14 Effective Ways to Protect Yourself Against Chronic Stress
Stress is a good thing.
I know that sounds ridiculous, but consider the following…
A gazelle is feeding. It sees a hungry lion. Automatically its pupils dilate. The gazelle is breathing faster and its heart is pumping in overdrive. Thanks to a sudden burst of energy, the gazelle is able to run away from the lion and into safety.
This phenomenon is called the stress response (aka the flight-or-fight response). All animals, including humans, respond this way when faced with imminent danger (stressors). And without it we would never have made it this far as a species.[i]
So if our body’s stress response is such as life-saver, why is it that we always hear stress can lead to chronic disease, weight gain, and worse?
Glad you asked.
You see, our bodies cannot distinguish between life-threatening stressors (a hungry lion, for example) and symbolic stressors which are non-life threatening and include being late for work, speaking in public, worrying about making mortgage payments, and more. Your body reacts to these stressors the same way it responds to being chased by a lion.
Feeling like you are being chased by a hungry lion day after day, week after week, month after month throughout the year is not a healthy thing. Yet that’s the situation the vast majority of us find ourselves in. We suffer from chronic stress. And this type of continued, excessive stress can wreck your body.
The bad news is that stress is an inescapable feature of our modern life. Thankfully, there are ways that you can protect yourself against it. And today I’m going to give you 14 techniques that will help you relax and achieve a level of peace you probably thought impossible.
But first, let’s see how stress damages the body.
7 Ways Chronic Stress Can Wreck Your Life
Stress affects both the body and the mind. Let’s look at some of the ways stress can affect your daily life.
Stress Can Ruin Your Sleep
When stressed, you either get too little or too much sleep. Aside from messing up the quantity of sleep, stress can also affect the quality of sleep. If you’re too stressed, your risk for insomnia is increased by 19 percent. And it can turn into a vicious cycle. You can’t sleep because you’re stressed and you’ll get even more stressed because you’re not getting enough sleep.[ii]
Wreck Your Emotions
Stress can suck the humor out of you. What’s hysterical to others will seem plain and boring. You may become irritable, jumpy, easily frustrated, overwhelmed, and jaded.[iii]
Spoil Your Concentration
Stress heightens your senses and makes you concentrate more – initially. THEN, these initial effects wear off. Suddenly, you’re no longer able to concentrate.[iv]
Make You Lose or Gain Weight
Weaken Your Immune System
Stress weakens the immune system.[vii] According to the American Psychological Association: “For stress of any significant duration – from a few days to a few months or years, as happens in real life – all aspects of immunity went downhill. Thus long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system.”
Diminish Your Willpower
According to author Kelly McGonigal, PhD, “The biology of stress and the biology of willpower are simply incompatible. So any time we’re under chronic stress it’s harder to find our willpower. The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making. Stress also encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind.”[viii]
Contribute to Your Risk of Life-Threatening and Debilitating Diseases
Prolonged stress can make any disease you can imagine even worse. Here are the 10 most significant of them:
- Heart diseases
- Depression and anxiety
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Accelerated ageing
- Premature death[ix]
Now, don’t get too stressed about getting stressed. The key to victory is to know the enemy. Let’s find out more about stress.
What Exactly is Stress?
Here’s a head scratcher, stress is a highly subjective term that defies definition.
In 1936, Hans Selye first used the term stress. He observed through several animal tests that lab animals respond similarly to unpleasant stimulus such as loud noises or blaring light. Selye was the first to demonstrate that persistent stress can lead to disease.[x]
It’s important to distinguish between stressors (things that cause us stress) and our stress response (how we react to these stressors).
The 10 Most Stressful Jobs of 2015
CareerCast rated the top 10 most stressful jobs of 2015.
According to Stress.org:
Selye struggled unsuccessfully all his life to find a satisfactory definition of stress. In attempting to extrapolate his animal studies to humans so that people would understand what he meant, he redefined stress as “The rate of wear and tear on the body”. This is actually a pretty good description of biological aging so it is not surprising that increased stress can accelerate many aspects of the aging process. In his later years, when asked to define stress, he told reporters, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.”
A more useful definition of stress would then be the whole interaction between stressors and stress response.
Let’s now take a look at the causes of stress and how you can prepare yourself to minimize the impact of these stressors.
7 Causes of Stress
Mike Bundrant listed 7 things that make us stressed[xi]. Understanding these stressors can help us deal with them better.
- That Critical Voice Inside Your Head – There’s a voice inside your head that constantly reminds you that what you’re doing may be wrong. Sigmund Freud called this the super-ego. We can’t silence this voice but we can learn to live with it.
