What's so bad about stress? When it's appropriate, it can be a healthy coping mechanism that keeps you safe, focused and aware. It's your body's emergency action plan so you can go, go, go. However, living in a state of constant emergency can be hazardous to your health.

When stress levels are too high, your body sends signals telling you to take a break. If you don't listen, your body makes you pay attention with pesky symptoms like headaches, irritability, fatigue, confusion, high blood pressure and skin problems. If this goes on too long, it can cause serious problems like heart disease, cancer and depression.

When you're stressed, stressed, stressed, you need a plan. We've got 10 tips for tackling stress right now—and preventing it down the road.

4 tips for fast stress relief

  1. Take a walk. When you notice you're stressed—say, you're snapping pencils and getting snippy with coworkers—get up and take a walk. Any type of exercise will do, but you can usually walk just about anywhere, any time. Studies show it only takes 25 minutes of exercise for your body to recover from a "stress attack." Exercise lowers stress hormones (called cortisol) and blood pressure and releases brain chemicals that make you feel happier (called endorphins). Regular exercise builds up your stress immunity.
  2. Take a breath. Deep breathing really works. It increases blood-to-brain oxygen and helps you calm down. Sit at the edge of your chair with your spine straight and shoulders back. Drop your hands onto your lap, and relax your belly—really let it bulge. Now breathe. Take 10 full, deep breaths. Once you're breathing deeply, you might want to try meditation.
  3. Make a call. Phone your friend, family member, significant other or an office buddy and vent. Verbalizing problems instantly relieves pressure. It's like taking the lid off your steaming pot of stress and letting some go. Don't abuse this, though, or friends will avoid your calls.
  4. Take a stand. Or, as the song says, "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want." Don't just say what you think you can get. Once you actually say, "I want a new job and a day off," you'll likely be more focused. Knowing—and clearly stating—what you want can be an useful way to find solutions. You'll feel better just putting it out there.

6 long-term stress-busting strategy tips

Missy Gerber, president of Organizers Northwest, has a motto: Less Mess. Less Stress. Better Life. "Clutter and disorganization cause stress [and] waste time and money," she says. "With a little focus and simple techniques, you'll create more time and space in your life."

  1. Reduce multitasking. Gerber says: "We don't really multitask at all; we just switch rapidly from one activity to another. Our brain takes about 15 minutes to switch gears, so what we're working on takes longer, often with more errors." If you're focused for only 20 percent of an eight-hour day, that's 96 minutes spent switching gears. Think what you could do with 96 minutes of focused thinking.
  2. De-clutter. According to Gerber, "Clutter happens because we put something down where it doesn't belong, just for now. Don't put it down—put it away. Work on reducing your clutter daily for 15 focused minutes. Don't know where it goes? Make a thoughtful decision on where it should live and label the space.
  3. Structure sets you free. It may seem like to-do lists would add more stress to your life. Not so, says Gerber: "Checklists, processes and routines create new habits." Those habits will help you free up time to relax. Piggyback onto habits you already have. For example, brush your teeth, and then do a quick sweep of your bedroom to put things where they really belong. Create a filing system for incoming paper. Hanging files work best. At the end of each quarter, sort, toss and update your files. Come tax time, your information is in order.
  4. Just say no. Stop adding more activities, obligations and commitments to your schedule. Instead, evaluate what you do and why you do it. Then you can weed out time-wasters and events you really don't need to attend. Don't underestimate the time you spend surfing the Internet (hello, Facebook). Fill in free time with exercise and fun activities that reduce stress rather than adding to it.
  5. Understand your brain. Try cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to see why you react to stress the way you do. According to Dr. Travis Osborne, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the Anxiety and Stress Reduction Center of Seattle, Washington, CBT involves using strategies to manage stress reactions. Skills include relaxation exercises, ranking tasks, using time wisely, and noticing and challenging unhelpful thoughts or behaviors that cause chronic stress.
  6. Take small steps. Stalling provides brief stress relief, but it makes things even worse later. Instead, Osborne advises approaching tough situations with a process called exposure. It's a step-by-step method for tackling stress triggers that make hard things feel easier to handle. "Start with tasks that generate low levels of stress and work up to confronting more challenging ones," he says.

Other stress-busting ideas? It depends on what works for you. For many people, it helps to listen to music, dance, develop hobbies and hang out with friends. Make stress-management important before it becomes a serious problem for your happiness—and your health.

Updated on June 6, 2015.


Jeanne Faulkner

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Oregon. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.