A topic I discuss with nearly all my patients is how to reduce stress on a daily basis. Whether it’s traffic, busy schedules, juggling responsibilities, or dealing with a chronic illness, stress is ubiquitous. But if we prepare with a few stress reduction tools in our toolkit, we’ll be in a good starting place to tackle whatever stressors arise.
What is stress?
Before we dive into stress reduction techniques, we should define what stress is, including the types of stress and why the perception of stress is important to consider.
Stress is a normal response to events like starting a new job, buying a new home, or getting out of a dangerous situation. This positive stress is built into our body as a means of protection and survival.
What does stress do to my body?
However, when our bodies perceive stress on a regular basis, our fight or flight response remains elevated and causes chronic (negative) stress to linger. When we are exposed to a stressful situation, our bodies go into panic mode and our brain triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which alert our body and equip us with emergency fuel and energy in reaction to our panic.
As stress levels rise, our pulse gets faster, our blood pressure is elevated, breathing and sweating increase, and our pupils dilate. After this initial panic mode, our body tries to get back to its normal state.
But, when we are constantly exposed to stress, our body starts learning to coexist with stress and our stress hormones remain elevated. We start to experience negative physical symptoms like mood issues, reduced immune response, GI disturbances, increased fat storage, lower energy, increased blood pressure, disrupted hunger cues, and aches and pains in muscles and joints. When our bodies continue to function in this wired state, our emergency resources become depleted and our bodies start to shut down.
What is the “perception” of stress and why does it matter?
Another important concept to consider is the perception of stress. How we perceive stress goes a long way in determining how our bodies react to it. In our fast-paced world, it’s hard not to feel stressed often.
When we really take the time to think about it though, sometimes our perception of stress doesn’t align with the actual stress present. How we respond to stress is crucial and there are many tools to not only help us respond better to stress, but to train ourselves to prevent feeling stressed in the first place!
So what should I do with this? Before you attempt to reduce your stress, take five minutes to evaluate where your stress is coming from. Is your plate actually too full? Are you feeling overwhelmed because of how your body is reacting to perceived stress? List out what things you’re feeling stressed about to get a more complete picture of how to start managing your stress.
Tips to reduce stress naturally
These tips to help you reduce stress can become part of your toolkit to manage anything that’s feeling overwhelming. Try them separately; pair them up; do them all—it’s up to you!
Mindset is everything
Reframing the way we think about stress is super important! Learning to focus on what we can control rather than what we can’t goes a long way in reducing our perception of stress and helps us feel that we do have control over stressful situations. Adopting a positive mindset is incredibly important—as what we focus on grows. Trying to learn from negative situations, rather than dwelling on them, creates opportunities for growth and further fosters a positive mindset.
Spending time each week organizing our schedules and figuring out priorities for that week helps keep stress at bay. Prioritizing tasks and focusing on one thing at a time is helpful not only in reducing stress, but helps us increase productivity overall.
Learn to say no
As hard as it may seem, saying no to commitments actually helps us say yes to things that are important to us and brings us more peace. Feeling overstretched is often the thing that makes us feel the most stress! Ask for help when you need it and learn to delegate tasks to your family members and coworkers. Communicating our needs with those around us helps things run more smoothly and reduces the load we put on ourselves.
Take a breather
Learning to pause throughout our busy days is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress. Give yourself permission to pause several times throughout the day to check in with yourself and ask what you need. This is also a great time to get in some deep breathing which literally relaxes our parasympathetic nervous system and gets us out of panic mode. Don’t underestimate the power of your breath!
Exercise can help reduce the body’s stress response by balancing cortisol levels while also stimulating mood elevating endorphins. Find what works best for you and what feels good. Simple things like walking in nature, restorative yoga, Tai Chi, and simple stretches can go a long way in helping you reduce stress.
Do more of what you love
Taking the time to do things we enjoy brings on a sense of happiness and meaning and allows us to escape into another world! Just like we prioritize work meetings and family obligations, prioritizing self care and doing things that fill us with joy really helps reduce stress levels.
Surround yourself with positive people
The company you surround yourself with directly impacts how you feel. Choose to surround yourself with uplifting, positive, encouraging people who don’t drain you or leave you feeling exhausted. Dealing with people can be stressful, so choose your company wisely!
Writing our thoughts down helps us process them more thoroughly. Keeping a worry journal or doing a brain dump is a great way to get our thoughts on paper and know that they are in a safe place and we can choose to return to them whenever we have more bandwidth to do so. This exercise works wonders for those of us who default to worry or deal with anxiety often.
As we know, stress isn’t going anywhere—there will always be a source of stress in our daily lives. The key is to try to change our mindset around stress, put steps into place to help prevent overwhelm before it starts and to figure out which of the tools mentioned above work best for you in handling your stress.
Marwa Ismail, Health Coach, uses her training from Institute for Integrative Nutrition and MindBodyGreen to empower patients in making sustainable lifestyle changes to better their health & wellness.