How to Reduce, prevent, and Cope with Stress
If you’re living with high levels of stress, you’re putting your entire well-being at risk. Stress wreaks havoc on your emotional equilibrium, as well as your physical health. It narrows your ability to think clearly, function effectively, and enjoy life.
The goal of stress management is to bring your mind and body back into balance. By adopting a positive attitude, learning healthier ways to cope, and changing the way you deal with stress, you can reduce its hold on your life.
Taking charge of stress
Dealing with Stressful Situations:
- Change the situation
- Avoid the stressor.
- Alter the stressor.
- Change your reaction
- Accept the stressor.
- Adapt to the stressor.
In our frenetic, fast-paced world, many people deal with frequent or even constant stress. The overextended working mother, the hard-charging “Type A” personality, the self-critical perfectionist, the chronic worrier: they’re always wound up, always stretched to the breaking point, always rushing around in a frenzy or juggling too many demands.
Operating on daily red alert comes at the high price of your health, vitality, and peace of mind. But while it may seem that there’s nothing you can do about your stress level—the bills aren’t going to stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day for all your errands, your career will always be demanding—you have a lot more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realization that you’re in control of your life is the foundation of stress management.
Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun—and the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head on.Stress management strategy #1: Avoid unnecessary stress
Not all stress can be avoided, and it’s not healthy to avoid a situation that needs to be addressed. You may be surprised, however, by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate.
- Learn how to say “no” – Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you’re close to reaching them. Taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress.
- Avoid people who stress you out – If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.
- Take control of your environment – If the evening news makes you anxious, turn the TV off. If traffic’s got you tense, take a longer but less-traveled route. If going to the market is an unpleasant chore, do your grocery shopping online.
- Avoid hot-button topics – If you get upset over religion or politics, cross them off your conversation list. If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when it’s the topic of discussion.
- Pare down your to-do list – Analyze your schedule, responsibilities, and daily tasks. If you’ve got too much on your plate, distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary to the bottom of the list or eliminate them entirely.
How Resilient Are You?
Your ability to handle and bounce back from stress depends on many factors, including a:
- Sense of control
- Optimistic attitude
- Strong support system
- Healthy body
- Ability to adapt to change
- Ability to handle unpleasant emotions
- Belief in a higher power or purpose
- Confidence in yourself
- Sense of humor
If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem is avoided in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life.
- Express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.
- Be willing to compromise. When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
- Be more assertive. Don’t take a backseat in your own life. Deal with problems head on, doing your best to anticipate and prevent them. If you’ve got an exam to study for and your chatty roommate just got home, say up front that you only have five minutes to talk.
- Manage your time better. Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead, you can avoid these stress-inducing pitfalls.
Stress management strategy #3: Accept the things you can’t change
Time management tips to reduce stress
- Create a balanced schedule
All work and no play is a recipe for burnout. Try to find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solitary pursuits, daily responsibilities and downtime.
- Don’t over-commit yourself
Avoid scheduling things back-to-back
or trying to fit too much into one day. All too often, we underestimate how long
things will take.
- Prioritize tasks
Make a list of tasks you have to do, and tackle them in order of importance. Do the high-priority items first. If you have something particularly unpleasant to do, get it over with early. The rest of your day will be more pleasant as a result.
- Break projects into small steps
If a large project seems overwhelming, make a step-by-step plan. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.
- Delegate responsibility
You don’t have to do it all yourself,
whether at home, school, or on the job. If other people can take care of the
task, why not let them? Let go of the desire to control or oversee every little
step. You’ll be letting go of unnecessary stress in the process.
Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change.
- Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
- Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
- Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a therapist. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.
- Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on.
If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.
- Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Rather than fuming about a traffic jam, look at it as an opportunity to pause and regroup, listen to your favorite radio station, or enjoy some alone time.
- Look at the big picture. Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
- Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”
- Focus on the positive. When stress is getting you down, take a moment to reflect on all the things you appreciate in your life, including your own positive qualities and gifts. This simple strategy can help you keep things in perspective.
How you think can have a profound affect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good; the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as "always," "never," "should," and "must." These are telltale marks of self-defeating thoughts.
