Don’t Let Stress Manage You

Stress. We all have it … especially this time of year. And though none of us like being “stressed out,” stress is an inevitable part of life. It is also important to realize stress is not all bad. The pressure we feel when faced with stressful situations can make us more creative, help us learn new things and solve problems.

Stress becomes harmful when it is constant or when we allow it to take us down the path to anxiety, depression and unhealthy behaviors. So, how can you manage stress, rather than letting it manage you? The first step is learning what it is that causes stress in your life. Maybe it’s work or finances. Or perhaps a relationship gone bad. Even diet and health can be a cause of stress. Identifying the stressors puts you in control. Sometimes, you can limit your exposure to the stressor, but, more importantly, you can be prepared to respond to the effects stress has on you.

Often when we are stressed, someone will say, “chill out,” or “just relax.” Relaxation is important in managing stress. It sounds easy, but it takes practice and hard work to learn to relax in the middle of a stressful situation. To effectively combat stress, relaxing doesn’t mean turning into a couch potato or sleeping (though good sleep habits do help). For true stress relief, you need to activate your body's natural relaxation response. There are several techniques you can use:

  • Deep breathing: When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath and anxious you feel.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: By systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body, you are taking physical control of your body, and as your body relaxes, so will your mind.
  • Body scan meditation: If you focus on the sensations in each part of your body in a methodical way, you can produce a level of relaxation similar to progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Mindfulness: By staying calm and focused in the present moment, you can bring your nervous system back into balance. You can apply mindfulness to activities such as walking, exercising, eating or meditation. Mindfulness meditation helps you identify and then release internal thoughts or sensations that are causing stress.
  • Visualization: Imagining a scene in which you are less stressed will help you by freeing you to release tension and anxiety.
  • Yoga and tai chi: Yoga involves a series of both moving and stationary poses, combined with deep breathing. Tai chi is a safe, low-impact option for people of all ages and levels of fitness, including older adults and those recovering from injuries.

None of these relaxation techniques are difficult, but they take practice. And it is helpful to practice when you aren’t stressed. Then, you’ll feel more confident in using the techniques when stress is trying to manage you.