Ways to Manage Stress

Prior to learning ways to manage stress, particularly harmful stress, it's important to understand what stress is.

Definition of Stress

Stress is a reaction to any demanding or threatening stimulus that interrupts our physical and/or mental balance. It can trigger a “fight-or-flight” response that causes hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge throughout the body. It's part of life.

There are positive stressors such as going off to college, moving, starting a new job, purchasing or building a home, holidays, or getting married. In many cases, however, failure to cope with stress accounts for more than 75 percent of doctor visits. Sources of stress may include your job, relationships, illnesses, noise, heat or cold, finances, physical pain or discomfort, poor nutrition, or weather.

No matter the source of stress, it is a powerful influence on health and fitness.

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Stress is cumulative over days, weeks or months. A vicious cycle may develop such as an inability to sleep because of any of the above factors. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep is not only a stressor, it is also a symptom of stress. The combination reduces the ability to recover from daily stressors in our lives. Stress may cause headaches, which are stressful in themselves.

People who are chronically stressed are frequently ill or have other health problems; and because they tend to push themselves, they maintain even higher levels of stress.

Physical Effects of Stress

There are three types of stress: physical, chemical, and mental-emotional.

Physical stresses are strains or exertions on the body such as exercise or pain. 

Stress may also be caused by chemicals in the environment that can affect your immune system, heart rate, and breathing. Too much sugar, a vitamin deficiency, caffeine or side effects from drugs are also forms of chemical stress.

Mental and emotional stress affects your learning, perception, and decision making. The emotional state involves things such as pain, or moods (anxiety or depression), and decreased motivation. Stress may be caused by internal factors such as worry, negative self-talk and thinking. 

Environmental factors such as weather can increase your stress levels.

Stress can increase your heart rate, cause your stomach to feel knotted up, lose energy, create sensitivity to light, induce asthma and allergies, reduce sex drive, lead to heart disease, create memory and digestive problems, impair judgment, and increase depression. Stress has been linked to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers. 

Signs of stress may include cold or sweaty hands, heartburn, diarrhea, increase or decrease in appetite, feelings of being overwhelmed, suicidal thoughts, nightmares and disturbing dreams, nervousness, fidgeting, irritability, reduced productivity, constant fatigue, erectile dysfunction, and increased substance abuse. 

High cortisol levels encourage the body to burn more sugar than fat, so belly fat tends to become an issue for overly-stressed individuals.  

Not all stress is bad; but it is stress none-the-less. In an emergency, stress can be life-saving – giving you a surge of strength, speed, energy, and focus. However, chronic stress can occur when the levels of cortisol and adrenaline do not return to a normal state, and every system of the body can be adversely affected if these levels are maintained.

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Issues Related to Managing Stress

When the body is stressed, it releases cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenal glands. Unless these chemicals are reduced, high and prolonged levels can become dangerous. 

Many people whose adrenals are over-worked experience sugar and caffeine cravings, and may fall asleep easily but wake in the middle of the night with difficulty getting back to sleep. 

Anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants don’t address the root of the problems; therefore, the real culprit causing the problem (stress) goes untreated.

The good news is that there are ways of coping with stress before it becomes chronic and destructive. It is important to consider ways to manage stress such as those noted below. 

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Ways to Manage Stress

The list includes such a wonderful variety that it's easy to incorporate one or more of them into your lifestyle.

  • The most important factor for adrenal recovery is rest. Set aside time to relax and recover. Exercise, particularly aerobic, is a great way to improve adrenal function. 
  • Breathe. Deep breathing dissipates cortisol so your body works for you and not against you. Hint: breath in deeply to the count of 3, hold for the count of 3, and exhale for 3; you can use the 3-count pattern to breath in through one nostril and breathe out the other, then alternate.

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  • Learn to react differently to stressors by counting to 10 before speaking or simply walking away.
  • Massage Therapy
  • Manage your thought life. Self-regulate by thinking about what you're thinking about. Thoughts produce what you say and do. 
  • Keep a positive attitude.
  • Learn to say “no,” and don't feel guilty for doing so
  • Positive self-talk – statements such as: “I can do this.” “It could be worse.”
  • Stop worrying about the past or future – live in the present moment. Learn from the past, and embrace good memories. But, if you have regrets in your past or if it hurts to think about certain things -- remind yourself that you don't live there anymore.
  • Listen to non-stimulating music.
  • Talk to someone about what is bothering you.
  • Find your passion and do what you love.
  • Work on things within your control and don’t spend time or money on things that you can’t.
  • Do something that you enjoy.

  • Improve your diet by eliminating hidden sugars and too much caffeine.   Always eat breakfast that is high in protein but not filled with refined carbs and sugars. Avoid processed foods and eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, protein and healthy fats (especially omega-3s).
  • Keep a sense of humor, smile, and laugh often. These things release beneficial chemicals.
  • Meditate and pray.
  • Manage your time such as planning enough time to get where you are going so you aren’t rushing.
  • Set healthy boundaries with people and realize that worrying is not the same as caring.
  • Rather than worry about finances, create a budget, pay bills on time, and maybe not eat out as often.
  • Connect with others.
  • Engage your senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement).  Put on some good music, use some aromatherapy, get a pet.
  • When you make mistakes, stop beating yourself up over it. I love this Einstein quote. “I haven’t failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • Worship. A recent Vanderbilt University study of 5,000 people found that 64% of those who regularly attended a place of worship were less stressed; and those who never attended were significantly more stressed and likely to have health problems.
  • Consider using a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets are known to calm anxiety and encourage deeper relaxation.

Coping With Relationship Stress

Relationship stress, such as caregiver stress, divorce anxiety, a family feud, etc..., can affect your cardiovascular health.  Here are some suggestions for dealing with these forms of stress.

  • Because you can't rid yourself of all relationships, seeking healthy relationships can be stress buffers.
  • Talk to your doctor or other health professional for more personalized care.
  • Resort to healthy coping strategies, rather than responding to stress by smoking, drinking, or overeating.
  • Find stress outlets such as yoga, meditation, exercise, and a support system of friends and family members.
  • Take care of yourself -- sometimes you don't have to put everyone else first.

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The content of this website is for informational purposes only and not intended to be taken as a replacement for professional medical advice, care, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, dietitian, physical therapist, nutritionist or fitness instructor.


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