fatty foods.

Eating a balanced diet that contains fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts can provide your body with the nutrients it needs to regulate stress. Staying hydrated can help, too.

When you’re stressed, your body needs more sleep and rest. Lack of quality sleep can make symptoms of mental health conditions worse, such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

Maintaining good sleep hygiene can help manage your stress.

Besides exercising and eating a balanced diet, Yalda Safai, MD, a psychiatrist, recommends investing in a meditation course. Research shows that meditation, practiced consistently, can decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Additionally, you can set timers, such as the Pomodoro technique, to help you stay focused on one task at a time.

“Diet and exercise should always be first-line,” Safai says. “If lifestyle modifications alone have not helped, it would be wise to try to start talk therapy to work through maladaptive thinking patterns that cause stress and anxiety.”

When a person experiences stress, cortisol, “the stress hormone,” is released in the body.

“The overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” says Safai. “This puts you at increased risk of many mental health problems … in addition to physiological problems.”

According to Safai, stress can increase the risk of having:

“When there is a disruption in sleep, appetite, and mood to the point where it interferes with day-to-day functioning, seeking professional help is needed,” Safai says.

It’s key to seek help if you’re having symptoms of adjustment disorder, a mental health condition that can result from extreme stress. You can also look out for the signs of acute stress disorder, which can develop after experiencing atraumatic event.

These resources may help:

Looking for a therapist but unsure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.

Stress can affect your physical and mental health. Practicing coping techniques is key not only to relieving stress but also to your overall well-being.

From exercising to eating a balanced diet and sleeping well, there are several ways to manage stress. But if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress that are affecting your day-to-day life, it may be a good idea to talk with a doctor or mental health professional.