By Jennifer Larson
You’re probably no stranger to stress.
A recent Gallup poll found that eight out of 10 Americans report feeling affected by stress “frequently” or “sometimes.” Only a small 4% reported that they were immune to stress.
But what do you do about your stress? How can you manage it, especially if you’re on a budget and can’t afford to drop a load of cash on a luxury vacation or regular spa getaways?
“The best way to keep the impact of stress at bay is to take proactive steps to manage it daily,” says Kristen Fescoe, clinical program manager for Resility Health.
As we embark upon Stress Awareness Month, which takes place each year in April, consider these 10 strategies. They might help you, and they won’t cost you anything:
Look outside. Sometimes you just need to take a few minutes to gaze out the window and rest your eyes and your mind. “Find a spot that allows some sunlight while you are doing your work, and spend some time looking out the window for any interesting birds, flowers, or trees blooming that you might not regularly notice,” says Carrie Bailey, NCC, PPSC, LPC, a faculty member for Walden University’s MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.
Take a walk. Sometimes, the act of physically getting up from your desk or the couch and moving your feet can help you get away from your worries, too.
Meditate. Spending a few quiet moments to focus and try to clear your mind can make a big difference in helping you feel calmer. “This can be as simple as downloading a free meditation app and meditating for 10 minutes in the morning to get centered before the day,” says Rebecca Cowan, PhD, LPC, NCC, owner of Anchor Counseling & Wellness in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Some people also find that prayer is helpful for similar reasons.
Breathe deeply. Try belly breathing. This is a technique in which you take slow, deep deliberate breaths. Start by putting your hand on your belly. Then, inhale slowly, taking the air in through your nose, and watch as your belly rises against your hand. Release the air slowly through your pursed lips. Repeat several times.
Exercise. Regular exercise can alleviate both short-term and long-term stress. Carve out some time each day to get some exercise. And you don’t have to go to a fancy gym. You can go for
a walk or a run, jump rope, or ride your bike. If you’re really pressed for time, don’t skip the exercise, though. Just do a short series of jumping jacks or other calisthenics, just to get your blood moving. “Physical activity also regulates hormones, decreasing the amount of adrenaline produced within the body, which can help control levels of anxiety,” says Grand McDonald, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Clarity Clinic in Chicago. “Another bonus to physical exercise is the release of endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters that improve our mood, also helping to control levels of anxiety.
Write down your worries. Joseph Tropper, MS, LCPC, a counselor with Core Wellness in Baltimore, Maryland, suggests getting out the pen and paper. “This clears your mind and gives you a place to dump its content,” he says. After you write down all your worries, you can start sorting them into categories and figuring out how to address them, one by one. Pro tip: “If you are really stuck, start with the shortest and easiest one, and just do it,” says Tropper.
Play some music. Turn on a favorite upbeat tune and have a short dance party. Or play some relaxing music at low volume in the background while you work, do chores or tackle other tasks. If singing along releases some tension, by all means: let it go and belt it out.
Set technological boundaries. The constant pressure of keeping up with an incoming stream of emails, texts, and social media posts can raise your stress levels alarmingly high. Tina Williamson, a mindfulness teacher and founder of Mindfulmazing, suggests designating a specific time (or several times, if need be) to check all your messages--and then put your phone away after you do it. Unsubscribe from unnecessary email lists and turn off notifications. “Clear out the clutter, to make room for the necessary,” Williamson says.
Get enough sleep. If you’re stressed, you may not be sleeping very well, which compounds the problem. Try addressing some basic sleep hygiene issues to see if that helps. “Create a consistent bedtime and wake time,” says Ginger Houghton, LMSW, owner of Bright Spot Counseling in Farmington Hills, Michigan. “This is crucial to getting great quality sleep.” Keep your bedroom a little cooler than you might normally keep it, and banish your tablets, laptops and smartphones from the room so you can make it a sanctuary for sleep.
Make a gratitude list. When the stress is creeping up, and you feel the tension in your neck and shoulders or maybe even your stomach, stop. Think of three things that you’re grateful for. You can do this any time of the day, actually. “This change in mindset assists you in focusing on all that you have to be thankful for, as opposed to the annoyances you have encountered,” says Amanda Petrik-Gardner, LCPC, a counselor in Topeka, Kansas.
Watch out for the junk food. Gorging on candy or other sweets may give you a short-term fix, but you might feel worse later on, which might add to your stress levels. “A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure,” says McDonald. If you can get into the habit of preparing your foods in advance, either on a daily or weekly basis, it may help you stick to your goal of eating healthier, too.
If none of these tips work for you, however, it might be time to seek out some help. A counselor or another mental healthcare professional can help you assess your specific needs and develop steps to reduce your stress levels.
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