How to Deal With Stress: 14 Ways to Cope, From Experts
Feeling particularly anxious? There are right ways and not-so-right ways to get your stress under control—here's how.
How to deal with stress
You’re not born knowing how to deal with stress. Instead, you slowly learn over time what does and doesn’t work for you—mostly.
While stress is a normal part of life, it’s still tough to live through. And sometimes you get thrown curveballs you haven’t deal with before. While some research has shown that short bursts of stress can be good for you, a new study out of Ohio State University and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that dealing with persistent, long-term stress (like that from a toxic boss or from caring for an elderly parent) can actually change your genes, leading to an increase in inflammation that can bring on a variety of health issues.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to learn how to cope with stress the right way. Also, it’s nearly impossible to fully banish stress from your life. “Over the course of a lifetime, everyone will be confronted with various types of stress,” Monifa Seawell, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta, tells Health. “Because of this, it’s important to develop healthy ways to manage stress.”
These are the best, expert-backed ways to de-stress right now.
Research indicates that the vitamin D boost from sunlight may elevate your levels of feel-good serotonin. And there’s something about being in nature that’s just good for your mental health. “Being outside is a time-tested and research-supported way to reset your emotional balance,” Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety, tells Health. “Not just a change of scenery, and an opportunity to leave our personal spaces, being outdoors can be a great way to manage stress and anxiety.”
Can't get outside? A Washington State University study published in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture found that when plants were added to the workspace, subjects exhibited a lower systolic blood pressure. Basically, they were less stressed.
Exercise may be the healthiest stress-buster: It revs your body's production of feel-good endorphins, helps regulate your sleep, lowers the symptoms associated with mild depression, boosts your energy, and helps you remain calmer and more focused—all of which can go a long way toward stress management.
While it's easy to let a daily exercise routine slide when you're overwhelmed, take steps to incorporate it into your day—pick an activity you love and will look forward to, enlist a buddy to motivate you, or schedule it into your calendar like any other task—and you'll soon understand why it's a critical part of any stress-management plan. “Over the moderate to long term, it will help you feel more fit and energized, and thus better equipped to take on the challenges that come your way,” Craig Smith, PhD, associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, tells Health.
Stick with a routine
Whether it's taking a bath before bed, listening to your favorite playlist on the commute to work, or walking the dog to the park down the street every morning, in times of stress it helps to turn to a comforting routine. (A consistent routine also helps you sleep.) “For some people, this helps because you’ll have less idle time to sit around and ruminate about the things that are stressing you,” Dr. Seawell says. “The key is to create a reasonable schedule and one that includes breaks, time for fun activities, time for meals and time for sleep so that the schedule itself doesn’t become another source of stress.”
Do something with your hands
Do you ever get that never-ending loop of negative thoughts and what-ifs playing in your head? That's because stress likes to mess with your mind. A surefire and fun way to get out of your head is to engage in activities that put the focus on your hands or body (think kneading bread, sketching a picture, knitting a scarf, or climbing a rock wall), Kathleen Hall, a health educator and the founder and CEO of the Stress Institute, an Atlanta-based facility that offers programs on stress management and work-life balance, tells Health. As your hands and fingers begin to fall into those familiar rhythmic moves, it sends a signal to your brain that immediately relaxes you and makes you feel grounded. So immerse yourself in a creative, engaging activity and get ready to press the mute button.
Connect with your spiritual side
For centuries, religious groups and native tribes worldwide have used prayer beads to guide their spiritual practice, and research shows that spirituality might boost happiness in times of stress. Buy a set of prayer beads or make your own, suggests Hall, and then create a positive affirmation or mantra that resonates with you. (No need to be religious—you could even use your fave inspirational quote.) Then, next time stress hits, repeat your affirmation as you work your way around and touch each bead. "The more you go around, the more you'll experience a sense of power and detachment from the source of anxiety as your brain switches into a meditative cadence," explains Hall.
Visualize yourself calm
Find a quiet space, close your eyes, focus your breathing, and transport yourself to your happy place for a few minutes each day. Research from the University of California, Los Angeles shows your body actually produces less of the stress hormone cortisol when engaging in guided imagery. There are plenty of books and articles written on the subject if you need help getting started, but the most important thing is to find a comforting and calming image that works for you (a beautiful blue ocean might be totally relaxing to one person, but a nightmare for someone who's afraid of water).
