Stress is something that affects almost all of us at some point in our lives. It is normal to experience some degree of stress if you are having a hard time at work, you are experiencing difficult times at home, someone close to you is ill, or you have a big event coming up. Stress only becomes a problem if you experience it on a very regular basis, or if a stressful event goes on for a long time. Having effective stress coping strategies can make a huge difference when it comes to how you deal with life’s challenges, and it can improve your overall physical and mental wellbeing.
What Not To Do
The UK’s National Health Service is quick to point out that the worst thing you can do is turn to an unhealthy habit such as smoking or drinking to deal with your stress because this will simply make your problems worse in the long run. Avoiding issues or masking the pain of them will not solve the stress in the long term.1
Rather than avoiding issues, there are some proactive stress coping mechanisms, such as:
There are many different types of therapy that can be used for coping with stress. From cognitive behavioral therapy to art therapy, relaxation therapy, and more. Therapy is a long-term strategy, and the results will not be seen instantly, but it is a useful strategy for people who have mild stress, or who experience stress in certain clearly defined situations, and who want to learn a way of tackling that stress without medication or without needing to avoid the situation that causes stress for them.
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Relaxation therapy is a valuable form of stress management, which can help people to learn a new reaction to the stressful situation. Through this kind of therapy, a person can teach themselves to relax, and there is a combination of learned response and biofeedback that will make it easier to relax each time the method is followed until it becomes an almost instinctive response to the stressor.2
Some people are reluctant to try therapy because they have had bad experiences in the past, or have worked with one therapist and not had good results. However, there are many options for therapy, and it is worth trying more than one therapist and more than one methodology until you find something that works for you.
Even relatively recently, stress and anxiety were taboo, and people were reluctant to talk about how they felt. This is no longer the case. There have been many campaigns around the world promoting mental health and talking about stress and anxiety. Now, being in therapy is often seen as normal. You would hire a personal trainer to help you build a better body, a life coach to help you achieve your goals, and an accountant to help with your finances. So why not have a therapist to build a better mind?
Stress causes the release of cortisol and other hormones that trigger the fight or flight response. In contrast, exercise triggers the release of endorphins which elevate your mood. In addition, exercise can deplete cortisol, which means that it reduces feelings of stress and anxiety.
One recent study into different types of exercise found that people who took part in yoga reported that after each practice session they felt less tense, anxious, depressed, fatigued and angry, and also more clear-headed than they did prior to the class.3 Some types of exercise are better than others for improving a person’s mood, but in general any form of moderate-intensity exercise that a person finds enjoyable could offer some significant benefits. Exercising for as little as 20 minutes at a time can improve a person’s mental state and reduce their feelings of anxiety.4 Given that exercise has other clear benefits in terms of weight management and improved cardiovascular health, it makes sense to try to add some exercise to your daily routine if you suffer from anxiety.
Many people assume that since they have tried jogging or going to the gym, and found those activities to be unsustainable, exercise will not work for them. There are many different forms of physical activity, however. Even something like walking the dog or going for a hike can be beneficial, as can playing team sports or attending a Zumba class. The important thing is to find an activity that is enjoyable and that you will be willing to engage in on a regular basis, rather than finding something that is optimal for fitness. Some people like CrossFit, some people like martial arts. Regular, moderate intensity activity of almost any type can be helpful for your stress.
Aromatherapy and Essential Oils
Aromatherapy has long been a part of traditional medicine in many cultures. For example, the Japanese place a lot of importance on aromatherapy treatments.5 In the western world, however, essential oils and aromatherapy have a somewhat of a “hippy” association with them. This attitude is changing, however, and aromatherapy is now being seen as a more viable treatment for a wide range of conditions – including stress and anxiety.
The idea behind aromatherapy is that it helps to promote relaxation and reduce stress because the essential oils contain terpenes, secondary metabolites from plants that have an impact on the body when inhaled. When you breathe in the essential oils, they stimulate your olfactory system (sense of smell), and the molecules will pass through the nose into the lungs, and then be transported to various parts of the body where they will bind with CB1 receptors, interact with the limbic system, and have an impact on our hormone balance, heart rate, blood pressure, stress, and general well-being.
There are a few ways that you can use aromatherapy. Some people use diffusers or dab a little of a relaxing essential oil such as lavender or chamomile (mixed with a carrier oil) onto their wrists so that they can inhale it throughout the day. Others use oils topically, with massage. Indeed massage is a particularly good way of reducing stress, since the combination of human contact (which is relaxing), the moderately meditative effect of laying down for a massage, and the feeling of relaxation that comes from having your muscles rubbed (promoting circulation, and helping the muscles to become less tense), combines to provide a very effective stress-busting experience.
Note that even during massage therapy, essential oils are not applied directly onto your skin. Some essential oils are irritants and could cause significant adverse reactions. That’s why massage oils are used instead. Sometimes the carrier oil is another natural oil such as sweet almond oil, while in other cases it is a moisturizing cream. There will only ever be a few drops of the essential oil in question used in the mixture. It is still worth doing a spot test to check for allergies before you try a more significant essential oil application.
Meditation is something that has become quite fashionable in recent years, especially as there are now free apps and YouTube videos that can be used for “guided meditation,” helping people who are not familiar with meditation methods to achieve the kind of focus and relaxed state that is required for stress reduction.
There have been numerous studies into meditation and its effectiveness as a way of helping to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety over the past few decades. One study from the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1992 found that there were significant reductions in anxiety and depression in 20 out of 22 participants and that the benefits were maintained upon follow-up studies. Subjects who had previously reported panic symptoms said that those symptoms were reduced thanks to meditation.6
There are many different ways of meditating, and sessions can be as short as a few minutes, or much longer. Some people benefit from short periods of mindful meditation or gratitude-focused meditation each day. Others prefer to meditate for longer periods. With this, as with so many other forms of treatment, there is a large element of personal preference. What works for you may depend on your schedule, your patience, and how much quiet and undisturbed time you can have each day.
Reducing Exposure to Stressors
Some people struggle with stress more than others. If you have a high-stress job or are in a situation where you are constantly feeling stressed because of poor money management skills or simply because you are taking too much on, then it may be a good idea to look into some more mundane, but practical and effective ways of reducing stress.
It is common to fall into a vicious cycle, for example:
- You have a lot of work to do and feel stressed about it
- Because of that stress, you find it difficult to sleep
- Because you find it so hard to sleep, you are tired the next day and cannot focus on your work
- Your productivity is poor, and more work mounts up
- You leave the office with a long to-do list and feel stressed about that
- And repeat…
Does that sound familiar? Alternatively, have you ever borrowed money because you were facing financial problems at the end of the month, felt stressed about managing to pay that back, and then ended up needing to borrow more?
Do you fail to prepare for appointments and find yourself constantly rushing around trying to get to places on time? Do you find it hard to say no to people, and therefore take on jobs, and feel stressed because you either have to let them down or metaphorically burn the candle at both ends to manage the job at hand?
All of these issues are things that you can learn to avoid, and if you develop the level of self-awareness that is required to tackle those bad habits, then you will find that over time you feel far less stressed and that your quality of life will improve.
Helping Those Closest To You Cope
Dealing with stress is difficult because it is not an illness that you can see. When someone has a cold, they cough and sneeze and they often look pale, flushed or otherwise unwell. When someone has a broken arm, they wear a cast. Stress is not so easy to identify or understand and it can be tempting to say “chill out” to a person that you think is over-reacting. It can sometimes be difficult to understand where they are coming from with their reactions as well.
Stress is hard to deal with, but with patience and support, and some careful coping strategies, it can be beaten.