Strategies to Reduce Stress
Stress is a common thing in our lives. It can be considered a normal reaction of the body to changes that require an adjustment to maintain an equilibrium. The experience of stress can come from the environment, the body or just from our thoughts. If you missed our previous post on stress, check it out! It talks about What is Stress and How it Impacts Your Health.
Stress is considered to be a state we are exposed to under challenging situations, or a state of homeostasis (dynamic equilibrium) being challenged. During a stressful situation, there is a stressor present, something that causes the need to adapt or adjust, and the response to that stressor can happen physically, mentally, or emotionally. This response can have a beneficial effect on our life and health (eustress) or a detrimental effect (destress).
Now, everyone goes through difficult situations and stressful events, but not everyone reacts the same. The main difference between how a stressful circumstance will affect us is our ability to cope with it. Will you have a “knee jerk” reaction or are you able to stay calm? After the event, are you able to return to a relaxed state, or will the event continue to play out in your head over and over again? Has stress become an ever-present state in your life? With the associated anxiety, fear, turmoil? When did you last feel safe and calm?
How to prevent stress from becoming harmful – building resilience
One of the most important tools that can prevent us from reaching a point of distress and eventually disease, is developing resilience to challenging situations. This resilience can be enhanced through developing appropriate coping skills and support mechanisms that will help us when most needed.
Stress resilience is the ability to adapt and effectively cope with difficult situations and how quickly there is a return to homeostasis or equilibrium after experiencing a stressor and stress response1.
- Low stress resilience leads to cyclic chronic stress and continually feeds it. It also increases the symptoms and signs of stress and the risk of associated negative health effects2.
- High stress resilience may help terminate the cycle of chronic stress and return to a healthier, calm, and relaxed state. It can reduce the symptoms and signs of stress and lower the risk of long-term consequences of chronic stress, such as chronic disease. High stress resilience may lead to improved physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being2.
What affects stress resilience?
You can increase your resilience by building up your tolerance level to pressure before it becomes a state of stress. This can be learned and cultivated at a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level. You can start working on your resilience by living a healthy lifestyle and trying to change the way you think and behave in certain situations. If you do this, then potentially stressful events become opportunities to increase resilience and physical, mental, emotional and spiritual strength.
The psychological and social environment also plays an important role in stress resilience, and some of the psychosocial factors associated with resilience involve processes that employ coping strategies. This active coping implies a behavioral or psychological effort from the individual to better manage or reduce the impact of adverse events. One of the central aspects of coping is the actual or perceived behavioral control over some aspect of the negative situation1. Another important factor to account for is that stress resilience must incorporate the several dimensions of resilience: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. When we develop coping strategies in these different dimensions and are able to balance them, then we can find some coherence in our lives, and develop effective mechanisms that may prevent entering a chronic stress cycle or may facilitate ending it. These mechanisms will increase your resilience and promote growth, and include3:
- Problem-solving approaches
- Gaining perspective
- Positive attitudes
- Recognizing and managing thoughts and emotions
- Realistic optimism
These words sound very interesting and useful on paper, but how do we actually develop these mechanisms? It is one thing to say I will find humor in everything. It is another thing to find humor when my boss is mistreating me. This is a deep personal and internal work, that depending on past circumstances, biological and psychosocial factors, may require the help of a specialized therapist.
However, there are some more “hands on” strategies you can cultivate in your daily life that will help you better manage stress and prevent chronic stress and disease from settling. These strategies include building physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resilience. An active buffering capacity that will improve your stress response and make the return to a relaxed state easier.
1. Take a Deep Breath
Breathing deeply sounds so easy that most people believe it won’t work. But it does. When you feel challenged, overwhelmed, when you feel you have lost control and are not able to manage a situation, if possible, take a pause. Remove yourself from the situation for 5 minutes and breathe deeply. In through the nose, filling your abdomen and lungs, then slowly out through the mouth. Repeat until you feel more relaxed and better able to cope with whatever situation you are facing.
