Managing stress is about intentional self-care
With the inevitable demands of every day life, the majority of people experience some degree of stress. Sometimes this can be a good thing, because a small dose of stress can be just the pressure you need to overcome daily challenges or push you forward toward your goals.
However, when stress becomes persistent and unabated, it leads to negative consequences that can harm your physical, mental, and emotional health.
This is called chronic stress, and it creates problems such as heart disease, obesity, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure (just to name a few).
Without intentional, consistent self-care, this type of stress will wreak havoc on your life and create strain on your relationships.
So, how do you find relief and create balance?
I’m here to tell you that you can most definitely alleviate stress in your life and minimize anxiety with a few simple steps. The key is being intentional, consistent, and willing.
Whether you’re struggling with stress in your finances, relationships, or career, practicing self-care and healthy habits will help you cope better with whatever heavy burdens you’re carrying.
In this post I’m going to lay out 6 steps to include in your own personal stress management plan. Each step is actionable and practical, and will help you control your stress levels when life seems out of control.
But first, I need to address the most important part of handling stress. Your mindset.
You have control over your thoughts
I get stressed out often. About parenting, money, the future, my marriage. I start thinking I’m responsible for solving every problem, and then I feel overwhelmed and depressed.
But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 50+ years, it’s that everybody’s going through something.
When you feel like life is out of control, it’s easy to believe you’re the only one going through it. You think reaching out for help will only burden other people, since everyone else has their life together. You might even think that nobody will understand, and that you have to go through it alone.
This is your brain lying to you.
Wherever you go – to the grocery store, Starbucks, the library, church – just look around you. Every person you see is going, or has gone through, a difficult situation. Everybody is experiencing stress to some degree.
This is life. There are the good parts, and then there are the bad parts. It’s all part of the human experience, and we need both to understand and appreciate each.
The difference between those who are pulled under and those who push through rests in how each responds to circumstances.
Because, believe it or not, we all have control over our thoughts and feelings. We can each choose how we will deal with what’s been dealt.
We could choose to worry, to stress, to be anxious.
Or we could choose to check out, be apathetic, and stay ignorant.
Or we could choose to engage with openness, knowing there’s always a lesson, yet not letting the situation overwhelm us.
I believe this is the best option, and in this post I want to tell you how you can face life’s challenges while also managing your feelings in a healthy and compassionate manner. You can control your feelings by creating and practicing your own stress management plan.
It’s all about self-care, and the habits you can develop to manage stress.
Don’t ignore your stress
Most people don’t feel stress when it begins, and then ignore it when they do. This can lead to high levels that are difficult to manage and create serious health issues.
The goal with using the tactics listed below is to deal with stress as it arises. Don’t wait until you’re overly stressed out. This is the difference between preventing health issues from developing and having to treat them after they’re established.
If you implement these practices on a daily basis, then you will always be prepared to deal with stressful situations, and the effects of stress on your body will be minimized.
These 6 stress busters are some basics of self-care, but if practiced consistently, will help you manage stress and anxiety effectively.
The 6 strategies in the stress management plan outlined below are taken from the book Best Self: Be You, Only Better, by Mike Bayer.
Step 1: Mindful breath exercises
Mindful, rhythmic breathing has long been known to be a calming technique that helps you stay grounded and present. There are various ways you can do this exercise, but I’ll explain the one Bayer writes about in his book.
When you become aware that a stressful thought has entered your mind, you can do something to disrupt that thought.
A good way to do that is by changing your breathing pattern. This will prevent that thought from getting bigger and out of control.
To change your normal breathing pattern, take 3-4 deep, long breaths in and out.
Focus on your breath while you do this. Don’t rush. Center yourself on what it feels like and sounds like. This exercise will disrupt negative thought patterns or feelings while it slows down your heart rate.
Make this breathing exercise a part of your daily routine to lower any residual stress or anxiety that’s building up. Don’t wait until you feel stressed. It’s important to be proactive so you keep it under control.
You can create your own breathing exercise that works best for you. Be flexible with the duration, the location, the time of day, etc. Figure out a practice you’ll stick with, then connect with your breathing at least once a day.
Step 2: Physical exercise
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and be proactive with your mental health. Just 30 minutes a day adds so much benefit to your long-term physical health, while chemically “resetting” your brain.
The best exercise you can do is the exercise you’ll *actually* do. So, find something that you enjoy and will commit to at least 5 days a week.
Don’t overthink exercise.
You don’t have to do all kinds of research on the perfect exercise that will get the best results. Gardening, golf, and hiking are all beneficial forms that will keep you active and your brain healthy.
If you think you don’t have time to exercise, then you’re too busy. Get up 30 minutes early, cut out a TV show or two, or give up social media for a half hour each day.
When you fit exercise into your life, you keep stress levels low and your brain working at optimal levels. It’s a critical step in your stress management plan.
Step 3: Take time to celebrate
I’m totally guilty of being an Eeyore. If there’s something in life to be sad or worried about, I’ll find it. I’ll even go looking for it. It’s like I feel comfortable there or something.
But, focusing on the clouds instead of the sunshine can really keep you in a funk. Problems seem to get bigger, until they fill up your entire head space and you can’t think of anything else. This does not help with stress.
A good way to change your perspective is to get in the habit of celebrating the little things in life.
The big things are a given, but they don’t happen very often. The little things happen every day, they’re just harder to find.
Once you open yourself up to the *expectation* of finding and receiving joy in your daily life, you’ll experience it in the most unexpected places. By being intentional with what you focus on, you can train your brain to choose joy instead of worry.
