Healthy ways to handle life’s stressors (2022)

When stress becomes unmanageable, try these evidence-based tools to tackle it in healthy ways.

Date created: November 1, 2019 7 min read

  • Exercise and Fitness
  • Stress


Healthy ways to handle life’s stressors (1)

Stressful experiences are a normal part of life, and the stress response is a survival mechanism that primes us to respond to threats. Some stress is positive: Imagine standing in front of a crowd to give a speech and hitting it out of the park. Stressful? Certainly. But also challenging and satisfying.

But when a stressor is negative and can’t be fought off or avoided — such as layoffs at work or a loved one’s medical crisis — or when the experience of stress becomes chronic, our biological responses to stress can impair our physical and mental health.

Fortunately, there are many evidence-based tools to help combat the negative effects of stress in healthy ways. They recommend that you:

  • Try to eliminate the stressors: Whether or not you experience an intolerable level of psychological stress depends on the intensity of the situation and also the person experiencing it. How you perceive and think about a stressor can also make a big impact on how you respond. It’s not always possible to escape a stressful situation or avoid a problem, but you can try to reduce the stress you are feeling. Evaluate whether you can change the situation that is causing you stress, perhaps by dropping some responsibility, relaxing your standards or asking for help.
  • Cultivate social support: Strong social support can improve resilience to stress.1 Reach out strategically. Some friends or family members may be good at listening and sympathizing. Others might excel at practical help, like bringing over a home-cooked meal or covering an hour of child care. Giving support can also increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions.2 Just make sure your relationships stay in balance. A friend who requires support but never gives it may increase your stress level.
  • Seek good nutrition: When confronted with a stressor, the central nervous system releases adrenaline and cortisol, which affects the digestive tract among other physiological changes. Acute stress can kill the appetite, but the release of the hormone cortisol during chronic stress can cause fat and sugar cravings. Research also suggests that high cortisol combined with high sugar consumption may prompt the deposition of fat around our internal organs3 — visceral fat that is associated with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. A diet high in a variety of nutrients can both protect health and provide more physical energy to deal with challenges. No need to go vegan or swear off cookies —just aim to consume a rainbow of fruits and vegetables as part of your daily diet. Avoid using substances such as alcohol to dampen the stress response since substances do not solve the root of the problem and can have serious health effects.
  • Relax your muscles: Because stress causes muscles to tense, being stressed out can create tension headaches, backaches and general fatigue. Combat stress and these symptoms with stretches, massage or warm baths. Or try progressive muscle relaxation, a method that has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve overall mental health.4 To practice progressive muscle relaxation, get in a comfortable position and choose a muscle group, like your lower leg muscles (most practitioners recommend starting with the lower body and working your way up). Inhale and contract the muscles for five to 10 seconds, then exhale and release the muscles suddenly. Relax for 10 or more seconds and then move on to the next muscle group. Another option is passive progressive muscle relaxation. This technique is similar to progressive muscle relaxation but skips the tensing step. Instead, simply picture each muscle group one at a time and focus on relaxing that portion of the body.
  • Meditate: A strong body of research shows that mindful meditation can reduce psychological stress and anxiety — even short-term mindfulness meditation programs work.5 To get started, set aside five minutes in a quiet place to sit and breathe. Focus on the present moment; if stray thoughts intrude, acknowledge them and then let them go. Don’t judge yourself for any mental wavering. Gently refocus and bring the attention back to the present moment.
  • Protect your sleep: Daytime stress affects nighttime sleep.6 Making matters worse, losing shuteye can affect both cognition and mood. How to sleep better? Try to have a consistent sleep routine that allows time to wind down before lights out. Meditation and relaxation can help with insomnia.7 Also, avoid caffeine and alcohol in the late afternoon and evening. Put down your screens, as blue light can suppress the sleepy hormone melatonin (and checking social media may ramp up your emotions.) Finally, move your body during the day: A large body of research suggests that physical activity can improve sleep, especially for middle-aged and older adults.8
  • Get physical: Brisk movement can not only improve sleep, it can directly combat stress. In one study, working adults who participated in moderate physical activity had half the perceived stress as working adults who did not participate.9 Physical activity may also cancel out some of the negative effects of stress, including the impact of stress on the immune system.10 Adding physical activity needn’t be expensive or complex: A brisk 30-minute walk or a dance session in the living room can do the trick.
  • Take a moment in nature: Studies conducted in multiple countries have found that green space improves mood.11 Even nature videos can speed the recovery from stress compared with videos of urban scenes.12 Taking a moment to notice nature — even in the form of a bustling city park — can refocus and calm your mind.
  • Keep your pleasurable activities: When life gets overwhelming, people often drop their leisure activities first. But cutting yourself off from pleasure can be counterproductive. Even when time is tight, look for opportunities to do something for yourself, whether that means reading a novel, singing along to your favorite tunes or streaming your favorite comedy on Netflix. Humor and laughter can benefit both mental and physical health.13
  • Reframe your thinking: One of the most research-supported treatments for stress and anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. At the root of this therapy approach is the understanding that our thoughts influence our emotions, which in turn influences our behaviors. Reframing your thoughts around a stressor can help manage your emotions, reducing feelings of stress.14 Some tips: If you feel yourself spiraling into imagining worst-case scenarios, stop and put your mind elsewhere. Set realistic expectations for yourself. Strive for acceptance of situations outside of your control.
  • Seek help: If you feel overwhelmed and self-help isn’t helping, look for a psychologist or other mental health provider who can help you learn how to manage your stress effectively.He or she can help you identify situations or behaviors that contribute to your stress and then develop an action plan to change the stressors, change your environment and change your responses.

