April is Stress Awareness Month, dedicated to refreshing ourselves on the signs and symptoms of stress and taking stock of its impact on our day-to-day lives.
“Stress awareness” may be more relevant this year than most. In the past twelve months, the United States has struggled through the effects of a deadly pandemic and more. As the world begins to open up a bit, we’re adjusting to another huge transition.
If you’re feeling the effects, you aren’t alone. But how can you tell if your stress has reached harmful levels?
And what strategies can you use for self-care and stress management, if it has?
Signs & Symptoms of High Stress
The symptoms of stress are as varied as the people who experience them, but high stress levels often show up as some combination of the following.
- Acne or sweating
- Depression or sadness
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Body aches and chronic pain
- Lessened immune performance1
- Overwhelm and difficulty focusing
- Increased irritability or restlessness
- Rapid heartbeat or high blood pressure
- Digestive troubles and shifts in appetite
- Sleep troubles, chronic fatigue, or decreased energy
- Muscle tension, headaches,2 teeth grinding and jaw pain
Your symptoms may vary, depending on the cause of your stress. If you’re feeling burnt out at work, for example, you may also experience things like listlessness or decision fatigue.
Assess Your Stress – Is It Too High?
There are tests and quizzes widely available online to determine whether or not you’re experiencing high levels of daily stress. But you know yourself best – if you suspect that your stress has reached a harmful point, you’re probably right.
Do you feel like you are…
- Extra-jumpy or anxious?
- Losing control over your responsibilities?
- On-edge and irritable with those around you?
- Struggling to handle everything on your plate?
- Reacting more strongly than usual to surprises or things you weren’t expecting?
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, then you’re probably dealing with an increase in stress.
Effective Strategies for Self-Care & Stress Management
When we think about “self-care,” we might envision spa days or vacations abroad, full of photos in a perfect palette of Instagram-worthy colors. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with splurging on those things if and when you can!
But grand gestures aren’t required for true self-care. In reality, much smaller daily actions are what can keep your stress under control. After all, when you get home from that vacation or step out of the spa, it’s your routine and regular old responsibilities that are lined up to greet you!
Incorporate small, sustainable changes into your everyday routine, and set aside time a few times per week for some of the bigger commitments.
1. MOVE YOUR BODY
Let’s get the big one out of the way first: nothing manages stress quite like exercise.3 In our busy lives where more and more takes place in front of a computer screen, moving our bodies is often the first thing to be neglected. But regular exercise lowers our levels of the stress hormone cortisol and releases endorphins that lift our spirits. Remember, the “best” exercise is the one you’ll do – so find something you like and see yourself sticking to, if you haven’t already.
2. USE AROMATHERAPY
We know how strong the olfactory sense can be, so it should come as little surprise that aromatherapy can be effective in the treatment of stress, depression, and even sleep.4,5 Consider running an oil diffuser at your desk during the day, or even sprinkling drops of essential oils onto your pillow at night.
Lavender, rose, and chamomile are popular options for stress relief. (If you have pets, take special care to make sure you’re choosing scents that are non-toxic for them when diffused.)
3. DRINK ENOUGH WATER
Hydration is the most important part of keeping our bodies working optimally – and it’s the part we most often overlook in favor of caffeine! The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends as much as two to three liters of water per day in adult women and men, respectively.6 Make this easy to track by filling up two or three one-liter water bottles and working your way through them every day.
4. PRACTICE JOURNALING REGULARLY
By now, you’ve probably heard of gratitude journaling and the much-touted magic of writing down daily what you’re grateful for. This may or may not be appealing to you – but there is evidence that using a journal to process your feelings can serve as a genuinely useful outlet for managing your stress.7 Take a few moments at some point in your day to either scribble in a physical journal, or download an app like Gratitude or Reflectly.
5. CONQUER PROCRASTINATION
Let’s be honest: we’re not helping our own stress levels by getting caught in cycles of procrastination. In fact, as unfinished tasks pile up higher and higher, our stress is likely to compound. But there are many reasons we procrastinate – from boredom to overwhelm and even mental health disorders like ADHD.8 So if simply buckling down and regularly tackling that to-do list seems like a difficult mountain to climb, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You aren’t alone!
Originally a Buddhist ideal, the concept of mindfulness has grown in popularity over the past few decades. In its truest form, mindfulness is a pure and simple focus on the present moment. Because stress is a state of mind in which we’re usually focused on all of the must-do’s and future possibilities, mindfulness is the perfect antidote.9
Build a few moments of silence and calm into your day at various points. Sit quietly and focus on taking deep, slow breaths to settle and refocus your mind. And if you need a little help getting started, apps like Calm or the UCLA Mindful App are options for guided meditations.
7. FOCUS ON STILLNESS WITH RESTORATIVE YOGA
A regular yoga practice comes with a lot of benefits – fitness, flexibility, and even stress reduction. Restorative yoga, in particular, uses the power of stillness in a practice where poses (or asanas) are held for longer periods of time. The practice has been shown to reduce muscle tension and stress.10 Find a local class near you (many studios are offering virtual classes until it’s safe to be in person again), or check out YouTube for a variety of free videos like this one by Sarah Beth Yoga.
8. SPEND TIME WITH OTHERS
Your support network is crucial in times of stress, so set aside time regularly to connect with loved ones. Be mindful, though, of the effect certain people may have on you – you want to spend the most time with friends or family members who display healthy habits and ways of coping with their own stress. Set boundaries with those who make you feel more nervous or anxious.
And don’t forget – “loved ones” also includes pets! Studies have shown that petting our furry family members can increase happiness for you both by causing the release of oxytocin,11 a hormone commonly associated with love.
9. LISTEN TO SOOTHING MUSIC
The sounds we hear can have a big impact on the way we feel. When you can, plug into a soothing playlist while you work, run errands, or exercise. Sure, this can just be music you really like – or it can be music like “Weightless” by British trio Marconi Union, created with the help of neuroscientists and sound therapists to reduce anxiety by as much as 65 percent.
10. SET APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES
The difficult truth is that all of the mitigation strategies in the world won’t be truly effective if you’re constantly bombarded by stress or filling your day with things that sap your energy. As much as you can, work to remove yourself from unhealthy situations and learn to say “no” to obligations you simply don’t have the capacity for.
This is a great place to enlist the help of a mental health professional who can help you identify your priorities and set appropriate boundaries.
Consider sketching a few different routines ahead of time, for periods when your stress is light, moderate, or more intense. This can help take the pressure off and relieve the added stress of decision-making when you’re already feeling tense and overwhelmed.
Check In Regularly
No matter what route you take, it’s important to make time to check in with yourself regularly. Keep your loved ones in the loop and ask them to be especially mindful of helping you stay on track and not stressed to the max.
Whatever you do, don’t go it alone! Reaching out to others or enlisting the help of a therapist or clinical psychologist can make a world of difference in managing your daily stress levels and engaging in effective self-care.