Stress is a normal yet unfortunate part of life. While we may all face daily stressors, not knowing how to handle stress may have negative effects on your mental health and overall quality of life.
On the surface, the effects of stress may be temporary — tense muscles, a headache, sweating or a racing heart. But they can impact your health in the long run, too, especially if they happen constantly or if you frequently find yourself in stressful situations.
Fortunately, you can combat stress. And when you learn how to manage it, you’ll lead not only a more relaxed life but also a healthier one with lower anxiety levels.
This is your one-stop guide on how to handle stress. It includes a breakdown of how stress works, as well as how it affects your mental and physical health.
Stress is a normal reaction of emotional or physical tension to everyday pressure, from time management to work problems and everything in between.
When we’re under stress, our bodies release stress hormones that activate our fight-or-flight response to help us survive. In other words, stress is our survival mode controlled in part by the regulation of the stress hormone cortisol.
Symptoms of stress can include increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, muscle tension and high blood pressure. In some cases, severe stress can even be misdiagnosed as a heart attack.
Acute stress is short-term stress that doesn’t last very long. You feel acute stress when you have to hit the brakes quickly while driving, when you get into an argument or when a bee flies nearby.
Chronic stress lasts longer, sometimes for weeks or even months. You could be experiencing chronic stress if you’re having relationship problems, money issues or medical concerns. When chronic stress interferes with your daily life, you might be dealing with a larger health issue.
Stress affects your physical health in many ways, from constant muscle tension resulting in migraines or tension headaches to a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.
Long-term or untreated stress can impact your mental health as well. Chronic stress can make you feel tired or emotionally exhausted, a state of feeling emotionally and physically drained.
Chronic stress may also lead to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
While stress is the response to an outside cause (arguing with a friend or a job interview), anxiety is how your body responds to stress. There may be a persistent feeling of dread or worry that doesn’t go away, even if there’s no immediate danger.
Other anxiety symptoms that overlap with stress include headaches, loss of sleep and physical tension. If you find yourself dealing with effects similar to anxiety symptoms, you may be facing an anxiety disorder.
Excessive stress may also result in panic attacks. These are unexpected or frequent attacks of anxiety that are a symptom of panic disorder (a type of anxiety disorder).
If you’re curious about other anxiety disorders and their symptoms and causes, our overview of anxiety disorders covers everything you may want to know.
Fortunately, there are ways to handle stress, whether it’s the excessive stress you’re currently experiencing or preventing future stress.
There are several ways to combat stress and lower your stress levels. Below are some recommendations on how to handle stress.
While relaxing might be easier said than done when you’re experiencing high levels of stress, incorporating relaxation methods into your daily routine can help with stress management.
Mindfulness practices might involve deep breathing techniques, guided imagery or yoga to help you become more aware of your thoughts or the physical sensations you’re experiencing. A large study found that six weeks of mindfulness practice lowered stress levels.
Mindfulness-based therapy has also been found to reduce anxiety and depression, two mental health conditions that can develop due to stress. By becoming more aware of your symptoms and sensations in the body, you can learn how to better respond to them.
If you feel overwhelmed by stress, a psychologist or another mental health provider can help you learn how to effectively handle your stress.
One of the most research-supported treatments for stress and anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The method teaches you how to identify unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, as well as how to reframe your thoughts around a stressor.
Interested in working with a therapist to manage your anxiety? Try online therapy to figure out what type of mental health treatment may work for you.
Physical activity is one of the most effective natural treatments for lowering stress levels in addition to improving your mood and providing sustained health benefits.
In addition to regular exercise, eating a balanced and nutritious diet can help reduce stress. Chronic stress affects how our bodies use calories by increasing metabolism and the speed nutrients are processed.
If you’re experiencing chronic stress, you may also find yourself craving more snacks or sweets low in nutrients. Or if you’re feeling stressed, you may find yourself lacking time to prepare healthy meals.
A balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy protein can provide energy, boost your immune system and do so much more to help reduce stress. Research suggests that veggies and foods containing omega-3 fats may help regulate cortisol levels.
Drinking caffeine may also increase stress levels. Although results are mixed, some studies have found that large amounts of caffeine contribute to feelings of anxiety.
While there’s no need to completely give up coffee or tea, scaling back could help with excessive feelings of anxiety as a result of stress.
If your chronic stress negatively impacts your life on a regular basis or has led to anxiety or depression, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication.
Your healthcare provider will recommend a medication that’s best for your stress symptoms, their severity and any other health conditions you’re experiencing, among other factors.
Benzodiazepines are generally a short-term treatment, as long-term use significantly increases the potential for dependence and abuse.
Antidepressants may help manage anxiety by targeting the same chemicals in the brain responsible for feelings of anxiousness and stress.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one of the most common types of antidepressants prescribed to treat anxiety. They include sertraline (Zoloft®), escitalopram (Lexapro®) and fluoxetine (Prozac®), among others.
Our full guide on medications for anxiety can give you more information about anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. You can also consult with a psychiatrist through our online mental health services to discuss your symptoms and learn if anxiety medication is right for you.
Stress may be an almost unavoidable feeling in life. But that doesn’t mean stress has to affect your physical or mental health. You can learn how to handle stress with any of the above strategies.
You can also look through our mental health resources for other tools to help you manage stress and improve your mental health. A mental health gym might also be a good option to work on things like stress and burnout.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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