Stress is normal – we all experience it from time to time. But it’s different for each person, and there can be a fine line between regular stress and too much stress.

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately, it’s okay – we’ve all been there. And though stress can sometimes feel isolating, you’re not alone. Stress management can be simpler than you think.

We’ll go through a few stress basics, including common causes of stress and how stress can impact your body and mental health. We’ll also go over stress relief techniques and what to do if a loved one might need some extra support.

Understanding stress is the key to relief

Stress is your body’s natural response to changing demands and pressures. It can be triggered by physical, mental and emotional factors, like problems at work or school, family issues, illness and financial worries.

It might seem strange to consider, but some stress is actually good. Stress is a biological function that exists for a reason, helping us to avoid danger. When you experience something stressful, your brain sends out neurological messages that trigger a flood of stress hormones throughout your body. The resulting stress helps keep you alert and increases blood flow.

However, too much stress can have a serious impact on both your body and mind. It can increase your risk of illness or worsen specific symptoms and diseases. Or it may cloud your judgement and even affect your overall enjoyment of life.

What might be causing your stress?

Stress can be caused for many reasons, and what causes you stress may not affect someone else. But there are common causes of stress, including:

  • Concerns about money
  • Work pressures
  • Job loss
  • Major life changes, like marriage, divorce or retirement
  • Death of a family member or friend
  • Health concerns, like injury or illness
  • Unhealthy lifestyle
  • Social media

Common symptoms of stress

Stress affects everyone’s body and mind in different ways. However, common symptoms can impact you both physically and mentally.

Ways stress can affect the body

  • Headaches
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Dry mouth
  • Teeth grinding
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Rapid heartbeat or chest pain
  • Insomnia
  • Decreased ability to fight infection
  • Excessive sweating

Ways stress can affect the mind

  • Fluctuating moods
  • Difficulties relaxing
  • Racing thoughts and worries
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of isolation
  • Forgetfulness or inability to focus

Managing stress long term

Occasional, or acute, stress isn’t something you have to worry about – some seasons of life are harder than others. But if you’re experiencing chronic stress, where you’re stressed for long periods of time, it can impact your overall health.

For example, stress can increase your risk of heart disease or worsen existing heart conditions. It can also impact gastrointestinal issues, mental health problems, and skin conditions. And for women specifically, stress can disrupt their menstrual cycle, causing period irregularity, heavier period flow and more. And men are less likely than women to recognize symptoms of stress and seek help, so it can lead to depression and other mental health concerns.

If you suspect you might be dealing with chronic stress, it could be time to visit your primary care physician. They’ll be able to help you identify symptoms and determine next steps. It's not always easy to avoid whatever situation may be causing you stress, so it’s better for your physical and mental wellness to learn coping mechanisms and how to effectively manage stress.

Six stress management techniques for healthier living

So, how do you reduce stress? It’s not like you can just snap your fingers, and everything stressing you out will disappear. Coping with stress and managing symptoms of stress can be somewhat of a skill – you have to experiment and fine-tune to see what works best for you.

Here are some simple adjustments you can make to your lifestyle that may help.

Use exercise as a stress reliever

Between working at a computer, watching TV and the countless other stationary activities we often do in a day, sitting too much isn’t great for our health.

Staying active can do a lot for your body in terms of stress management. Studies suggest exercise increases production of neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine and endorphins, which help you feel more relaxed. And it can also decrease stress hormone levels like cortisol and adrenaline. These effects produce what many consider a “runner’s high” and reduce feelings of stress.

But running isn’t the only way to experience these stress-busting benefits. Your physical activity of choice doesn’t need to be difficult or strenuous. Just going for a 30-minute walk a few times a week can help you feel more energized and improve your mood.

Establish a good sleep routine for a full night’s rest

Too much stress can affect your sleep quality, and lack of sleep can increase your stress levels. This harmful cycle builds on itself and can impact your physical and mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, adults with higher stress levels who experience less sleep are more likely to feel sluggish, disoriented, irritable or depressed.

Ensuring you have a healthy sleep routine can go a long way toward making sure you get a restful seven to nine hours of sleep per night. We recommend avoiding stimulants like caffeine, limiting screen time, practicing a regular sleep schedule and using relaxation techniques to calm anxiety before going to sleep.

A healthy diet can reduce symptoms of stress

Healthy eating can help strengthen your immune system and lower blood pressure. Eating well can help improve your mood, too. Focus on whole foods rich in vitamins C and B and healthy fats like fatty fish, whole grains, and fibrous fruits and vegetables. Although convenient, it’s best to avoid salty, sugary processed foods which can increase inflammation.

Avoid too much alcohol and caffeine

Moderation is key. Too much alcohol and caffeine can negatively affect your moods and the quality of your sleep. Studies suggest that caffeine can contribute to worsened stress and anxiety, and alcohol can increase levels of depression. Both of these conditions can worsen, but also be triggered by, stress.

Staying connected can help with stress

Social interaction is a key component of good mental health. Staying connected helps lessen feelings of isolation and decrease the effects of stress, and can give us a feeling of purpose and fulfillment. Make sure to spend time with the people you care about, even if it’s just a few hours at a time.

Use calming techniques to reduce your stress

Many people have found techniques like meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga and journaling to be beneficial when dealing with stress. These activities are based in the practice of mindfulness, which aims to distance you from stressful thoughts so you can be more present in your body.

Helping others deal with stress helps you too

You may have someone in your life who is exhibiting symptoms of stress, and they don’t realize it. Check in with them and share your concerns. They may just need someone to listen while they talk through their emotions, feelings and what they’re dealing with.

Let them know that what they’re feeling is totally valid, and that stress doesn’t have to last forever. Try to help them identify what is causing them stress, and offer them your support. They may not want solutions, and that’s fine – just knowing you’re there to lend an ear could be enough to help them stress less.

An added benefit to helping others is that it’s beneficial for you too. Research has shown that helping someone else with their needs can give you a mood boost, decrease your stress levels and improve your overall health.

Two stress relief exercises to try at home

Need a little help re-centering or reducing stress at home? Learn these two techniques you can use to find a moment of calm.

How-to: Deep breathing

Research suggests that breathing techniques engaging the diaphragm can positively affect stress levels. Deep, rhythmic breaths can signal to the body an oncoming state of relaxation, slowing your heartrate, increasing oxygen intake and helping induce a sense of calm. Let’s try it out.

  • Sit up straight with your feet on the floor and close your eyes
  • Take five slow, deep breaths. Pay attention to each one as it comes in through your nose and out through your mouth
  • Keep your mind from wandering by counting silently (example: In…2, 3, 4, 5…out…2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Repeat this process five times

How-to: Guided imagery

Guided imagery is a visualization technique that helps you re-center your mind by imagining a calm, peaceful setting. It’s known to reduce anxiety and stress and encourage relaxation. Here’s how you can get started.

  • Lean back comfortably in your chair and close your eyes
  • Take a slow, deep breath through your nose and let the air out completely through your mouth
  • Continue this breathing pattern, releasing tension with each breath
  • Imagine a feeling of warmth spreading from your lungs to your neck and head, down your arms to your fingertips, and continuing through your legs to your toes
  • Next, imagine a place that is safe and comfortable for you
  • Look from side to side at this safe, comfortable place and listen to the calming sounds around you
  • Stay in that place and continue for two to three minutes

Getting help with managing stress

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Stress management is an important aspect of both your mental health and overall health, and it’s perfectly okay to need a little help. If you need support with managing stress levels, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Together you can determine next steps and what kind of care will work best for you.