What’s stressing you out these days? Your endless to-do list? Bills? Your health or the health of a loved one? Your kids? The current state of the nation? If you’re a professional worrier like myself, it’s all of the above. And based on current statistics about Americans and stress, clearly I’m not alone.
Although stress is a normal part of your body’s reaction to any demand or threat (and can be a powerful motivator), long-term stress without relief between stressors can negatively affect your health both physically and emotionally. Luckily, stopping stress in its tracks is within your control. The key is to identify your stress triggers and coping techniques that work for you.
Understanding Your Triggers
It’s hard to get a handle on your stress if you don’t know what’s causing it. That’s why the first step in getting your stress under control is identifying the root of it. Once you identify your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them or adopt a coping technique when stress gets the better of you.
The top stress triggers for most people are:
- Finances: One of the top causes of stress in our everyday lives is money. Unpaid bills, debt, concerns about the economy, and worrying about providing for your family and living comfortably are significant sources of stress for many Americans.
- Family: Maybe you are the primary caregiver for an aging family member or you are trying to juggle work responsibilities with raising small children. Whatever your family situation is, caring for others can be a major source of stress. Daily responsibilities seem to pile up while self-care falls by the wayside.
- Relationship difficulties: While many people think relationship stress is based on major, stressful decisions like where to raise your family, or what values you want to instill in your children, many times it’s the day-to-day that can bring about the most stress in a relationship: who’s doing the laundry, who forgot to take out the trash, who’s next on diaper duty. As many marriage counselors will attest, many times relationships suffer from “death by a thousand cuts” syndrome.
- Job: For many people, work is often a major source of stress. Unrealistic deadlines or demands, an endless to-do list, or a difficult boss or coworkers can all contribute to work stress. In addition, today’s technology means we’re always connected to work — a surefire way to ensure elevated levels of stress.
- Major life changes: A milestone birthday, divorce, the death of a family member, pregnancy, a move. Big changes in your life can be very stressful.
- Health: Chronic health issues or a serious diagnosis (whether it’s you or a loved one) is further exacerbated by the stress that accompanies illness.
If you’re not sure what’s triggering your stress, try keeping a journal for a week. Looking back on the week as a whole can you help you identify when you were most stressed and the circumstances were surrounding it.
Healthy Coping Techniques
Okay, so stress is an unfortunate fact of life. But it’s not all bad news. The good news is that you can relieve stress in a variety of ways. The key is finding the best way for you to reduce stress. Maybe your brother likes to blow off steam by competing in an Ironman, while the mere thought of that increases your stress level. Don’t compare yourself to others. Find what works for you.
The best way to do this? Think back to a time when you had no worries, no responsibilities, and no stress: your childhood. What activities or hobbies did you gravitate to? Maybe you loved swimming and spent all your time in the pool or ocean. Maybe it was riding your bike or coloring or dancing or playing with Legos. Your childhood hobbies are a strong indicator of how you should be relieving stress. Those hobbies are the things that naturally bring you joy, unencumbered by social pressures or the demands of your endless to-do list.
- Exercise. Whether you walk, run, swim, dance, bike, or practice yoga, simply moving your body has a tremendous impact on your stress levels. Exercise reduces stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) and releases powerful endorphins in your brain that boost your mood, bring a sense of relaxation, and act as natural pain killers.
- Meditate. Meditation is a powerful antidote to stress. It helps clear your mind of stress-inducing thoughts, creating a sense of calm that lasts long after a meditation session. And it can be practiced anytime, anywhere. Even better? All it takes is five minutes.
- Get creative. Art is a wonderful form of stress relief. Whatever the medium — painting, knitting, carpentry, coloring, sculpting, photography — creating something helps reduce stress. In fact, studies have shown that after engaging in a creative activity for 45 minutes, people’s cortisol levels (stress hormone) is greatly reduced. You don’t even need to be “good” at art, which is great for non-artists like myself!
- Read a book or listen to music. Losing yourself in a good book or a favorite album helps you escape your worries and daily stressors. It’s a form of escapism that distracts the mind and engages your imagination.
- Call a friend or volunteer. As social creatures, humans are hard-wired to connect with others. Staying connected with friends with group chats, IMs, or old-fashioned voice calls is a great way to reduce stress. Socializing with others boosts the oxytocin hormone, decreases anxiety levels, and may increase your ability to cope with stressful situations.
- Garden. Gardening is another activity that reduces your cortisol, or stress hormone level. Getting out in nature and digging in the dirt helps counteract the effects of “information overload.” These days we’re bombarded by a constant feed of news, emails, phone calls, and meetings. When gardening, you naturally slow down and engage in a soothing, meditative activity that is the opposite of your day-to-day overstimulating environment. Plus, there are countless studies that show the health benefits of being in nature.