Acute versus chronic stress

The experience of stress can be either acute or chronic. Acute stress usually occurs in response to a short-term stressor, like a car accident or an argument with your spouse. Acute stress can be very distressing, but it passes quickly and typically responds well to coping techniques like calming breathing or brisk physical activity.

Chronic stress occurs when stressors don’t let up. The roots of chronic stress can vary widely, from situations people can control or avoid (such as having a toxic friendship) to difficulties that are hard to escape (poverty, racism or other discrimination). Because people respond differently to stressful circumstances, a situation that one person might find tolerable can become a source of chronic stress for another.

Chronic stress can damage both mental and physical health. Being chronically stressed may leave you feeling fatigued, sap your ability to concentrate and cause headaches and digestive difficulties. People prone to irritable bowel syndrome often find that their symptoms spike with psychological stress.15 Though acute stress can heighten certain immune responses, the wear-and-tear of chronic stress is bad for the immune system.16 Chronic stress can also affect cardiac health, with multiple studies finding a link between chronic stress and the development of coronary artery disease.17

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The American Psychological Association gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Beverly Thorn, PhD, in developing this fact sheet.

References

Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa.: Township)),4(5), 35–40.

Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing.Emotion, 16(6), 850-861. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000178

Gyllenhammer, L. E., Weigensberg, M. J., Spruijt-Metz, D., Allayee, H., Goran, M. I., & Davis, J. N. (2014). Modifying influence of dietary sugar in the relationship between cortisol and visceral adipose tissue in minority youth.Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.),22(2), 474–481. doi:10.1002/oby.20594.

Gaylord, C., Orme-Johnson, D., & Travis, F. (1989). The Effects of the Transcendental Mediation Technique and Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Eeg Coherence, Stress Reactivity, and Mental Health in Black Adults.International Journal of Neuroscience,46(1-2), 77–86. doi: 10.3109/00207458908991618.

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Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being:A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.JAMA Intern Med.174(3):357–368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

Åkerstedt, T., Kecklund, G., & Axelsson, J. (2007). Impaired sleep after bedtime stress and worries.Biological Psychology,76(3), 170–173. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.07.010.

Black, D. S., O'Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial.JAMA internal medicine,175(4), 494–501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081

Dolezal, B. A., Neufeld, E. V., Boland, D. M., Martin, J. L., & Cooper, C. B. (2017). Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review Advances in preventive medicine,2017, 1364387. doi:10.1155/2017/1364387

Aldana, S. G., Sutton, L. D., Jacobson, B. H., & Quirk, M. G. (1996). Relationships between Leisure Time Physical Activity and Perceived Stress. Perceptual and Motor Skills,82(1), 315–321. doi: 10.2466/pms.1996.82.1.315

Fleshner, F. (2005). Physical Activity and Stress Resistance: Sympathetic Nervous System Adaptations Prevent Stress-Induced Immunosuppression. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews,33(3), 120–126. doi: 10.1097/00003677-200507000-00004

Kondo, M., Fluehr, J., Mckeon, T., & Branas, C. (2018). Urban Green Space and Its Impact on Human Health.International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,15(3), 445. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15030445

Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., et al (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 11(3), 201-230. doi: 11016/S0272-4944(05)80184-7

(Video) How to Manage Stress | Nuffield Health

Savage, B.M., Lujan, H.L., Thipparthi, R.R & DiCarlo, S.E. (2017). Humor, laughter, learning and health! A brief review. 41(3), 341-347. doi: 1152/advan.00030.2017

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses.Cognitive therapy and research,36(5), 427–440. doi:10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

Qin, H.-Y. (2014). Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome.World Journal of Gastroenterology,20(39), 14126. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126

Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry.Psychological bulletin,130(4), 601–630. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601

Strike, P. C., & Steptoe, A. (2004). Psychosocial factors in the development of coronary artery disease.Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases,46(4), 337–347. doi: 10.1016/j.pcad.2003.09.001

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American Psychological Association. (2019, November 1). Healthy ways to handle life’s stressors. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/tips

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FAQs

What are 7 ways to deal with stress in a healthy way? ›

7 Ways to Manage Your Stress
  • Track your stressors. Use a journal to identify which situations create the most stress and how you respond to them. ...
  • Set limits. ...
  • Tap into your support system. ...
  • Make one health-related commitment. ...
  • Manage your devices. ...
  • Enhance your sleep quality. ...
  • Seek additional help.
5 Jun 2018

What are the 5 main ways to manage stress? ›

5 tips to manage stress
  • Use guided meditation. Guided meditation is a great way to distract yourself from the stress of day-to-day life. ...
  • Practice deep breathing. ...
  • Maintain physical exercise and good nutrition. ...
  • Manage social media time. ...
  • Connect with others.
10 Dec 2018

What are 10 ways to reduce stress? ›

10 Tips to Manage Stress
  1. 1.Exercise.
  2. 2.Relax Your Muscles.
  3. 3.Deep Breathing.
  4. 4.Eat Well.
  5. 5.Slow Down.
  6. 6.Take a Break.
  7. 7.Make Time for Hobbies.
  8. 8.Talk About Your Problems.
29 Apr 2021

Which are healthy ways of managing stress select the three correct choices? ›

Select the three correct choices.
  • Practice deep breathing.
  • Talk to someone.
  • Make time for fun and relaxing.

What are good coping strategies? ›

Good Coping Skills
  • Practicing meditation and relaxation techniques;
  • Having time to yourself;
  • Engaging in physical activity or exercise;
  • Reading;
  • Spending time with friends;
  • Finding humor;
  • Spending time on your hobbies;
  • Engaging in spirituality;

What are 6 ways to reduce stress? ›

6 ways to help manage daily stress more effectively:
  • Talk, Talk, Talk! Turn to family and friends, or even a trained therapist, to discuss things in your life that are causing stress. ...
  • Exercise Regularly. ...
  • Engage in Meditation. ...
  • Healthy Diet. ...
  • Stay Organized. ...
  • Practice Positive Self-talk.

How can teens avoid stress? ›

Stress management for kids and teens
  1. Sleep well. Sleep is essential for physical and emotional well-being. ...
  2. Exercise. Physical activity is an essential stress reliever for people of all ages. ...
  3. Talk it out. ...
  4. Make time for fun — and quiet. ...
  5. Get outside. ...
  6. Write about it. ...
  7. Learn mindfulness.
24 Oct 2019

Which is the most effective technique of coping with stress? ›

Learn to relax – purposeful relaxation, such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation and meditation is essential in training your body to relax. Relaxation should be a part of your daily regimen. Be active regularly – being active also helps your body more easily fight stress because it is fit.

How can students relieve stress fast? ›

These options are relatively easy, quick, and relevant to a student's life and types of stress.
  1. Get Enough Sleep. ...
  2. Use Guided Imagery. ...
  3. Exercise Regularly. ...
  4. Take Calming Breaths. ...
  5. Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) ...
  6. Listen to Music. ...
  7. Build Your Support Network. ...
  8. Eat a Healthy Diet.
26 Aug 2022

What is a great stress reliever? ›

Exercise is a fantastic stress reliever that can work in minutes. Taking a walk allows you to enjoy a change of scenery, which can get you into a different frame of mind, and brings the benefits of exercise as well.

Which of the following is a key to reducing stress and leading a mentally healthy life? ›

Which of the following is a key to reducing stress and leading a mentally healthy life? Taking reasonable risks is part of being mentally healthy. Studies have shown that surviving spouses may have increased odds for heart disease, cancer, depression, alcoholism, and suicide.

