5 Best Stress Management Techniques

Effective stress management can help you lead a more balanced and healthier lifestyle. While it may not be possible to completely eliminate stress from your life, these techniques will help you tackle it head on, and build resilience to overcome life’s many challenges.

What are common stress symptoms?

Stress is your body’s normal reaction to feeling threatened. In times of stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol.[1] This reaction is how your body protects itself and in some instances and small doses, it’s useful. For example, it is what triggers that lightning-fast reaction of slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting a car in front of you. But when it’s creeping into your everyday life, stress can put your entire wellbeing at risk.[2]

Everyone experiences stress differently, but common symptoms are[3]:

  • Physical: Stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol cause you to breathe faster and your heart to beat faster. Your muscles may tense and your stomach may feel uneasy. This is the ‘fight or flight’ response and these symptoms should pass when the stressful situation is over. Other physical symptoms may include feeling exhausted, headaches, rashes and changes in sleep patterns and appetite.
  • Emotional and cognitive: When you are stressed you may feel overwhelmed, easily agitated, frustrated and moody. You may also experience constant worrying or racing thoughts, forgetfulness and disorganisation, difficulty focussing and negative feelings.
  • Behavioural: Stress can cause you to act in a way you wouldn’t normally, for example procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities, eating too much or too little and exhibiting nervous behaviours such as nail biting and fidgeting. It may also lead to more use of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes.

Finding healthy ways to address the stressful events in your life and manage how you react to it will improve your ability to cope. This can help you avoid the serious health problems of ongoing, chronic stress such as depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, obesity and gastrointestinal problems.

Stress management techniques

Stress affects all of us, but with these stress management strategies you can get on top of your stress levels, before they get out of hand.

1. Exercise

When you’re stressed your motivation levels are often low and exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing. However, exercise is an incredibly effective stress-buster. It releases endorphins, helping you feel good and boosting your physical and mental energy. Exercise also helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in your body.[4]

You will get the most benefits from regularly exercising for at least 30 minutes, but even a small activity such as a 10-minute walk around the block can help to clear your mind. Strength training has also been proven to substantially reduce anxiety and help people feel more capable of coping. A recent study found that after 8 weeks of strength training, participants scored 20% better on tests of anxiety. These mental health benefits were “larger than anticipated” and even bigger than those often seen in studies of aerobic exercise and anxiety.[5]

Regardless of the type of exercise you use for stress relief, it’s important that you choose something you enjoy. When you’re not feeling your best, there’s no need to try and complete a huge session, just get out and get moving.

2. Nutrition

Eating a balanced and healthy diet will support your immune system and give you the energy you need to cope with stressful events. Research has shown that polyunsaturated fats including omega-3 fats which are found in fish and vegetables may help to regulate cortisol levels.[6]

But when you feel stressed, your cravings can work against you. Stress can cause you to crave comfort foods, disrupt your sleep and make you feel you don’t have the motivation or time to prepare nutritious meals. You may also be tempted to skip or forget to eat meals.

Meal planning is one strategy which can help you ensure you always have a healthy meal on hand and will save time in the long run. If you need food fast and you haven’t had time to meal prep, there are also plenty of healthy takeaway options – read 5 Healthy Takeaway Meals with Zero Guilt.

Minimising your alcohol consumption will also go a long way in long-term stress management. Although reaching for a drink might provide some short-term relief, it will increase your body’s production of cortisol, both while you are drinking and later when you are withdrawing from the effects of alcohol.[7]

3. Improve your sleep habits

Sleep and stress are closely linked. Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase stress levels and feeling stressed will also reduce the quality and quantity of your sleep.[8] Not getting enough rest leads to low energy, difficulty concentrating, a negative mood and low physical and mental performance.[9] This can worsen our stress levels, making it harder to cope. If you’re wondering if you are getting enough sleep, read How Many Hours Of Sleep Should You Be Getting?

Doubling down on your sleep habits will help fuel your mind and body. Work on improving your sleep habits by setting a routine and going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Dedicate the hour before bed to winding down and relaxing and limit your exposure to blue light during this time.

4. Create a plan

When you feel overwhelmed and are running behind, it’s hard to feel calm. Taking a step back, assessing what is stressing you out and creating a plan will help you feel more in control. Your plan should include creating a schedule which dedicates time for exercise. Plan to tackle the most important tasks first, break projects into small steps and where possible, delegate. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t try and do it all by yourself. Speak with your support network, whether that’s your team at work, boss or family and discuss ways you can achieve a better balance.

5. Destress with me time

Take some time out every day or week to destress by doing something you enjoy. This could be by spending quality time with family or friends or engaging in your hobbies. By making time for fun and relaxation, you will be better placed to handle life’s stressors.

Me time will look different for everyone but could include going to get a massage. This will help you switch off and relax your muscles and your brain. You might also try meditation, which has been scientifically proven to help alleviate stress after just eight weeks of regular practise. It does this by reprogramming the brain to be more open and less reactive, which gives you more capacity to cope with life’s stressors.[10]

Stress may be a part of your life, but it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. When you feel your stress levels rising, take a step back and plan how you can implement these stress management techniques. Remember, your goal should be to manage your stress levels in healthy ways to achieve long-term and sustainable results.

References

[1] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/the-role-of-cortisol-in-the-body

[2] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-management.htm#:~:text=Effective%20stress%20management%20helps%20you,and%20meet%20challenges%20head%20on.

[3] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/stress#symptoms

[4] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm#:~:text=Exercise%20is%20a%20natural%20and,attention%20instead%20of%20zoning%20out.

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/well/mind/anxiety-stress-weight-training-lifting-resistance.html

[6] Soltani H, Keim NL, Laugero KD. Diet Quality for Sodium and Vegetables Mediate Effects of Whole Food Diets on 8-Week Changes in Stress Load. Nutrients. 2018 Nov;10(11):1606.

[7] https://www.verywellmind.com/alcohol-and-hormones-66570

[8] https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep#:~:text=Adults%20who%20sleep%20fewer%20than,6.2%20hours).

[9] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322994#reducing-stress

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/?noredirect=on