Skip to main content

Put the reins on stress

Stress is a little like rain and paying taxes. You typically don't enjoy it, but it's hard to avoid.

"We can't always reduce the stress that we have because of daily life," says Larry S. Fields, MD, past president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). "We're not in control of all of the people or all of the situations that put us under stress."

Nevertheless, we can take charge of it, he says. By changing the things you can change and taking good care of yourself, you may be able to more effectively manage life's everyday pressures. Here's how:

Get enough sleep. A good night's rest will help keep down levels of stress hormones in your body and generally make you feel better.

Doing something relaxing, such as reading or listening to quiet music before bed, may make it easier to sleep if the day's problems are keeping you awake.

Exercise. The AAFP reports that vigorous exercise on a regular basis helps your body produce chemicals that counteract the effects of stress hormones. It may give a lift to your mind as well as your body.

Talk to your doctor about the types and amount of exercise that would be best for you.

Eat well. People who are under stress may not eat appropriately, and that can lead to other problems. "They overeat. They get tired and sleepy. They don't exercise," Dr. Fields says.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), good nutrition may play a role in stress reduction. Foods that are part of a healthy eating plan include fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Foods to limit or avoid include those high in added sugar or saturated fat and those that contain caffeine or alcohol. High-calorie foods may give you a short-term energy boost, but eventually you are likely to feel weak and irritable as your blood sugar levels drop, the MHA reports. Caffeine and alcohol may disrupt your sleep.

Manage your time. Taking on too many commitments can make you feel rushed and stressed.

If you're feeling overextended, MHA recommends cutting back on your activities and learning to say no sometimes.

"A lot of the things that we commit ourselves to can be done away with," says Dr. Fields.

When you do have something to accomplish, don't procrastinate. Take one thing at a time. Break large tasks into smaller jobs, and when necessary, ask others for help.

Be action-minded and assertive. When faced with a stressful situation, visualizing how you will handle it can boost your self-confidence. Once you have a plan for proceeding, act quickly and decisively—just not impulsively.

Don't be afraid to request what you want. Tell your boss you can't take on more work, for example. Or inform a chatty co-worker that you have things you must accomplish. You can look out for your own needs without being angry or rude.

Don't expect perfection. "You have to allow yourself to be a human being," Dr. Fields says. "We all have limits. We all have faults. We all have strengths and weaknesses."

Enjoy yourself. It's important to occasionally put your worries on hold and do things you find pleasurable. That might be taking a long bath, going on vacation or participating in a favorite hobby. Even when you're busy, taking time for yourself should be on your to-do list.

Adopt the right attitude. That means you should try to keep a positive outlook, avoid dwelling on the past (and the future) and stop blaming others for your problems. Try not to worry about situations that are out of your control.

Talk to others. Sometimes stress can seem overwhelming, but talking about what you're feeling can help.

"When you cannot verbalize what's bothering you, it tends to build up and create more anger and depression," Dr. Fields says.

Consider turning to a friend, family member, spiritual adviser or counselor.

When necessary, seek help. If your stress becomes too hard to handle or if you have physical symptoms that you think might be stress-related, see your doctor. He or she can evaluate your symptoms, give you more stress management tips and perhaps prescribe medication that may be helpful.

reviewed 7/17/2019

Related stories