sunset with yellow wildflowers at Point Dume, Malibu, California
Healthy Behaviors,  Mental Health

Stress Management

Falling off a cliff in Ireland
That’s a long way down to the water…

Does this picture got you feeling stressed? (Probably not because it’s obviously staged, but we can pretend:)) Nevertheless, this pictures shows an instance of when the stress response is adaptive and necessary for survival (University of Minnesota, 2016). Stress is a normal reaction in life, and is the first defense mechanisms in life threatening situations (like hanging on to a cliff or being chased by a bear). In small doses stress is a positive, adaptive attribute; serving as a stimulus to act and grow. It can also be a source of motivation. However, stress starts negatively impacting us when it becomes chronic. Our body only has one way to respond to stress (they way it would if it was actually falling off a cliff), so with chronic stress our biological responses are constantly on alert.

What are the impacts of chronic stress?

1. Increased risk for cardiovascular disease and hypertension

2. Digestive disorders-chronic stress disrupts the “brain-gut” connection

3. Accelerated Aging (okay maybe this sounds good when you’re a 21 year old still being passed as 16, but besides that I want as youthful life as possible)

4. Decreased immune functioning-more likely to get the flu, the common cold, or other illnesses

5. Other negative health effects including: weight gain, headaches, irritability, diabetes, insomnia

6. Damages communication and trust in relationships

7. Negative impact on job performance, possibly due to avoidance, emotional swing, procrastination, inefficiency, or burnout

It seems to me that a life filled with chronic stress is not going to support a healthy, wholesome, or happy life. But if you’re like me, or most Americans, your life probably includes a lot of stressors. Between school/work demands, social pressures, and societal expectations, in a society that is focused on always being busy and always being the best, it is easy to become stressed. If not controlled, that stress can become chronic.

So what can you do to help reduce the stress in your life?

The first step is identifying your sources of stress and how it is affecting you. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are my sources of stress?
  • What could I do about each of my stressors? Can I avoid them, better prepare myself, solve a conflict within them, treat my self with compassion?
  • How do I experience stress-what is my reaction to each of the stressors?
  • How do I currently cope with stress-are they healthy or maladaptive coping mechanisms?

“Simply being aware of a stressor can help you recognize when you need to take corrective action”

University of Minnesota, 2016

The next step is evaluating how you can change or adjust your attitude towards stressors and life in general and how these small changes can help manage stress:

1. View the stressful situation as a challenge

Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, or the strains in your relationship, take it upon yourself to accomplish what needs to be done.

2. Accept events you cannot control

Let’s face it. There’s some things that just aren’t going to go your way. Whether its an unfair assignment, getting sick at an inopportune time, or even just bad weather, there are situations that can be stressful but you have no control over. It is okay to attribute the stress to some external or environmental situation. Let it go, and move on.

3. Be assertive

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Whether that means asking for an extension, or letting someone know what is on your mind, your thoughts and opinions are important and should not be devalued.

4. Divide large tasks into smaller components

Some projects and stressors seem so daunting you don’t even know where to start. Take this project for example. I was super excited about it, but was slightly overwhelmed to by the task at hand. Instead of dwelling on everything that needed to get done, I focused on doing one little part at a time, whether that was a post, or uploading pictures, or simple formatting. Breaking down large projects into more manageable sections can reduce the stress associated with them.

5. Accomplish something small

When everything in the world seems like a stressor, identify one simple thing you can accomplish. Checking one thing off your to-do list, can relieve some stress and help you feel motivated to complete other aspects.

6. Schedule time wisely and honestly

Creating a schedule and writing out essential tasks that need to get done can help manage stress and produce effective results. However, when scheduling your time, give yourself adequate time to complete something. I know I have on multiple occasions said I am going to finish all 3 of these assignments tonight, when in theory I only may accomplish one. Sometimes you may not know how long something is going to take, but nevertheless strive to make your schedules as accurate as possible (or else you may become more stressed than in the first place)

7. Give yourself a break

Realize that you are human and can’t do everything. Sometimes the best way to manage stress is to give yourself some space and take a break. There is nothing wrong with choosing to spend time on yourself

