Life is full of challenges that cause stress and anxiety, but it’s important to develop your own system of stress management in order to prevent those feelings from becoming a chronic issue that impacts your health or quality of life. And while you can’t always control the circumstances you find yourself in, you can change the way you respond. Here are a few of the most effective strategies for overcoming both short-term and long-term stress.
Find a Distraction
One of the simplest ways to break out of a cycle of stress or anxiety is to find a way to temporarily distract your mind from the problem. However, simple distractions can have their own risks. While binge-watching episodes of a new show or playing games can provide a helpful dopamine release that will lower your stress levels, relying on those behaviors too often can make them less and less effective over time, eventually ingraining habits that might end up interfering with your day-to-day life.
Instead, try to find “complex” distractions that keep your brain occupied while encouraging mindfulness. Working on puzzles, reading a challenging book, or doing a virtual tour of an art museum are all examples of behaviors that will distract you from the source of your stress without the risk of becoming negative ingrained habits that you have to deal with later. Or even try making some art yourself. According to research conducted by Drexel University, 75 percent of the participants in a stress study showed measurably reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol after 45 minutes of making art, regardless of skill or experience.
Lay Out Your Priorities
Stress compounds when tasks start to pile up, and it can create a domino effect of missed deadlines, poor time management, and stalled progress. It doesn’t help that the modern world has created an environment where many people bring work home with them, always at the ready for a phone call, an email, or a new assignment that needs to be handled right away.
That’s why it is crucial to establish your priorities and organize your work around them, ensuring that you have the energy and mental bandwidth to tackle the tasks that actually matter. By separating your goals into what must be done versus what you would like to get done, you can focus on completing the most stressful work first. As a bonus, the feeling of accomplishment you get from finishing a major task will often give you the extra push you need to get your other work done.
Exercise is as important for your mental and emotional health as it is for your physical well-being. Clinical trials have proven exercise to be an effective tool for combating everything from anxiety disorders and depression to acute stress.
There is a simple neurochemical explanation for why exercise works: not only does it reduce levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in your bloodstream, it also stimulates the production of endorphins, a natural mood-elevator that induces feelings of relaxation and even euphoria.
If the prospect of spending time at the gym doesn’t appeal to you, the good news is that even simple aerobic exercise, such as taking a brisk walk or riding a bike, can trigger the same stress-busting chemical response. And if you’re stuck at a desk, some simple stretches and deep-breathing exercises can help dissipate stress before it has time to settle in.
Practice Problem Solving
Focusing on the problems or challenges you are facing can take a heavy toll on you both mentally and physically, which is why one of the keys to banishing stress is to learn how to solve problems in a more productive way. Though it might sound counter-intuitive, the best way to do this is not by thinking about the problem itself, but rather by focusing on the solution. Try brainstorming multiple potential solutions, no matter how outlandish they might seem in the moment, and then think backward from those solutions to each obstacle that you’re facing. You might be surprised to find unconventional strategies that work better than a more straightforward approach.
Visualizing the solution instead of the problem also aids in stress reduction by providing positive reinforcement, while dwelling on problems can lead you to feel roadblocked or overwhelmed. By subconsciously recognizing that the problem can be solved, your brain is much more likely to arrive at a workable solution.
Write it Down
Stress often causes people to view their problems with tunnel vision, which can easily lead to cycles of repetitive thinking and an inability to think outside of the box. Writing about the source of your stress can help you re-frame those problems and see them from a different perspective, giving you insight and clarity into the situation.
There are multiple ways to approach this strategy: for a more complex or technical problem, it might be helpful to “diagram” the issue and identify as many of the obstacles and factors playing into your stress as possible. Some people find keeping a journal to be an excellent tool for collecting their thoughts and venting in a healthy way, while others prefer a “hot pen” exercise that involves setting a timer and writing whatever thoughts come to your head about the topic without stopping until the timer goes off.
Ask the Important Questions
Stress is not always a rational response, and there are times when it can be very helpful to ask yourself some questions and challenge where those feelings are coming from and why you feel them.
Is the problem something that you actually have control over? Does it even have a solution? Will worrying about it make things any better? What are the likely consequences even if the worst-case scenario happens? Simply having a clearer, more objective view of the source of your stress can sometimes be enough to make it more manageable, or at least provide a new perspective to approach the source of your stress.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but when it becomes overwhelming or threatens your mental or physical health, it needs to be addressed in a productive way. By spending a few minutes each day applying these strategies, it’s possible to develop an effective stress management system that can help you overcome the day-to-day challenges that life throws your way.