If there’s one thing that unites us all, it’s stress. Everyone experiences stress on some level in their lives, and most of us deal with it on a daily basis. But is stress really all that bad? And if so, are there effective ways of preventing it?
According to Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a licensed clinical psychologist, stress is a normal part of life. In fact, when we’re in a situation in which we need to perform, such as a work presentation or sports competition, Gilliland tells SheKnows that a little bit of stress improves our performance.
With that said, when healthy stress crosses over to worry and anxiety, it becomes harmful. Dr. Moira Fitzpatrick, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows that harmful stress occurs when we experience fear, muscle tension and a sense of “I can’t do this,” which is very different from healthy stress that helps us feel pumped up, energized and excited.
How to recognize your triggers
Regardless of how Zen-like your life is, you will experience stress — and often. That’s why it’s important to know how to recognize your triggers. Stress is initiated by a variety of triggers, and we don’t all experience the same types. For example, Fitzpatrick says you may experience physiological triggers, such as a lack of sleep, missing meals or changing time zones.
Social triggers include conflict in your relationships, feeling lonely and lack of support, she adds. You may also have work-related triggers that include consistently working long hours and difficulty getting along with your boss or colleagues. And then there are financial triggers, which Fitzpatrick says are intricately related to work and manifest as fear of not being able to pay your bills.
Finding ways to cope with your stress is dependent on you observing your thoughts and feelings. “We have to turn the switch on and start paying attention to what type of thoughts we are having and what our reaction is when we are around certain people and situations,” Gilliland explains.
It’s also critical to pay attention to the times when you’re calm and relaxed and the times your stress level tips over and starts to become worry and anxiety. “Most of the time, we can start to find patterns to our worry and anxiety,” Gilliland says. Once you know your patterns, you’ll be in a place to develop appropriate coping mechanisms.
"Stress can create body tension and physical changes like muscle aches and headaches,” Doctor On Demand board-certified adult psychologist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi tells SheKnows. You can also look for patterns to your stress. For example, Benders-Hadi says if you notice you tend to get more irritable after interacting with a particular person or at a specific time of day, focus in on what may be triggering you in those moments. Again, this will help you develop effective coping strategies to manage stress.
Ways to cope with stress
Of course, not every strategy will work for everyone, but here are a few suggestions of ways to cope with stress from our experts:
1. Engage in daily exercise
“Exercise is key to moving energy, tension and emotion to prevent stagnation and to support each of us in being present,” explains Fitzpatrick. Exercise can help you connect to pleasure just like when you engage in another activity that brings you joy, and you'll start looking forward to physical activity.
2. Take time each day to focus on your breathing
Fitzpatrick recommends carving out three minutes three times a day to focus on your breathing. You can simply be more mindful of your breath or you can practice a specific breathing technique. One is three-part breathing, which requires you to take one deep breath in, and then exhale fully while paying attention to your body.
3. Surround yourself with people who are calming & understand you
When you have people in your life you can feel at peace with, be yourself and just relax, Gilliland says you will feel more settled — especially when you’re stressed.
4. Plan ahead when you know stress is coming your way
When you know a situation is going to be difficult, Gilliland says to start with a plan and gather a little bit of information about the situation or place that makes you anxious. “When you have a plan, it helps to settle your mind because you know you have some things you’re planning on trying so that your stress doesn't overflow and become anxiety and worry,” he explains.
5. Remove yourself from the stressor
While this may seem obvious, it’s often a coping mechanism that gets ignored. “The best way to cope with stress is to remove yourself from the situation and take the necessary time to ground yourself,” explains Benders-Hadi. You can accomplish this by taking a walk or just closing your eyes to gather your thoughts in order to stay in control, she adds.
6. Eat regular meals
Fueling your body with healthy foods throughout the day can help you avoid stress. Fitzpatrick says to eat regular meals with a focus on whole foods such as fresh organic vegetables and fruit; protein such as fish; and moderate amounts of chicken, turkey and lamb. Have fruit with nut butter, a protein bar or drink or hummus and veggies for a snack.
7. Give extra attention to your nighttime ritual
If you tend to rush around right up until bedtime and then crash, you might want to carve out some extra time to wind down at night. Fitzpatrick recommends an Epsom salt bath at night to wash away the day and relax. She also says to make it a priority to get seven to eight hours of sleep.
8. Make time in your day to do the things you enjoy
Contrary to what you may think, you do have time every day to focus on you. The key is to be intentional about how you carve out the time. Fitzpatrick suggests writing time into your schedule to engage in activities that feed your soul.
When should you seek professional help?
If the daily stressors you’re experiencing begin to turn to excessive worry and anxiety, it might be time to talk with your doctor about seeking professional help. A licensed psychologist or therapist can work with you to develop strategies to cope with the thoughts and feelings that are triggering your stress.