Along with ways to manage your stressors, there are also techniques for reducing stress outside of the stressors themselves. These include:

1. Mindful relaxation

This can be in various forms, but ultimately relaxation increases alpha brain waves (the brain waves during deep sleep), lowers blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and metabolic rate, and gives a greater sense of wellbeing. Mindful relaxation can take the form of:

  • Meditation: Meditation can be guided or silent. As a beginner, I find it hard to calm my thoughts in silence, so I prefer guided meditations. These can be in-person group meditations, but there are also plenty of online resources as well. If you search on YouTube you can find a variety of videos. Additionally, there are now a lot of meditation apps, including Calm and Headspace, both of which I suggest.
  • Breathing techniques: Practicing deep breathing from your diaphragm can be a simple, yet effective way of mindful relaxation and stress relief
  • Imagery exercise: picturing scenarios that are relaxing to you (perhaps waves crashing on a empty beach, or a walk through a forest), can put your mind at ease
  • Body scan: Is often a type of meditation, but you can co do this on your own. Simply starting at your feet, and working your way upwards through your body, pay attention to the sensations and feelings of your body. This is a great thing to do before bed, especially if you are struggling with falling asleep. Here is a 10 minute guided body scan meditation to get you started.

2. Mindful Movement Practices

Practices such as yoga, tai chi, or qi gong can help relax the mind and body, and have stress relieving outcomes. I love yoga not only because its a new way to challenge my body physically, but I feel great mentally after as well. It allows you to calm your mind, practice on being present, and focus on an intention. Many gyms now have group classes dedicated towards this, many other studios specialize in mindful movement, or you can find resources online to practice at home.

3. Exercise

Exercise or moving your body in any form can be a great stress reliever. Even if you are at your desk and can’t get away to exercise, simply doing a couple jumping jacks can help get blood flowing and reduce tension. Exercise boosts endorphins, aka the feel good transmitters. These help put you in a better mood and relieve stress.

4. Get outside

There’s nothing better than experiencing the beauty in the world. Even if I have a extremely busy day of school work, I make sure to get outside and spend some time in nature, even if its just for a short 10 minute walk. Being in nature reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, reduces production of stress hormones, and increases calmness (University of Minnesota, 2016). If you have to be inside all day, try adding a plant to your work or study space. Having some sort of nature in the room can have similar effects.

roller blading around lake dillon, CO with mountains in the background
Bladin’ around Lake Dillon

5. Nutrition

Eating right is not only good for your physical body, but it is great for you mental wellbeing as well. It can be easy to want to binge eat junk food in times of high stress, but it is better to focus on a diet filled with fruits and vegetables and antioxidants (though sometimes you really do just need a cookie and that’s okay! all about moderation:))

6. Sleep Schedule

Check out my post on sleep for more information, but creating a consistent sleep schedule and getting adequate amounts of sleep can help manage and reduce stress

7. Develop a stronger sense of purpose

When everything seems stressful in life, remember why you are doing what you’re doing! Having a strong sense of purpose can help motivate you through the stressful situations

8. Talk to someone

Maybe not anyone, but talking about how you are feeling to your close friends, family, or significant other can help reduce stress. It is important to build and maintain strong relationships and a have a strong social network.

9. De-stress your environment:

If your desk is cluttered or your room looks like a tornado went through (sorry Dad), cleaning and reorganizing can not only be therapeutic in itself, but can help you be more efficient in accomplishing your tasks.

10. Find a new hobby

Finding something outside your general routine of work/school and social life can be a great release from stress. While you should manage your time, and not write-off your responsibilities, finding a separate activity you enjoy can be great for your stress levels and mental wellbeing. For me, this includes doing anything outside, reading a good book (gotta love a good psychological thriller), and of course cooking/baking! Who knows, try something new, and you might just find a new passion!

Cooking and baking has become a new passion of mine and one of my favorite ways to de-stress in the last year! ( just ask my roommates who know I’m infamous for procrastiBAKING) I love experimenting with new recipes, reinventing old classics, and tying my hand at some more challenging dishes!

I hope you can find a few ways to de-stress your life, and focus on becoming the best version of yourself!

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