We all have stress in our lives, and it comes from many different sources. When not managed well, stress can take enormous tolls on health, relationships, work performance and overall quality of life. Learning useful skills to reduce stress and manage it well takes consistent practice to train your brain and body to respond to stressors differently. Read on to learn what you can start doing today to conquer stress and stop it from interfering with your life.
1. Practice relaxation skills: Finding beneficial ways to counter the physiological response our body goes through when stressed is absolutely critical to prevent it from further escalating or lingering for an extended duration. Relaxed breathing is a popular, scientifically supported skill that can be very useful for managing stress. Although there are many different ways to practice relaxed breathing, methods that focus on slowing down your breathing (instead of taking deep breathes) tend to be effective, and work quickly. Focusing on slowing down your breaths, pushing air out as you exhale slowly through your mouth, and counting methods are all part of the skill. Many of my clients find it helpful to use a smartphone or web based guide for practicing this skill. Breathe2Relax is a great tool to help with mastering relaxed breathing, and you can download it free for iPhone/iPad and Android.
Other relaxation skills that can be quite useful include muscle relaxation training and guided visualization. There are some useful scripts that offer instructions on YouTube and the links to a few samples are included at the end of the post. It is usually best to practice any relaxation skill when you are in a calm, comfortable, quiet place. Once you have been able to practice the skill regularly, it will start to feel more comfortable and you will be more likely to call on it when you find yourself in a stressful situation.
2. Self-soothe: Self-soothing activities refer to healthy, safe things you can do to feel comfortable and calm. These activities don’t include unhealthy coping skills that might feel good in the moment (like overeating or using alcohol to soothe). Healthy, effective self-soothing activities include things like taking a warm shower or bath, sipping on a warm cup of tea, listening to your favorite music, or smelling something aromatic (like a favorite scented candle or personal care product). Self-soothing methods are highly effective when you feel high levels of stress and can help you regain your cool when upset or stressed.
3. Have Fun: Do an activity that you enjoy, and if you feel you don’t have time to do what you enjoy, do something to get you closer to it. For example, if you find gardening or cooking enjoyable, look up a new recipe to try, or check out the latest gardening trends online. Pick up that book that you’ve been wanting to start, catch up on your favorite show, blast your favorite musician, play with your pet, or spend time going for a walk with your spouse or children. Whatever it is that you enjoy, do it. Find opportunities for playfulness and humor in these activities, and you’ll experience lasting stress reduction benefits.
4. Interact with people: For many, a common stress reaction involves withdrawing, isolating and detaching from others. This can often have unhealthy consequences on our thought process and emotional reactions to stress. Turning to someone whom you know you can get help from can be a very effective way to manage stress. Interacting can involve just talking or venting, distracting yourself from the stressor by doing an activity together, or working together to brainstorm and problem solve about the stressor. Socializing and connecting with family and friends reduces stress because it allows for opportunities to think about things besides our source of stress and view the stressor from alternative perspectives that may not have been perceived otherwise.
5. Get Active: Finding even small ways to fit more physical activity into your routine can have big benefits for fighting stress. Get outside and take time for a walk, bike, run, whatever works for you. If exercise is something that is already part of your routine on occasion, prioritize it and you’ll start to feel the benefits fast. Engaging with others through physical activity incorporates the social benefits described in the step above, and fitting in more exercise on a regular basis will have you feeling more energized and able to put in the effort required to respond to stress in healthy ways.
People are usually the most motivated to work on reducing stress when it’s already escalated to an uncomfortable level. Although this is often a powerful motivator for change, the secret to mastering stress management is consistent practice, even when you’re not feeling stressed out. The more consistently these skills are used, the more likely you are to be able to apply them in stressful situations and the higher your stress tolerance threshold will grow.
If stress is continuing to have negative consequences on your health, relationships, and personal wellbeing, it’s time to get help. Counseling and therapy services can provide support and guidance with learning new ways to handle stress. You can research the services and providers available in your area on Psychology Today and Theravive. Many people also find it helpful to speak to their doctor or trusted friend about providers they could refer you to. At Long Island Mental Health and Wellness Counseling PLLC, we provide a safe, effective setting to address unresolved problems that are fueling your stress levels and work together with you to customize a plan to help you move forward. You can contact us anytime to discuss your situation and explore if our services are the right fit for your needs.
List of useful web links for mastering stress management skills