Stress works like this: your body perceives a threat and it tenses up and sends blood and energy to places like the heart, muscles, and digestive system in order to protect you.
But if your central nervous system doesn’t ever calm down, then symptoms like increased heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure don’t always go away. This can have a negative long-term effect on your health.
But does stress always have to be the enemy? What if we reframed stress like this: stress is helping me be stronger. Stress energizes me to face a problem. Stress makes me a better athlete. What would that feel like?
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted to find out. In their seminal 2012 study, researchers compared 1998 health data from the National Health Interview Survey with data from 2006 and found that people who experienced chronic stress and believed the stress took a toll on their physical health were 43% more likely to experience premature death than those who experienced stress but didn’t think it negatively affected their health. Researchers believe this is because if we have a negative outlook on stress, then we internalize that physically.
Reframing stress as helpful versus harmful can literally change the way we physically and mentally handle stress. Essentially, try saying “bring it on” instead of “shut it down.”
That being said, sometimes we bring unnecessary stress into our lives and need to cope. Here are a few techniques to help manage stressful situations.
Tips for managing stress:
- Take your weekends and lunch breaks seriously: when we let ourselves recharge, handling stress becomes easier. Try bringing a magazine to read on your lunch break, not eating at your desk, or going for a walk. On the weekends, treat your time off as a mini-vacation. Try new restaurants, explore a new part of town, or go to tourist sites you normally wouldn’t visit. Taking a break from screens and work can help you feel less distracted during the day and more relaxed.
- Move: we all know that exercise is great for your physical and mental health. One way to harness stress reducing techniques during exercise is through mindfulness. When you slow down and pay attention to what’s around you, it helps your brain settle. There are a series of five to 20-minute guided walking exercises in the Calm app or try this guided meditation from UC Berkeley.
- Eat well: commit to cooking for yourself at least once per week. The act of cooking has been shown to increase happiness, plus home cooked meals are generally healthier for you than restaurants. Here’s an easy weeknight recipe we recommend trying that’s simple to improvise based on what you have at home.
- In a bad mood? Listen to music: Music can be an instant mood booster and help you deal with stress and pain. If you already listen to music, switching up what you listen to has been proven to help make your workouts better and provide cognitive benefits. It’s even been used as part of a treatment plan for people with coronary heart disease.
- Try progressive relaxation: the idea behind progressive relaxation is that when you physically relax, you feel calm. Here’s how it works: choose a muscle group, like your thighs, and then contract those muscles for five to 10 seconds. Then, relax the muscles slowly. Wait another 10 seconds and proceed with another muscle group.
- Declutter: when your things pile up, so can your stress. Make sure that your desk is clear or try wiping down your counters every night before going to bed. A clean space can often help clear your mind.
- Care for others: attending to someone else’s needs has been found to decrease stress levels. Small acts of kindness, whether it’s making a donation, volunteering, or checking in on a friend, can help you feel better. Volunteering is often integrated into therapy plans for people who have experienced PTSD.