Stress gets a bad rap for good reason. Not only can stress lead to unhappiness and anxiety, but maintaining that constant state of tension can also lead to physical issues like inflammation, poor immune function, thyroid and digestive issues, and insomnia—to name just a few side effects, says Kelly Johnston, lead health coach at Parsley Health. (Which is why we need pointed stress management.)
“Chronic stress, independent of diet, exercise, and sleep, can increase cortisol and inflammation in the body, and that can lead to negative health outcomes,” Johnston tells us. While some stress is OK, chronic stress is a major health problem. And that’s why stress reduction is such an important tool. As always, at Parsley Health we focus on a functional medicine practice that aims to uncover the root cause of a health issue. If your health condition leads back to chronic stress, it’s crucial to address it. (Here is a member’s story as she describes how Parsely’s health experts helped alleviate her chronic stress.)
Stress management is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Here’s how to build go-to strategies to help find relief:
You need a personalized stress-management plan
First off, “Stress isn’t always a bad thing—but it is when it affects other parts of life,” Johnston says. If you’re seeing your health, relationship, or sleep suffer, that’s when you need to examine your stress levels and what you’re doing to address said stress. “People who are happy still experience stress, but they can better manage emotions and the stress response,” Johnston says. That’s the main goal of learning stress-reduction techniques: figuring out how to better handle anxiety-inducing, emotionally-charged thoughts.
Of course, everyone is different, so what works best for you to relieve stress might differ from your best friend or family member. It can also take some trial and error to see what works for you. But once you have your relief strategies down, you can better deal with stress as it comes, which keeps you from that chronic stressed-out state, Johnston says.
How to build your stress-management toolkit to battle chronic stress
You can think of stress reduction tactics as either active or passive coping mechanisms, Johnston says. Passive refers to those activities you might turn to in order to take your mind off your stressors. For example, going for an intense run, listening to a podcast, or reading a juicy book. And while you do need these passive strategies incorporated into your routine to get out of your own head, you also need some strategies that help you get into your head—and that’s where active coping comes into play.
“Active coping behaviors make you more inclined to manage and adapt to stress and problem solve, instead of sitting in your stress without a plan to make it less harmful,” Johnston says. You want to learn to confront your thoughts and stressors, so you learn to better deal with them over time. To help you hone more of those active stress-relief strategies, try these tips:
Create a consistent meditation practice
Research constantly backs up the idea that meditation helps to relieve stress. “The keyword, when it comes to meditation, is practice,” Johnston says. “You want to start small and build.” If you’re new to meditation, you might start with a few minutes every day or do a few short sessions multiple times throughout the day. And no matter when you do it, know that at first meditation might make you confront uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, Johnston says. But practicing more regularly will make you more comfortable as you learn to let stressful thoughts come into the mind, without attaching an emotion to those thoughts. If you need a place to start meditating, Johnston suggests the Calm and Insight Timer apps.
Follow breathing techniques
Another way to pay better attention to your mind is to focus on your breathing. Start with a box breath, which means inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, and then exhaling out for four seconds, Johnston says. “It teaches you how to actively control the biological response to stress,” she adds.
You can use journaling in a few ways to help combat stress. First, make a list of what is bothering you. Writing down your stream of consciousness will help you order your thoughts on paper, which allows you to actually face those thoughts (big or small, positive or negative). Or you can focus on the positive over the negative by writing a daily gratitude list: “This can give you a bigger connection to the things that make you calm,” Johnston says.
Find a therapist
“This is one of the best examples of how to actively confront your stress,” Johnston says. With the help of a professional, you can get to the real cause of why you’re stressed out, plus you get to know yourself and your reactions to stress. This will then help you learn to manage reactions and allow you to better adjust your worries, fears, or other stressors. Your therapist can be someone you see in-person, over Zoom, or on an app like Talkspace or Better Help.
Phone a friend
Venting can definitely help you relieve some stress, Johnston says. However, if you’re actively venting to a friend, make sure you come away with action stress management steps, namely how to address the issue (instead of just spiraling into why the situation is causing tension). Also, make sure the friend you’re venting to is someone you feel safe around and not judged, Johnston says.
Be more mindful
You can incorporate mindfulness into everyday habits, like brushing your teeth. But something that’s even more beneficial: making your movement more mindful, Johnston says. This means ditching the podcast or the playlist you love zoning out with, and instead, paying attention to what’s going on around you. So, the next time you take a walk, focus on the senses, pointing out what you see, hear, and smell.
Try habit stacking
Just like exercise, you want to meditate, journal, or practice your other active stress management skills whenever you can. But it’s always helpful to do it at the same time every day. Johnston says the morning is a smart place to jumpstart your stress-relief strategies, as breathing or meditating first thing in the a.m. will help you set the tone for the day and de-activate that stress response. It’s also smart to blend stress management into your other daily rituals. For example, when you sit down to your morning cup of coffee, do a meditation. “Attach your practice to a habit you won’t drop,” Johnston says, and that’ll help it stick.