Physician’s assistant Ben Tanner lives alone. During the pandemic, he’s spent much of the time at home, working online. Because he was unable to get away from work, he soon found himself fixating on insignificant details. Little by little, his anxiety increased and he began struggling to sleep at night. Then he took a break over Thanksgiving weekend, during which he realized that he had had no idea how badly he had needed a respite. After four days away from his job, “there was an almost palpable contrast as the constant analysis and overthinking faded away,” he says. “I felt like I had a renewed perspective that made it easier to decide what mattered and was worth working on and what didn’t.”
We all feel stress from time to time. It’s a healthy and natural part of life. But sometimes stress piles up, lasts too long or becomes too intense, and starts to wreak havoc on our lives and bodies.
“Stress, if left untreated for some time, causes a variety of health problems, such as mental health problems (anxiety, depression), heart disease and other physical health problems, such as lowering the immune system and making us prone [to] colds,” says Tanner.
If you’re feeling extra stressed, here are some ways to reduce the strain through an in-the-moment break or building positive daily habits. There are anti-anxiety meds, too, but they can bring on their own problems (see our article Anti Anxiety Meds: Options, Side Effects and Alternatives).
Whether or not you use anti-anxiety medications, you can reduce situational stress in the moment or chronic daily stress with the strategies below. If this approach isn’t enough, or if you think your stress may be a symptom of an illness or a side effect of medication, then it may be time to see a doctor.
In the Moment
- Perspective shift: The first thing Lydia Antonatos, MS, LMHC, tells her clients who are dealing with stress is to try reframing their thoughts. “Viewing stress as an acceptable emotion or as a tool is effective in reducing many of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with it.” She suggests that her clients consider stress a trigger to help motivate them to find solutions to problems.
- Breathing exercises: Breathing exercises have been used for centuries to help people relax, focus, improve lung function and even to treat illnesses like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
If you’re feeling stressed and want to relax, you can do some of the easiest exercises in just a few minutes. Here are two examples to try:
Box breathing: Box breathing is a simple breathing exercise. Breathe in for a count of four, then hold your breath for a count of four. Next breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four and repeat for a few minutes. You can use this exercise any time you feel overwhelmed.
4-7-8: Ceppie Merry, a physician with a PhD in pharmacology says, “I use this [technique] daily to reduce my overall stress and then as required if I come up against anything very stressful.” To do it, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven and then breathe out for a count of eight. Repeat four to eight times. Some experts believe that this technique can also help you fall asleep.
- Essential oils: Scott Antoine, DO, says you can use essential oils to help relieve stress, by rubbing a few drops between your palms or breathing the scent in by using a diffuser. Scientists don’t know if the oils have a direct chemical effect on the brain, if they work by evoking emotions and memories or if they are just encouraging mindfulness as you focus on the scent. Some doctors suggest that certain scents, like lavender and lemon, can help you relax.
Managing Stress for the Long Term
If you’re feeling stressed daily, it’s important to consider if you’ve had recent changes in your life. Have you started a new medicine? Many drugs can cause anxiety. Have you recently taken on a new job or lost a loved one? Have you been through a big move or a breakup? It’s normal to feel stress during times like these. Stress caused by the changes listed above should be temporary; using the tools in this article may help. If stress lasts for a few weeks or more, reach out to a professional.
- Physical exercise: Exercise is known to improve mood in the short term and doing it regularly can help mitigate some of the negative effects of chronic stress. It lowers levels of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that are elevated when we are stressed. Just about any type of exercise can help, but the best is the one you look forward to and will continue doing. Exercise can also help boost confidence and improve sleep, both of which can ease the negative effects of stress.
- Diet: While stress can often lead us to reach for comfort foods that contain little nutritional value, research suggests that maintaining a diet made mostly of fruits, vegetables and lean meat for a few weeks can help improve your mood. A larger study from 2017 supports those findings, suggesting that a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with a decreased risk of depression.
- Sleep: “Sleep and stress are intimately related,” says sleep specialist Chris Norris. “Sleep deprivation can increase stress levels, and stress can also eventually affect sleep quality.” If you’re having trouble sleeping, then exercising and avoiding food a few hours before bed can help. At bedtime, consider listening to a guided meditation, which can help clear your mind. Additionally, Scott says that “magnesium is very helpful for sleep, and most people are magnesium-deficient.” He recommends magnesium baths or supplements, which can help with stress. Scott warns readers to read labels and “make sure you’re getting something [a supplement] that’s pharmaceutical grade and third-party tested, because a lot of supplements aren’t.”
- Meditation: Many doctors and therapists recommend mindfulness meditation. Meditation is not about stopping the mind from thinking, but becoming a silent detached observer of it. The American Psychological Association suggests that mindfulness meditation can help treat stress, anxiety, depression, pain and more.
To start, place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach while breathing deeply enough that you feel each hand move. Focus on the breath for at least five minutes. It’s okay if your mind wanders. Just refocus on your breath. Guided meditations are also available on apps and YouTube.
- Address triggers: One of the best ways to manage stress is to deal with it at the source. Set boundaries with people around you and communicate them clearly. During the holiday season, we are often tempted to spend more money than we normally would. Setting a budget in advance can help. “People have a tendency to overspend,” says Scott, during the holidays. “A sure ticket to having anxiety in the new year is getting your credit card bill when you overspend.”
When to See a Doctor
Sometimes all the healthy habits you can muster just aren’t enough. If you find that stress is interfering with your daily life, you should reach out to a healthcare professional. Scott also emphasizes that “there are certain illnesses that make us feel stressed, and we do see anxiety as a side effect of a lot of medications.” Any time you think you’re having a reaction to a medication, you should call the person who prescribed it right away.
More subtle signs that it’s time to speak to a healthcare professional might be that you start feeling irritable and are snapping at friends or family in ways that you normally wouldn’t, says Tanner. Your muscles may often be tense or feel painful. Additionally, you can start getting sick with colds or have trouble sleeping.
If you have health insurance, try calling the company for a referral to a mental health professional. Many offer telehealth services. You can also find therapists online; Psychology Today has a database you can search using your location.
If you or a loved one is in distress because of the pandemic or any other natural or manmade disaster, call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in English and Spanish.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the confidential toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in English and Spanish.