- Toxic Relationships – A study involving 10,000 subjects with each one followed for an average of 12.2 years discovered that those who are in negative relationships were more likely to develop heart disease compared to those who are in non-negative relationships.[xii]
- Self-Sabotage – This is different from #1. In self-sabotage, you know what’s good for you but you do the exact opposite. You rationalize and make-up excuses that you know all the while aren’t true. And you do this again and again.[xiii]
- Inner Conflict – Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. It’s why you can’t decide. You want one thing and you want the opposite too. So you pass off making the decision and you feel helpless. Indecisiveness can consume a good part of your emotional energy which could have been spent more productively.[xiv]
- Inner Passivity – Inside every one of us is a battle between inner aggression (the super-ego) and inner passivity (self-doubt and subordinate ego). It blocks creativity, purpose, confidence, and other functions of our intelligence.[xv]
- Autopilot Thinking – You’ve probably experienced driving home and not have any memory of how you got there. It happens to most of us. Scientists attribute this to what they call Default Mode Network (DMN)[xvi]. The brain, it turns out, is on “standby mode” when we’re resting. There’s continuous background chatter. This standby mode consumes 20 times more energy compared to when we’re actually engaged in activities.
- Physical Imbalance – When you’re stressed, you tend to neglect eating right and engaging in healthy activities. And when you don’t eat healthy, you deprive the brain of the nutrients it needs to function properly and you easily get stressed resulting in a vicious cycle.
The good news is that there are things you can do to fight back stress and to protect yourself against it. Let’s dive in and find out about these powerful tools for managing stress.
14 Natural Ways to Manage Stress
It’s called stress management because it’s simply impossible to totally eliminate stress from our lives. And that’s not too bad. In fact a little stress can be good for you. Too much stress is what we want to avoid. [xvii]
Let’s talk about how you can manage stress so you don’t have to deal with too much of it.
#1 Be Assertive
Being assertive is a style of communication. It’s somewhere in the middle of being passive and being aggressive. It means being able to effectively express yourself while respecting others’ point of view.[xviii]
In communication, delivery is as important as the message. If you come off as too aggressive or too passive, you risk sending the wrong message.
The Passive Mode of Communication
When you’re passive, your tendency is to avoid conflict. So you just say yes all the time. This sends the impression that your own feelings and ideas aren’t important. In essence, you’re giving other people permission to ignore your wants and needs. Always saying yes can lead to internal conflict and more stress.
The Aggressive Mode of Communication
The opposite, being aggressive, isn’t very healthy either. It may appear that being aggressive is the ticket to getting what you want but it comes at a steep price. Aggressiveness undermines trust and respect and it often backfires.
Another communication style you want to avoid is being passive-aggressive. When you complain behind others’ backs instead of confronting the issue directly, you’re being passive-aggressive. Just like aggression, passive-aggressive behavior often leads to lost trust and respect.
The best way to communicate if you want to manage stress better is to become assertive. Mayo Clinic has the following tips to help you develop an assertive communication style:
- Figure out your style. You can only make changes once you’ve figured out what your current style is.
- Start using “I” statements. Instead of saying “you’re wrong” say “I disagree”.
- Learn to say no. You don’t always have to explain why you decline. But if you decide to explain your reason, keep it brief. Simply say, “No, I can’t do that now.”
- Practice what you want to say. This is particularly helpful if you find it hard to articulate your thoughts. Practice with someone role-playing as the person you want to talk to.
- Project an assertive body language. Look confident even if you aren’t. Assertive body language includes:
- Making regular eye contact.
- Maintaining a neutral or positive facial expression.
- Avoiding dramatic gestures.
#2 Learn to Deal with Conflict
Conflicts naturally arise and developing your conflict resolution skills is a must to manage stress better.
Conflict itself often isn’t the problem. It’s how we handle it.
To handle conflicts more skillfully, stress management expert Elizabeth Scott, MS recommends the following:[xix]
- Focus – don’t bring up past conflicts however related they may seem. Digging into the past can only muddle the current issue. You’re looking for a solution, not trying to prove who’s wrong or who’s right.
- Truly listen – effective listening means not interrupting or getting defensive. Hear the other person out and acknowledge what they said by repeating it back to them in your own words. When you truly listen, you may be surprised that they, in turn, are more willing to listen to your side of the story.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – No it won’t be easy. And it seems counter-intuitive. But the more you understand the other party, the easier it will be for you to explain your side. When you empathize, it would be easier for them to be open to what you have to say.
- Don’t get defensive with criticism – criticism is very difficult to hear. Our natural instinct is to dismiss them as exaggerated and unfounded. Try to respond with empathy to their criticism. There’s possibly a grain of truth to what they’re saying and that can be valuable information for you.
- Own up – personal responsibility is not a weakness but a great strength. Admit your faults. It’s often the case that both parties involved have a share in the conflict. By taking personal responsibility, you are setting a good example. It’s a step closer to resolving the conflict.
- Compromise – again, you’re not trying to win. You’re looking for a solution that can make everybody happy.
