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A recent report from the American Psychological Association indicates the average stress levels in the US are at their lowest since 2007, the current average being 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 10. (The average perceived healthy level of stress is at 3.9.)
Almost 75% of Americans report having experienced at least one stress symptom in the last month. If we narrow down the sample to only include people younger than 35, the number becomes 95%.
Millennials, Gen X, and Gen Z all experience greater levels of stress than any generation before them. If this trend is sustained, the next decades will bring a real stress epidemic.
But what can we do about it? Is stress actually that much of a problem? How can you manage it successfully?
This article will explain the phenomenon of stress, as well and show you exactly how to manage long-term stress and why it’s so important.
What Is Stress in the First Place?
Before we tackle the issue of stress management and outline the most successful methods of dealing with stress, it’s crucial to actually understand the issue in question. And this is where we encounter the first problem—
Stress cannot be defined easily, mostly because it’s a very subjective phenomenon—affecting different people in different ways. Even the American Institute of Stress states that stress, however common and problematic, is not a scientifically-useful term.
First things you need to know, though, is that stress:
- is a natural physiological reaction that you cannot avoid;
- is not necessarily “bad”—in fact, you need stress to survive.
Defined very broadly, stress is our body’s physical response to any change—occurring in our environment, in our thoughts or within our body—that requires adjustment.
When we are stressed, our body reacts as if we were under attack and releases a mix of chemical substances and hormones to prepare us for physical action: our blood pressure rises, unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion are shut down, and we experience a boost of energy.
Sounds good so far, doesn’t it? So why are we making such a big deal out of stress?
Why Do We Need Stress Management?
When we’re stressed, our body enters a mode called “fight or flight”. Our blood flow is then directed only to the most important muscles—those we need to defend ourselves or run away. Our brain function becomes limited to instincts.
While stress as such isn’t a negative thing, it can severely hamper our lives if we are experiencing it continuously over long periods of time.
As mentioned above, stress changes the way our body functions. Such changes, if prolonged, can lead to adverse effects on our physical and mental health.
Negative effects of prolonged stress
The most important adverse effects of long-term stress can be grouped into 5 key areas: physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral.
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Frequent colds
- Panic attacks
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling of a “brain fog”
- Inability to finish tasks
- Poor judgment
- Hampered decision-making skills
- Social isolation
- Lack of motivation
- Distorted patterns of sleep (sleeping too little or too much)
- Loss of sense of humor
- Increase in the intake of psychoactive substances: nicotine, caffeine, alcohol
I’m sure it’s quite a comprehensive list of things you’d rather avoid. But… all these might happen if you experience stress for too long.
Enter: stress management.
As I said earlier, stress is something you cannot (and shouldn’t) escape altogether. The key is to learn how to deal with it in a sustainable way so that you can enjoy the short-term benefits of stress-induced high performance while keeping your body and your mind healthy in the long run.
Be careful, though—
There’s lots of snake oil out there. Many dubious self-help gurus will recommend various medications and “magic” therapies to combat stress-related problems. Below, you’ll find a list of techniques supported by legit research, so that you don’t need to look elsewhere.
How to Manage Stress (Science-Backed Methods and Techniques)
1. Embrace stress instead of demonizing it
A fascinating study conducted by Stanford and Yale researchers focused on how the attitude towards stress changes the way we deal with it.
The assumption was that avoiding or reducing stress is often impossible—who can’t relate to that, right? Plus, trying too hard to reduce stress (e.g. avoiding the stress of paying bills) is a surefire way for the stressful factors to accumulate later on.
The participants of the study—managers in a large multinational banking firm—were shown different videos about stress over the course of 1 week. One group of participants would watch videos presenting the negative impact stress has on our health, another group—clips showing positive short-term effects of stress, as well as case studies of the performance-enhancing impact of stress.
Over the course of the following weeks, the latter group turned out to perform better, be more engaged at work, and report a 23-percent drop in stress-related physical symptoms, compared to the former group, as well as control.
The takeaway is simple—thinking about stress in terms of a challenge and opportunity, rather than an obstacle will help you tackle your stress triggers more effectively while, perhaps paradoxically, keeping you less stressed in the meantime.
2. Use the four “As” of stress management: avoid, alter, adapt, accept
We just said it: avoiding certain stressful situations isn’t healthy (especially if the situations will need to be addressed in the future). But—
You’d be surprised to learn how many stressors in your life you actually can eliminate.
Try to avoid people who make you feel stressed.
Learn to say “no” to things you feel you won’t be able to handle.
Prepare and analyze your daily to-do list. Consider what items are of the highest priority. If you feel you have too much on your plate, drop those chores that aren’t of utmost importance.
If something or someone causes you to stress, communicate it.
