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.

Let’s talk through a few stress basics, including how stress can impact the body, how to manage it and what to do when you might need some extra help.

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, the brain sends out neurological messages that trigger a flood of stress hormones throughout the 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.

Common symptoms of stress

The ways in which stressors affect the body vary for each person – we’re all different. However, common symptoms can impact you both physically and mentally.

Ways stress can affect the body

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • 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

Coping with stress long term

Occasional stress isn’t something you have to worry about – some seasons of life are harder than others. But if 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 to cause period irregularity, heavier period flow and more.

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.

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.

Get regular physical activity

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 sleep routine

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.

Embrace a healthy diet

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. We recommend 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.

Reach out for social support

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.

Explore calming techniques

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.

Two stress relief exercises to try at home

Need a little help re-centering? Here are 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 our 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 stress relief

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.