2. Practice Gratitude
Gratitude keeps showing up as a tool to improve our lives, and indeed it has the power to transform what may seem like a terrible situation into a grateful moment. It is up to you to find something to be grateful for in all types of circumstances, even those that seem completely negative. It is a good idea to start your day by telling yourself or writing down the things you are grateful for. It is extremely transformational to tell your loved ones how important they are to you and how grateful you are to have them in your life. Another idea is, by the end of the day, revisiting all the amazing little things that happened to you. Journaling can be a good way to achieve this. Keep a journal or diary where you write the positive things that happened in your day. As Hans Selye, the ‘father of stress research’ wrote “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”
3. Try Meditation and Prayer
The strongest influence on our response to stress is THE WAY WE THINK. “Remember that stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what’s going on in your life.” Andrew J. Bernstein
If your thoughts are negative and repetitive and your mind is always spinning on the same problems or if you feel depressed or overwhelmed, meditation and prayer may help bring you to a more peaceful state of mind. Working on your inner self, focusing on the present moment, trying to work with your mind and thoughts, are good ways to deal with the stresses of life. Find a quiet space and a moment for yourself. Focus on a mantra, a word, use a prayer or your breath. Just bring your awareness inwards, no strain, no judgment. Try to keep bringing your energy inwards, focus on gratitude, compassion, or sensations in your body. If thoughts come to disturb you, acknowledge them, and then let them go. Bring your awareness back to your point of focus, no strain, no judgment.
4. Take care of yourself
The health mantra:
- Movement or physical exercise
- Good quality and quantity sleep
- Healthy nutrition and proper hydration
- Balance between work and relaxation
- Sometimes all you need is to take a break and rest
5. Share with Others
Having someone to talk to, a family member, loved one, friend, or even a therapist, can be very useful in stressful situations. Someone to share your feelings with or to help carry the burden of a difficult situation. Or someone to help you understand that some of that burden is made up by your mind and thoughts, or that the situation you are facing may also have a positive side. Someone to help you gain perspective, or to just be there, holding space for you, holding your hand or giving you a hug.
6. Act and Grow or Learn to Let Go
Not all situations are under our control. It is important to start discerning what we can control from what we cannot. It is also important to identify which situations can promote your growth and wellbeing, versus the situations that only deplete your energy and health. If there is something you can do to change a situation for the better, then try to do your best, find solutions and act. If there is nothing you can do about it or if you recognize it is actually just draining you, then it might be better to just let go.
This same concept can be very useful with people and relationships. Learning to say “no” and to set healthy boundaries. Not all relationships are worth maintaining and you must discern those who are growth promoting and those who are toxic. Learning and actively seeking to feed growth and to neutralize toxicity.
In Buddha’s wise words “If the problem can be solved, why worry? If the problem cannot be solved, worrying will do you no good.”
7. Manage Your Time and Prioritize
Sometimes life can get us caught up in certain very specific problems or stressful aspects, whether professional or personal. It is important to define priorities in your life, both in a broad perspective and in your daily tasks, to manage your time efficiently and channel your energies accordingly. The number one priority in your life must be you. No matter what, be it considered selfish or not, if you are not ok, there is not much you can do for others or your business, or the world. So, find time for yourself and your self-care. To train and implement some of the strategies we mentioned above, like meditation, exercise or a good healthy meal.
8. Laugh and Make Others Laugh
Besides trying to find humor in challenging situations, the act of laughing can be very beneficial for stress management. Laughing stimulates endorphins and reduces stress hormones, and its effects can be felt immediately. Laughter makes life more enjoyable and lighter. Not just your laughter but laughing with others can have a transformational power. Tell a joke, watch a feel-good movie or stand up comedy, promote fun games with friends. Do what you like and do it with a smile. Bring laughter and joy to your days and share it with the people around you.
Finishing with a very interesting and truthful quote from Winston Churchill “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
- Baratta MV, Rozeske RR, Maier SF. Understanding stress resilience. Front Behav Neurosci. 2013 Nov 8;7:158. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00158. PMID: 24265608
- Stress Resilience. https://drjockers.com/stress-resilience/, accessed July 26, 2021
- Resilience Stress and a Growth Mindset. https://www.scotlanddeanery.nhs.scot/trainee-information/thriving-in-medicine/resilience-stress-and-a-growth-mindset/, accessed July 27, 2021
Vanessa Pinto graduated with a degree in Biology and Masters in Ecology from Lisbon University. After graduating, she underwent a series of professional and personal growth experiences, including being an officer in the Portuguese Army, working in countries as diverse as Iceland and Costa Rica. Vanessa became certified as a Yoga and Meditation teacher in rural India.
Being a compassionate person by nature, Vanessa is able to bring her connectedness when working with others while enhancing the importance and practicality of a pragmatic evidence-based approach to facilitating lasting and permanent change. Vanessa is a certified health coach whose specialties are nutrition, exercise, and mind/ body connection. She works both in Portugal, Thailand and USA, where she develops her work closely with people diagnosed with cancer, mainly in the areas of nutrition, movement and health education.