- Take a break – emotions can often get in the way. If this happens, take a break and cool off for a while before resuming talks.
- See it through – You take a break but then you come back and continue when you’re ready. Don’t give up.
- Use “I” statements – assertiveness plays an important role in conflict resolution. “I statements” sound less accusatory and don’t prod the other person to be defensive. “I feel stressed when this happens” is easier to take than “You stress me out.”
#3 Learn to Communicate Effectively
Trying to put your thoughts into words can be doubly difficult when you’re under stress. And when you grasp for words, your stress is multiplied.
Jonathan Dugger from Rich Dad Education[xx] has the following tips about dealing with stress while communicating:
- Acknowledge that you are stressed.
- Calm down before proceeding.
- Use your senses. Think about a soothing experience.
- Use humor to diffuse the situation.
- Learn to compromise.
- Agree to disagree.
#4 Learn to Manage Your Time
We all have a finite amount of time. But there’s so much we want to do. Time is never enough. Like anything worthwhile in life, learning to effectively manage time is not easy. The rewards, however, are truly worth it.
Psychologist Jeffrey Janata, PhD, recommends monitoring how we spend our time for a few weeks. We have to figure out if we have a time management problem or if there’s just too much load than we can realistically bear.[xxi]
Donna M. White, LMHC, CACP has these 6 tips to manage your time better.[xxii]
- Use a checklist. They’re super simple and effective.
- Set deadlines. (And meet them!)
- Quit multi-tasking. You’ll be more productive when you focus on one task at a time.
- Delegate. You may be very good at what you do but you can’t do everything yourself.
- Make the best of downtime. You don’t have to stress about maximizing every minute of your life. But you can use time waiting, for a doctor’s appointment, for example, to create, say, grocery lists.
- Reward yourself. Rewarding your productive behavior reinforces it.
#5 Build Your Social Support Network
Close friends and family who you know will always be there when you need them can go a long way to helping you manage stress. Some social support networks have regular meetings and a formal leader. But it’s not necessary.
The idea is to develop relationships that you nourish during times when you’re not stressed. A chat with your neighbor, a coffee break shared with a friend at work, a phone call to a loved one. All these help develop lasting relationships that can help you during bouts of stress.[xxiii]
Aside from helping you against stress, a social support network has been shown to help people live longer.
#6 Focus on the Positive
Yeah, I know. Glass half-empty, glass half-full. You’ve heard it all before. But there’s a reason you’re always hearing this. It’s because it works. We’re not really sure yet why it works but it does.
While we don’t know the ”why”, positive thinking’s effects have been observed by researchers and they include:
- A longer life
- Lower rates of depression and distress
- Better resistance to colds
- General well-being (physically and psychologically)
- Reduced heart disease risk
- Resilience to stress
#7 Be Thankful
Simply being grateful – you know that thing we do once a year during Thanksgiving – can make you healthier if you practice it throughout the year. Psychology professor Robert Emmons points out that thankful people are more likely to take care of their health. Being thankful is a powerful antidote against stress and it’s been shown to boost the immune system.[xxv]
To develop being thankful, Emmons suggests:
- Keeping a gratitude journal. List all the things you are thankful for at least once a week.
- List the benefits in your life that you often take for granted.
- Be kind when you talk to yourself.
- Reframe a situation. Look at it at a different angle and highlight the positive.
#8 Stop and Smell the Roses
Life would be infinitely less stressful if we just take the time to slow down. Toni Bernhard JD has 4 tips for slowing down to reduce stress.[xxvi]
- Double the time you allot on a task. For example, if you estimate you can finish a report in 3 hours, allot 6 hours to the task. You can avoid burn-out and actually enjoy accomplishing the task by taking it slow.
- Consciously perform tasks in slow motion. Slowing down by 25% can have tremendous helpful benefits.
- Stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. This counteracts the “flight-or-fight” response that cause us stress. You can do this by:
- Breathing through your stomach.
- Visualizing a relaxing scene.
- Lightly running two fingers over your lips. (Bernhard swears this works.)
- No multi-tasking. Multi-tasking can be a hard habit to beat. If you’re a hardcore multi-tasker, it may take some time to focus on just one task at time. But it can be done.
#9 Use Humor
It’s no joke. Laughter is an excellent defense against stress.[xxvii]
When you laugh, you take in more oxygen which stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles. It also helps the brain release more endorphins – the feel good hormone. Laughter can leave you feeling relaxed.
It also has long-term health benefits including an improved immune system, pain relief, increased personal satisfaction, and improved mood.