Maybe your coworker’s habits bother you and make you stressed at work—tell them. If you don’t voice your feelings, they will build up over time, consequently increasing the stress.
If you’re feeling stressed about something not directly linked to the behavior of people around you, communicate that to your close ones. They might be able to help—even if not directly, at least by offering their support and understanding.
If you cannot avoid or alter what stresses you, change your expectations and attitude.
Try looking at the bigger picture: will the stressful situation matter at all in a few months? What’s the actual worst that can happen? (It’s almost never that bad.)
Finally, consider readjusting your standards. Lowering the bar for what’s “good enough” in certain areas of life can help you take a lot of stress out of everyday activities.
Just think about this: in 2017, the most common source of stress in America was the future of the country—I’m not trying to say it’s not worth the attention, but actually stressing over it is counterproductive.
There are other stressors you can’t prevent or change such as death and illness. The best way to cope with them is to learn accepting things as they are, instead of fighting a situation you cannot change.
The rule of thumb: try not to worry about things you have no control over.
3. Breathe (the right way)
That’s right, something as natural as breathing can help you reduce your stress levels—if you use a proper breathing technique called diaphragmatic breathing. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit in a relaxed position or lie flat on a comfortable surface.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds. While breathing in, make sure your chest remains flat, while your stomach expands.
- Press gently on your stomach and exhale through your lips for about two seconds.
- Repeat for several minutes.
Research has proven this technique works in particular when dealing with acute stressful tasks. Whenever something unexpectedly stressful happens in your life, spend a few minutes every day to breathe in this purposeful way. It’ll work wonders. (As a bonus, this technique helps lower your blood pressure and heart rate, plus improve core muscle stability.)
You knew you’d find this tip here, right? That’s because it works so well!
As little as 10 minutes of intense exercise has been proven to reduce anxiety as well as release chemicals responsible for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness. This is particularly important in periods of prolonged stress when the body limits the functionality of our brains, leading to the feeling of “mental fog.”
5. Eat more food rich in omega-3 fatty acids
According to Joe Hibblen from the National Institutes of Health, “omega-3s help quiet down the body’s response to inflammation, making your stress system more flexible.”
Studies clearly prove that omega-3s protect our bodies against the damage done by chronic stress—particularly, the alteration of glutamatergic synapses in the hippocampus.
There were also clinical trials that showed these acids help reduce depressive symptoms.
If you want to prepare yourself to better defend against long-term stress, include more of those ingredients in your everyday diet:
- Fish and seafood (in particular cold-water fish).
- Nuts and seeds such as walnuts and chia seeds.
- Plant oils: flaxseed, soybean, and canola, for instance.
6. Practice transcendental meditation
Sound like an overly spiritual idea? But it works. This study has shown transcendental meditation helps decrease psychological distress, as well as blood pressure while helping boost our coping mechanisms.
The technique is incredibly simple: you pick a mantra, a word or a sound from a specific set, and repeat it silently with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day.
7. Take time off work
Numerous studies point to the importance of taking short-term vacations for better stress management. Taking a few days of work has been proven to increase well-being and decrease perceived stress levels both short- and long-term.
Another study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, found that a 6-day holiday improves bodily functions related to managing stress and results in feeling less stressed and less depressed.
8. Help others
Yale University’s research suggests that “affiliative behavior”—actions intended to help or please others—moderates the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall emotional functioning.
Even small things that help others will greatly help you manage your stress levels—whenever you’re dealing with stress, try to help others: hold the door or elevator for someone, ask people around you if they need help, assist your coworkers with difficult tasks they’re tackling, or spend more time helping your child with homework.
9. Grin and bear it
Smile. I mean it. Don’t feel like it? Fake it.
It’s a very clever way to trick your body into resisting stress.
This study showed that people who smile while performing stressful tasks experienced less of a drop in a positive mood during the stressor. That’s because moving your facial muscles sends an electric “message” to your brain that influences your mood.
Similarly, forcing yourself to keep good posture while performing a stressful task (such as a public speech or a difficult negotiation), results in higher self-esteem, more arousal, better mood, and lower fear, research shows.
Here’s a quick recap of everything you need to know about stress and stress management:
- Stress is our body’s natural reaction to any change we need to adjust to.
- Short-term stress isn’t harmful.
- You can’t avoid stress altogether. What you can and should do is manage your stress properly.
- The most effective, science-based stress management techniques are: changing your mindset towards stress, performing diaphragmatic breathing, regular physical activity, eating an Omega-3-rich diet, transcendental meditation, regular vacationing, and engaging in affiliative behaviors.
If you have more questions or need further assistance with dealing with stress-related issues, drop me a line in the comments, I’ll be happy to help!