What are positive coping skills? ›

Positive coping styles include: Immediate problem-solving, to fix the immediate cause of the stress. Root-cause solving, or seeking to fix the underlying problem for good. Benefit-finding, or looking for the good amidst the bad.

Why is it important to manage stress? ›

It can help your mind and body adapt (resilience). Without it, your body might always be on high alert. Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems. Don't wait until stress damages your health, relationships or quality of life.

How do you improve positive mental wellbeing? ›

5 steps to mental wellbeing
  1. Connect with other people. Good relationships are important for your mental wellbeing. ...
  2. Be physically active. Being active is not only great for your physical health and fitness. ...
  3. Learn new skills. ...
  4. Give to others. ...
  5. Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness)

How can you avoid unhealthy coping strategies? ›

Replacing Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms in 2021
  1. Focus on Constructive Tasks.
  2. Don't Avoid the Negative.
  3. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others.
  4. Try Not to “Catastrophize”
  5. Stay Grounded in the Present.
23 Dec 2020

How do I calm myself down? ›

When stress, anxiety or fear flare up, these 9 techniques help keep you calmer.
  1. Just breathe. ...
  2. Close your eyes and count to 10 slowly. ...
  3. Chew a piece of gum. ...
  4. Phone a friend – preferably a funny one. ...
  5. Smell lavender. ...
  6. Curl up with your cat or dog. ...
  7. Listen to calming music. ...
  8. Exercise your body.
7 Jan 2021

What is the best stress reliever for students? ›

Top 10 School Stress Relievers for Students
  • Power Naps. Students, with their packed schedules, are notorious for missing sleep. ...
  • Visualizations. This one is easy, effective, and can help you to do better in school. ...
  • Exercise. ...
  • Breathing Exercises. ...
  • PMR. ...
  • Music. ...
  • Staying Organized. ...
  • Eat Right.
15 Oct 2020

What is the first step in handling stress? ›

Step 1: Identify whether you are stressed. Step 2: Identify your stressor. Step 3: Identify the reason for stressor. Step 4: Identify and apply an appropriate stress management strategy.

What are the stressors in life? ›

Life events
  • Death of a loved one.
  • Losing a job.
  • Illness.
  • Starting university.
  • Work promotion.
  • Birth of a child.
  • Marriage.
  • Winning the lottery.

How can you help your friends and family handle stress properly? ›

Listen to how they feel

Having a chance to talk could help them feel calmer and more able to deal with their stress. Being there for them and listening without judging them can help. “[My friends can help by] making me a cup of tea, holding me while I cry, making me laugh...”

What are the stressors of students? ›

Some of the things students commonly cite as causes of stress include:
  • examinations.
  • deadlines.
  • returning to study.
  • pressure of combining paid work and study.
  • difficulty in organising work.
  • poor time management.
  • leaving assignments to the last minute.
  • out of control debts.

What are four strategies to avoid or limit stress? ›

Expand your stress management toolkit by mastering these four strategies for coping with stress: avoid, alter, accept and adapt. When we feel the effects of stress weighing us down, it's like lugging a backpack that's becoming heavier by the minute. Too much stress can make our journey through life difficult.

How do you think these stressors can be controlled? ›

Talk to a friend, family member, or therapist if your stress level is too high. Getting your feelings out without others judging you is crucial to good mental health. Take time out. Before you reach your breaking point, take time out for solitude.

Why is it important to manage stress? ›

It can help your mind and body adapt (resilience). Without it, your body might always be on high alert. Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems. Don't wait until stress damages your health, relationships or quality of life.

How a teenager can relieve stress? ›

Get enough sleep and have a good sleep routine. Avoid excess caffeine which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation. Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques).

What coping strategies did you do? ›

What are some common coping strategies?
  • Lower your expectations.
  • Ask others to help or assist you.
  • Take responsibility for the situation.
  • Engage in problem solving.
  • Maintain emotionally supportive relationships.
  • Maintain emotional composure or, alternatively, expressing distressing emotions.
24 Nov 2020

What can cause stress at home? ›

Homegrown stress can be traced to numerous sources – a noisy environment, an unhappy spouse, financial worries, or even mundane domestic duties such as doing the laundry or mowing the lawn. Stress is not a subject to be taken lightly.

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