Stress isn't always a bad thing. Momentary stress provides the shot of adrenaline that can help you escape dangerous situations.
But when stress becomes a constant part of your life, it can wreak havoc on your health. In the short-term, it can cause headaches, body aches and stomach aches, and prompt you to pick up some unhealthy coping habits.
Over the long-term? It can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
That's why behind exercise and nutrition, stress is the thing members ask Regence Health Coach Beth Thompson for help with the most.
Here are her suggestions for tackling stress.
1. Identify what's causing the stress
Thompson notices an uptick in concerns about stress in the fall, when the season changes and people can't get outside and exercise. But the causes of stress vary from person to person, from anxiety about work to personal or family issues.
"We really work to define where that stress is coming from," Thompson says. "Is it a stress they have control over, or is it stress they don't have control over?"
If the cause of stress is controllable, Thompson advises putting energy into making healthy nutrition choices and exercise.
If the cause of stress is beyond your control, such as uncertainties at work or rising gas prices, put energy into learning how to control your response. (For a few strategies, see below.)
2. Use this muscle relaxation tip
Ever wanted to relax, but just couldn't? Your mind might be ready to release stress, but your body is still holding on to it.
One way to help your body let go of tension is with a technique Thompson uses herself before going to bed. Try this next time you feel like you can't relax:
- Find a quiet place to lie down, such as in bed or on a sofa with your eyes closed.
- Shift all attention to your toes. Slowly tense the muscles and hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Then release the tension.
- Shift attention to your legs, and slowly tense the muscles again, holding for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Release your muscles.
- Work your way up to your head until you feel that every part of your body is loose and more comfortable.
3. Try breathing meditation
Research continues to document the benefits of breathing meditation for stress, anxiety and depression. It's been shown that even 5 minutes of breathing meditation can reduce your heart rate and help you focus.
Breathing meditation is a great way to calm down and recharge at work. If you have a private office, close the door and take a short meditation break. Even if you don't have a private office, try to get away from what you are doing for 5 minutes to breathe deeply and refocus, Thompson says.
Don't focus on clearing your mind. Focus on your breath. Here are Thompson's breathing meditation tips:
- Sit in a relaxed position and slowly inhale through your nose, breathing in as much as possible.
- As you breathe, let your abdomen expand outward rather than raising your shoulders. You can put a hand on your abdomen to check that you are breathing correctly.
- Hold for 5 seconds.
- Release the air as slowly as possible through your mouth.
- While exhaling, don't drop your shoulders. Instead, let your abdomen draw back in toward your spine.
4. Swap out unhealthy coping methods
Alcohol. Cigarettes. Caffeine. Junk food.
All are common ways many of us cope with stress, but all can make stress worse and lead to serious health problems.
Thompson works with many members/clients who are trying to develop healthier ways of coping with life's ups and downs.
"You don't want to feed your gremlin," she says. "It is hard, because it's a habit, and you've been doing it for so long that it provides comfort."
When you get the urge to reach for a drink, candy bar, cigarette or yet another coffee, take 5 minutes to do something else instead. Go for a quick walk, pick up a book or try some breathing meditation (see above).
If you still have the urge, find a healthier option, Thompson recommends. Reach for a piece of fruit or a veggie, instead. A nice, soothing bath can help, too.
5. Know when to seek more support
Sometimes healthier habits aren't enough and you need professional help from a counselor.
Here are some red flags that Thompson looks for in members:
- Lasting grief that interferes with regular life.
- A history of anxiety. Sometimes, working toward health and wellness goals brings up memories of past situations that create a stress response.
- Signs of depression and hopelessness, expressed through comments like, "I just can't go on another day."
Stress is unavoidable in life, but by changing the way you respond to stress, you can lead a healthier, more balanced life.