Take a bath
Water has an innate soothing effect on the mind and body since it connects us back to our time in the womb, says Hall. Schedule a regular time to soak in the tub. Further your bliss by pairing your bath with aromatherapy candles or bath beads. Pick a scent that smells best to you or go for lavender or jasmine, both of which possess stress-reducing properties.
Make gratitude a regular practice.
Several studies have revealed the positive effects of expressing gratitude. While studying brain activity, National Institutes of Health researchers found subjects who showed more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that has a huge influence on our stress levels. Plus, gratefulness also activated the regions associated with dopamine, one of those feel-good neurotransmitters. To reap these stress-reducing benefits, write down your feelings of gratitude daily in a journal, or by sending little notes to friends or family letting them know how much you appreciate them.
Watch your vices
Drowning your stress in a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes might bring a release in the moment, but turning to unhealthy vices like drinking, drugs, smoking, or too much caffeine only sets you up to stress out more once the high wears off, says Clark. “Sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can all exacerbate stress and therefore should be consumed with caution, especially if you are feeling a lot of stress,” she adds.
Since these habits tend to increase the negative impacts stress is already having on your body (raising your blood pressure, making you jittery, keeping you awake at night to name just a few), you enter into a vicious cycle of feeling more stressed out and then returning to the vice over and over.
Get enough sleep—but not too much
The thought of hiding away under the covers sounds pretty great when there's so much to deal with beyond your bedroom door, but sleeping too much isn't the answer. Research shows that the more you sleep, the more tired you actually feel. Plus, studies that have shown an association between chronic oversleeping and diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and even higher rates of death (though it's unclear if too much sleep causes these problems). Adding health problems to your already heavy load is only going to exacerbate your stress levels. That said, too little sleep can make stress worse, too. “When you are tired and depleted, things look worse and less manageable than when you’re rested,” Smith says. The sweet spot to aim for, per the National Sleep Foundation, is between seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night.
Confront your problems
While it's normal to take a mental time out once in a while to watch a funny movie or meet a friend for lunch, consistently avoiding the stress in your life is counterproductive. “Tuning in rather than turning away from stress is one of the best ways to understand, and therefore manage stress,” Clark says. The more you ignore something—whether it's a concrete problem like paying off bills or an emotional one like the fear of losing a job—the greater it's going to get. Your best bet is to reach out for help and make a plan of action that will eventually diminish your problems and alleviate your stress.
You may not know the word for it, but odds are you’ve ruminated in the past.
“Rumination typically consists of recurring thoughts focusing on how bad things are, and how they will never change,” Smith explains. “Focusing on how bad things are, and about how they will never change, produces feelings of depression, and those feelings of depression promote more rumination.” The key to stopping rumination is to be able to recognize that you’re doing it in the first place. If you ruminate a lot, it can take some practice to stop, but taking a deep breath in the moment, trying to think about how you’ll view this stressor in the future, and talking to a trusted friend can all help, Smith says. If it still doesn’t do the trick “a counselor training in cognitive behavioral therapy may be able to help with this,” says David Klow, licensed marriage and family therapist, founder of Chicago's Skylight Counseling Center and author of the book You Are Not Crazy: Letters from Your Therapist.
Try a different perspective
If you make a mistake at work, do you assume you're going to get fired? Have a fight with your partner and worry the relationship may be over? It's not uncommon to jump to worst-case scenarios when dealing with an upsetting issue, but blowing things out of proportion only intensifies your stress. "When we're feeling stressed it's very easy to view ourselves in a negative light," Christy Matta, a dialectical behavior therapist and the author of The Stress Response, tells Health. To soften your inner negativity, she suggests looking at things from a different perspective. Talk to yourself as if you were offering advice to your best friend and odds are you'll have much more compassionate and positive things to say.
Pay attention to your eating
Like alcohol or drugs, food often becomes a crutch when coping with difficult times. Soothing your pain with high-calorie, high-sugar, or high-fat comfort foods feels good at first, but it can quickly spiral out of control when your mind and body begin to associate negative emotions with eating. At the first sign of stress, anger, or sadness you'll instinctively reach for food rather than dealing with the feelings at hand. Overeating can also make you feel bloated and sluggish—and that’s not going to do your mental health any favors, Smith says. Instead, he says, focusing the bulk of your diet on “reasonable portions of healthy food” can help you stay clear-headed so you can better tackle the stressors ahead. And, Smith adds, if you happen to have some junk food in the mix, it’s OK—just as long as it’s not your go-to when you feel frazzled.