So, turn your joy radar on every morning when you wake up. Look for and fully embrace every ounce of goodness in your life.
Be sure to do things that *bring* you joy – like walking in nature, singing loud in the shower, or volunteering at an animal shelter.
You don’t need to passively wait for something to happen just to have a celebration. You can have your own personal celebration every day, as you reflect on the positive aspects of your life.
Joy and thankfulness provide therapeutic benefits that can help you keep stressful situations in a healthier perspective. So start celebrating!
Step 4: Get good sleep
When my daughter was in the hospital, she had a hard time with sleep. The nurses talked about “sleep hygiene“, which I’d never heard of before.
Basically, they told her that our bodies don’t always want to shut down for the night just because our pajamas are on. Sometimes we have to make certain changes to our evening routine to prepare our bodies to fall asleep.
For example, looking at phones, laptops and television right before bed can keep our brain active and unable to go to sleep. Of course, drinking caffeine close to bedtime or taking long naps during the day will also disrupt a healthy sleeping pattern.
We might think that a bad night’s sleep will just cause us to be a little extra tired the next day. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Without a proper amount of sleep, our brains can’t function well. Just “being tired” turns into a loss of focus, poor memory, and slower reflexes.
If you practice poor sleeping habits continually, you can develop a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, or even high blood pressure.
In other words, sleep is vitally important to your brain’s health! So, make it a priority to figure out how you can consistently get the best sleep for your body.
Do a little experimenting to determine how many hours of sleep is optimal for your physical and mental health. Some people only need six, others need more than eight. Try various durations and be mindful how you feel the next day.
Your body will let you know when you’ve had too much or too little. Find the amount of sleep that leaves you feeling alert and energized throughout the following day, then be consistent with getting that much every night.
Also be mindful of your behaviors throughout the day and right before bedtime that might be disrupting your sleep. Cut off the caffeine and turn off the screens well before you go to bed. Be aware of the foods you’re eating at dinner, as well as how close to bedtime you’re eating.
And finally, think about your sleep environment and how your surroundings affect your sleep. Consider the level of light, sound, and temperature. Even the feel of your sheets can help you sleep better.
Be purposeful about your sleep hygiene, and create your own routine for bedtime. You’ll find that you’ll be more clear-headed and less stressed out during the day.
Step 5: Limit technology
It’s hard to imagine life without a cell phone these days, yet I didn’t have one until about 10 years ago. Now, it’s like an extension of my hand. It’s the one thing I always have with me.
I used to think it was so cool to spontaneously check my email, respond to texts, jump on Facebook or do a Google search any time I wanted, with just a few clicks. When something popped in my head, I could stop what I was doing and get a little brain breather.
The trouble is, finding a distraction became too easy. I had 8 different options right in my hand. I didn’t even have to get up and go find a book or the tv remote. I was saving time! And energy! I’m just going to take like 10 minutes …
Technology went from unusual to ubiquitous in less than a decade, and it’s left our brains constantly being interrupted with dings and buzzes and texts and emails and messages. This split focus keeps us from focusing on one activity for any length of time.
When your brain isn’t given periods of time to calm down and rest, you’re limiting your ability to handle stress in your life.
Your stress management plan must include periods in the day when you’re not connected to technology. When your mind can slow down and take a break. When you can spend time in extended, relaxed thought without interference. You might want to meditate or pray during this time.
This will probably feel weird at first, and you may feel like you’re breaking some crazy addiction (you might be!). But commit to unplugging daily, and you’ll soon realize the benefits.
Step 6: Connect with your happy place
As a mom of 3 kids, I’ve always struggled with self-care. I’m notorious for putting my needs or wants last, and making sure everyone around me is happy instead. But, if you can relate, you know this leads to all sorts of problems over the long-term.
When you don’t take time to do things that you enjoy – activities that are fun and relaxing for you – then you’re not maintaining the emotional balance necessary to deal with stress.
We all have different activities that we think are relaxing. Some may think riding a bike does the trick, or going on a nature walk. I enjoy reading in a comfy chair, or going to the movies.
I also think walking through a misty forest would be the bomb. Or sitting on a yacht out on the ocean. Trouble is, I don’t have a forest or a yacht.
But, the good news is that I can still connect with those experiences mentally, and achieve a sense of relaxation. All I have to do is engage my imagination.
Use this visualization technique in your stress management plan to connect with your happy place whenever you want:
- Find a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted, and tune out all your thoughts as much as you can.
- Breathe deeply and slowly, slowing your heart rate down.
- Close your eyes and imagine doing something or going somewhere that makes you feel happy and peaceful. Maybe you’re riding on a horse through a meadow, or walking through the Louvre in Paris. Just pick something that is relaxing to you.
- As you stay as still as you can, stay in this place as long as you can. Other thoughts will enter your mind, but imagine a breeze blowing them away. Your goal is to achieve a state of peaceful relaxation.
- When you’re ready, open your eyes. Take some deep breaths, and smile. Aahhhh!
Taking the time to connect with what relaxes you – whether it’s a physical activity or one in your imagination – will help you strengthen your stress management system.
Make this a daily practice so you can develop a mental baseline that is calm and relaxed.
Get control with a personal stress management plan
All of these strategies are about minimizing your baseline stress level. When you consistently keep your stress levels low, you’re better equipped to handle high stress situations when they arise.
Don’t let stress control your thoughts and emotions. When this happens, problems get blown way out of proportion and your health suffers.
Manage your stress with intentional practices, so you stay in control.