Source: National Victim Assistance Academy, U.S. Department of Justice
Stress reduction tips
Beyond a take-charge approach and a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by making healthy lifestyle choices and taking care of yourself. If you regularly make time for rest and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors when they inevitably come.
Don’t get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that you forget to take care of your own needs. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury.
- Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don’t allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
- Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.
- Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
- Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.
Healthy stress reducers
- Go for a walk.
- Spend time in nature.
- Talk to a supportive friend.
- Sweat out tension with a good workout.
- Do something for someone else.
- Write in your journal.
- Take a long bath.
- Play with a pet.
- Work in your garden.
- Get a massage.
- Curl up with a good book.
- Take a yoga class.
- Listen to music.
- Watch a comedy.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week. Nothing beats aerobic exercise for releasing pent-up stress and tension.
- Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
- Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary "highs" caffeine and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.
- Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.
You can control your stress levels with relaxation techniques that evoke the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response. As you learn and practice these techniques, your stress levels will decrease and your mind and body will become calm and centered.Read Stress Relief Techniques
Making a stress management plan
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Your true sources of stress aren’t always obvious, and it’s all too easy to overlook your own stress-inducing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines. But maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that leads to deadline stress.
Look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses. Do you explain away stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going on right now”) even though you can’t remember the last time you took a breather? Do you define stress as an integral part of your work or home life (“Things are always crazy around here”) or as a part of your personality (“I have a lot of nervous energy, that’s all”). Do you blame your stress on other people or outside events, or view it as entirely normal and unexceptional? Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.
Start a stress journal
A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal.
What caused your stress (make a guess if you’re unsure).
How you felt, both physically and emotionally.
How you acted in response.
What you did to cope or feel better.
Putting your worries on paper has a marvelous way of clarifying things. As you keep a daily log, you will begin to see patterns and common themes. Your journal may help you see that you don’t really have that much to worry about, or it may bring overlooked problems to light. Whatever your discoveries, your stress journal should help you establish a plan for moving forward.
Evaluate your coping strategies
Think about the ways you cope with stress. Your stress journal can help you identify them. Are your coping strategies healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unproductive? Unfortunately, many people cope with stress in ways that compound the problem. These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run.
Unhealthy ways of coping with stress
- Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
- Using sleeping pills or tranquilizers to relax
- Overeating or eating too little
- Sleeping too much
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
- Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems
Learn positive ways to deal with stress
There are many healthy ways to reduce stress or cope with its effects, but they all require change. You can either change the situation or change your reaction. When deciding which option to choose, it’s helpful to think of the four As: avoid, alter, accept, or adapt.
Since everyone has a unique response to stress, there is no “one size fits all” solution to managing it. No single method works for everyone or every situation, so experiment with different techniques and strategies. Focus on what makes you feel calm and in control.
To Learn More: Related Helpguide Articles
- Understanding Stress: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, & Effects
- Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, and Prevention
- Dealing with Job Stress: Reducing and Managing Stress at Work
- Dealing with Relationship Stress: How To Stay Calm and Communicate Better
Related links for stress management
Managing and coping with stress
- Strategies for Coping with Stress – Covers 24 strategies for coping with stress (Texas Woman’s University)
- Stressful situations: What's Your Current Reaction? – Evaluate the way you react to stress and learn how to transform your negative responses. (Mayo Clinic)
- Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students – Offers a total wellness lifestyle plan for reducing and coping with stress. (University Health Center, University of Georgia)
- Stress Management for Parents – Includes suggestions for avoiding and managing stress, as well as a list of 52 tips for stress reduction. (Child Development Institute)
Stress reduction techniques
- What Are Some Specific Stress Reduction Methods? – Simple stress reduction suggestions, including diet, exercise, and cognitive-behavioral techniques. (University of Maryland Medical Center)
- Exercise Fuels the Brain's Stress Buffers – Explains how regular exercise helps reduce and manage stress levels. (American Psychological Association)
- A to Z of Stress Therapies – Guide to stress reduction techniques and tips, from aromatherapy to yoga. (StressBusting.co.uk)
Melinda Smith, M.A., Ellen Jaffe-Gill, M.A., and Robert Segal, M.A contributed to this article. Last modified on: 12/17/07.
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