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Put the reins on stress

A grandson is hugging his grandfather's neck. Both are laughing.

Simple steps can help you take charge of everyday stress.

Stress is a normal part of everyday life. And it isn't always a bad part of life. If your boss gives you a major project that requires a lot of work, that can be stressful. But it can also be challenging and rewarding if you do well.

However, living with chronically high stress levels is unhealthy. Unrelenting stress can damage both your mental and physical health. It can sap your energy, cause headaches and digestive problems. It can keep you from getting a restful night's sleep. Research suggests that chronic stress combined with high sugar intake can lead to an increase in visceral fat, which is associated with heart disease and metabolic disease.

Too much stress can make everything seem overwhelming. But this kind of stress can be controlled. By changing the things you can change and taking good care of yourself, you may be able to more effectively manage your stress levels. Here's how:

Get enough sleep. Daytime stress affects nighttime sleep. And not getting enough sleep can affect your mental, emotional and physical health. To get better sleep, try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Establish a bedtime routine that relaxes you—for example, take a warm bath or read before hitting the sack. Turn off all screens well before turning off your lights. (The blue light from screens can decrease the sleep hormone melatonin.) And get regular exercise during the day. Physical activity can improve sleep, especially for middle-aged and older adults, according to the American Psychological Association.

Exercise. In addition to improving your sleep, exercise releases chemicals called endorphins, which make you feel good. Physical activity can also distract you from your daily worries. You'll get the most benefit from exercising at least 30 minutes most days of the week, but any amount of movement can help. So leash up the dog and take a walk. Or go for a bike ride.

Eat well. Acute stress can kill your appetite. And chronic stress can cause cravings for unhealthy foods. But a diet high in a variety of nutrients can provide you with more energy to deal with life's challenges. Focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit foods high in sugars and fats. And avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Start a stress journal. This can help you identify the stressors in your life and how you respond to them. You may recognize unhelpful patterns and common themes. Write down:

  • What caused your stress.
  • How you felt, physically and emotionally.
  • How you reacted.
  • What you did to make yourself feel better.

Manage your time. Know your limits and stick to them. This may mean saying no sometimes to unworkable deadlines or favors asked of you. Also, look at your list of to-dos. If it's too long, delete things that aren't necessary, delegate some items to other people, or at least move the less important tasks to the bottom of your list.

Don't expect perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others. Learn when "good enough" is just fine.

Reframe problems. Try to look at stressful situations in a more positive way. For example, don't get mad about a traffic jam. Instead, turn on your favorite radio station and enjoy your alone time.

Take control of your environment. Is listening to the news stressing you out? Turn it off. Do you dislike going to the store? Ask someone else in the house to do it. Or consider shopping for groceries online.

Connect with others. Sometimes stress can seem overwhelming. But just talking about how you're feeling with friends and loved ones can help.

Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for activities that bring you joy. Play with your kids. Work a crossword puzzle. Play the piano. Or go for a walk in the park.

Practice relaxation exercises. This can include yoga, deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. To do the latter, get in a comfortable position. Choose a muscle group, like your feet. Inhale and contract your feet's muscles for 5 to 10 seconds, then exhale and release. Relax for 10 seconds, then repeat with a different muscle group. Do this for your entire body. (Most practitioners recommend starting with the lower body and working your way upward.)

Seek professional help. If your stress becomes too hard to handle or if you have physical symptoms that you think may be stress-related, see your doctor. They can evaluate your symptoms, give you more stress management tips or refer you to a mental health counselor.

Reviewed 9/8/2021

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