#10 Develop Your Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is how you evaluate yourself. Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D. puts it this way:
Low self-esteem is a negative evaluation of oneself. This type of evaluation usually occurs when some circumstance we encounter in our life touches on our sensitivities. We personalize the incident and experience physical, emotional, and cognitive arousal. This is so alarming and confusing that we respond by acting in a self-defeating or self-destructive manner. When that happens, our actions tend to be automatic and impulse-driven,we feel upset or emotionally blocked, our thinking narrows,our self-care deteriorates, we lose our sense of self,and we focus on being in control and become self-absorbed.[xxviii]
And that’s stressful.
The good news is that self-esteem can be raised. Stanley Gross has a few tips on raising our self-esteem.
#11 Learn to Cope with Your Fear and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are intertwined. They overlap. The main difference between stress and anxiety is their cause. With stress, you are fully aware of what’s making you stressed. With anxiety, we don’t always know what’s causing it.
Anxiety and stress are distinct feelings. Stress is about being frustrated and being nervous. It’s about tension (emotional or physical). Anxiety, on the other hand, is the feeling associated with fear, unease, and worrying.[xxix]
The University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality & Healing has the following tips to cope with fear and anxiety:[xxx]
- Face your fear head-on. Avoiding fear makes fear more powerful.
- Develop a sense of personal control. Focus on the things that you have power over.
- Be positive.
- Rediscover a sense of purpose. You’re here for a reason.
- Talk to family and friends. (Social support group, remember?)
- Take a hike. The combination of exercise and being close to nature works wonders.
#12 Mind Your Spiritual Health
You don’t have to be religious to experience a sense of spirituality. A lot of people find spirituality in believing in a higher power, in observing religious practices, and in prayer and meditation. For others, spirituality is being one with nature, enjoying music and art, or by being part of a secular community.[xxxi]
Different strokes for different folks.
But the benefits are the same. The following are the benefits of maintaining your spiritual health according to Mayo Clinic:
- A sense of purpose. You’ll have a clearer sense of what’s important and thus spend less time on unimportant things.
- Being connected to the world. When you have a purpose in this world, you’ll feel less lonely even when you’re alone.
- Release of control. You realize that there are a lot of things that are out of your control.
- An extended support network. Being part of a group increases your social circle. You are no longer limited to just family and friends.
- Better overall health. Those who are spiritual-minded tend to cope with stress better, heal from illnesses faster, and come out of addictions faster.
#13 Learn to Relax
Sitting in front of the TV isn’t exactly an effective relaxation technique. Sorry.
The following are techniques that stimulate the relaxation response in our body to counteract the effects of stress.[xxxii]
- Deep Breathing Meditation – It’s easy to learn and you can do it anywhere. Just try breathing from your stomach.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – is a two-step relaxation technique. You focus on one part of your body, your right foot for example, and then tense the muscles and then relax them. You then move on to other parts of your body up to your head tensing and relaxing that part as you go.
- Body Scan Meditation – just like progressive muscle relaxation, you focus on specific parts of the body. But instead of tensing and relaxing each part, you simply observe the sensations of each body part.
- Mindfulness for Stress Relief – mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment experience and has been proven to be very effective against stress.
- Visualization Meditation – it’s basically employing all your senses to imagine a scene in which you can let go of all the tension and anxiety.
- Yoga or Tai Chi
Massage sessions help too. And also, having a pet.
We all know that exercise is good for us. It’s just that we don’t have enough time to do it. Or we don’t have the willpower. Or we’re too stressed.
Too stressed you say?
I have good news for you. All forms of exercise can go a long way in managing stress.[xxxiii] Here’s how:
- Remember endorphin? The feel good hormone? Yep. Physical activity makes you feel good.
- It helps you focus. Mayo Clinic calls exercise “meditation in motion”.
- Regular exercise improves your mood.
- Find a workout buddy, this helps you stay more enthused in getting and staying active!
We live in a 24-hour society where stress is. If we want to flourish in this kind of society, we have to learn how to manage stress better.
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[ii] 5 Ways Stress Wrecks Your Sleep (And What To Do About It), Lindsay Holmes, The Huffington Post, Published September 17, 2014, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[ix] 10 Health Problems Related to Stress that You Can Fix, R. Morgan Griffin, WebMD, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[xiii] Beating Self-Sabotage: Recognizing and Overcoming It, Mind Tools, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[xviii] Being Assertive: Reduce stress, communicate better, Mayo Clinic, Published May 15, 2014, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[xix] How To Improve Your Relationships With Effective Communication Skills, Elizabeth Scott, M.S., About.com, Last Updated December 16, 2014, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[xxi] How Does Time Management Help Reduce Stress, And What Are Some Tips To Manage Time Better?, Jeffrey Janata, Ph.D., ABC News, Published December 22, 2008, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[xxiv] Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress, Mayo Clinic, Published March 4, 2014, Retrieved February 16, 2015.
[xxxi] Spirituality and stress relief: Make the connection, Mayo Clinic, Published July 23, 2013, Retrieved February 16, 2015.