Work. Relationships. The news cycle. It seems like we’re never at a loss for stressful situations. And some days, it can all feel like too much. Sound familiar?
Probably: 34% percent of adults reported being overwhelmed by stress most days, according to the 2022 Stress in America survey. And some groups, like Black men and LGBTQIA+ individuals, were even more likely to report feeling this way.
Being stressed isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm. Stress — i.e. a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation — can be a useful tool for responding to challenges. Just think about that surge of nerves you experience before giving a speech or riding a rollercoaster.
An issue occurs when stress becomes severe or chronic. That’s when it can start to harm your mind and body. On top of lost sleep, headaches, and emotional ups and downs, research suggests chronic stress can also increase the risk of several diseases. So it’s smart to want to keep it in check.
While you may not be able to eliminate stressors from your life, you can take steps to manage your stress levels. Below, 8 research-backed tips to cope, starting today.
How to get stress under control
Think of stress management as a toolbox. As with any repair, you’ll need a variety of tools. Over time, these tools can build resilience. And, hopefully, prevent any negative long-term effects.
Keep in mind that enacting change while you’re stressed can be challenging. “Try to focus on baby steps that feel manageable,” says Hayley Quinn, PsyD, AbleTo Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience. “This can help you cope without adding even more stress to your life.”
If it helps, wait to take action until you’re not in a state of intense stress. “That way, you’ll be able to respond in a manner that’s helpful and not driven by intense emotions,” says Quinn. “With time and practice, these adaptive responses can become more habitual, just like riding a bike.”
When you’re ready, get started with the tips below.
1. Get adequate sleep
Adults who get fewer than 8 hours of sleep a night report feeling more stressed than those who sleep more. They’re also more likely to feel overwhelmed, irritable, or angry. This may be because sleep helps our brains recover.
Rested brains also seem to have an easier time managing challenges. Studies show that people are better able to perform problem-solving tasks after a full night’s sleep than those who have yet to rest.
Making small changes can have a big impact on your sleep, says AbleTo Clinical Content Producer Sarah Dolling, LPC. If possible, keep a consistent bedtime. This can help your body regulate its internal clock so you’re sleepy at night and alert in the morning.
To help your body shift into sleep mode at night, try to:
- Limit caffeine consumption. Especially later in the day.
- Put away screens at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
For more tips, check out the “Your Good-Sleep Guide” Collection in your AbleTo program.
2. Eat a nutritious diet
It’s unknown whether certain nutrients help prevent and/or decrease stress. But it’s clear our brains and bodies need a variety of nutrients to function properly.
Some research shows healthy fats, such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, seeds, and nuts, can help regulate the stress hormone cortisol. Eating fiber-rich carbohydrates (like whole-wheat bread), lean protein (like chicken), and healthy fats (like those in avocados) can also help slow down the absorption of sugar into our bloodstream. This can help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes that can lead to irritability.
But don’t stress about eliminating or adding certain foods. Just aim to eat a balanced, healthful diet, as recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Practicing mindful eating — eating when you’re hungry and being fully present as you do so — may also help. Mindfulness, in general, is shown to reduce stress. Get started with the “Eating Mindfully” guided meditation in your AbleTo program.
3. Move your body
Exercise is an opportunity to step away from your stressors. But there’s also evidence it helps release mood-boosting hormones, like dopamine and serotonin.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adults get 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a week. It can be hard to achieve that much when you’re stressed out. So know this: Even small “exercise snacks” can help. One study found that just 15 minutes of chair-based yoga was enough to trigger a relaxation response.
4. Drink with care
Alcohol can impair sleep, making it more difficult to recover from stress. And people who drink excessively may be more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who don’t. Stress is also a known risk factor in developing substance use disorders.
Rather than reaching for alcohol, try to practice one of the stress-busting tools listed in this article. Or, sip a warm cup of caffeine-free tea, which may help you sleep. Win-win!
If you tend to drink to excess, talk to your doctor about how to safely stop.
5. Connect with others
Spending time with people who make you feel seen and heard can help tamp down stress levels. Social connection has also been shown to improve resilience, which helps people better cope with stressors.
“But there’s no reason you should wait until stress hits to reach out to trusted family and friends,” says Dolling. “Try to make connecting with your support network a regular practice.”
6. Be mindful
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment while observing your feelings without judgment. A large study found that it can reduce stress and increase work engagement. One potential reason why? You learn how to be less emotionally reactive, say researchers.
Want to learn how to be more mindful? Listen to “Discovering Mindful Awareness” in your AbleTo program.
7. Practice self care
Tending to your personal needs is a vital part of good mental health. But you don’t have to spend a day at the spa to get the R&R you deserve. Instead, focus on activities that add meaning and purpose to your life. That might look like giving back to your community. Or being outdoors. Or maybe you feel your best when you’re spending quality time with loved ones.
“Each of us finds value, meaning, and purpose in different things,” says Quinn. “Figure out what those are for you. Then find ways to connect with them.”
8. Establish boundaries
Boundaries are the limits you create to protect your well-being. And they’re a huge part of keeping your stress levels in check.
The next time you encounter a person, situation, or request that stirs up negative emotions, do the following:
- Reflect on your needs and values.
- Ask yourself whether this person, request, etc. aligns with them.
- If not, say “no” until your capacity changes.
And remember: “Your needs can shift at any moment,” says Dolling. “So try to be aware of what they are and how you can attend to them.”
Getting stress under control isn’t a one-time thing. It’s something most of us have to work on.
If your stress levels don’t improve, it may be time to enlist additional support. An AbleTo behavioral coach or therapist can help you learn realistic ways to cope. Your personal situation may be unique. But that doesn’t mean you have to navigate it alone.
By Ashley Abramson
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI.
Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.
Photo by iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.