How to get better at managing stress

Unless you plan to lock yourself in a room for the rest of your life, it’s impossible to exist without at least some level of stress every day, even while you’re on vacation.

And that’s okay. Stress isn’t all bad. Stress helps us avoid danger, adjust to new situations, and cope with challenges; think of it as a normal reaction that ignites certain physical and mental responses in the body, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“When you feel stress, hormones — such as adrenaline — are released that can improve alertness and performance in the moment,” says Margie Sieka, PhD, the manager of behavioral health services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. This response can help your body become more alert, focus better, and even work harder.

Stress becomes a problem when it becomes chronic; when instead of coping with the thing that’s stressing you out, you let all those challenging thoughts and feelings percolate. “That’s when it starts to take a toll on your emotional and physical health,” says Jennifer Haden Haythe, MD, a cardiologist, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiology for the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care at Columbia, and a codirector of the Women's Center for Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.

Just as you likely can’t sprint for long periods of time without rest, your body can’t run at a heightened state of alertness, focus, and performance without rest.

Your move? Be proactive about stress management so that your stress response doesn’t outweigh the stressor you’re facing and so you'll have a set of tried-and-true techniques for dealing with whatever shows up.

How to set yourself up to deal with stress

Regular self-care practices and behavior modifications can help keep stress from overwhelming you — and scale your stress response in proportion to the stressor.

“It’s important to understand that when it comes to stress and its impact on health, you may want to think about trying longer-term strategies and changes in lifestyle,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an assistant physician and clinical researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

A healthy lifestyle — eating well, getting high-quality sleep, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly — can buffer you against the wear and tear of stress, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Greenwich, Connecticut. These steps don't eliminate the challenge. But they will ensure your strongest, calmest, most rational self shows up to meet whatever obstacle you’re facing.

If, for example, you got a good night’s sleep, you spent an hour doing a workout you love after waking up, and you ate a satisfying breakfast, a midmorning crisis at the office is likely going to feel a little less hair-raising than if you were feeling sleep deprived, hungry because you skipped breakfast, and burned out because you haven't made it to your favorite Pilates instructor’s class in so long.

Research indeed backs this up. One study that looked at how regular self-care practices helped medical students cope with stress during their early years of training, for example, found that those who reported more regular self-care routines also reported feeling less stressed and having a higher quality of life, according to data published in 2018 in the journal BMC Medical Education.

A study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that participants who exercised at least once per week had modest protection against the negative consequences of stress (with stress being measured by heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, and self-reported mood).

As far as exercise goes, just make sure it’s something you enjoy. “Exercise doesn’t have to be intense, and you don’t have to join a gym,” Dr. Haythe says. “I tell my patients to buy a pair of sneakers and start walking for 15 to 20 minutes a day.”

What to do when you’re going through a stressful time

Some stressors get resolved relatively quickly and go away (a travel delay, a deadline at work, a toddler’s temper tantrum, to name a few). Other stressors are ones you have to cope with for long stretches of time, such as going through a divorce or breakup, managing a difficult health diagnosis, or looking for a new job. It could even be something exciting — say if you’re preparing for an upcoming move or planning a wedding.

Anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful — even positive things,” Dr. Schiff says. On these occasions, sticking to your usual routines can be helpful.

“There is some reassurance in knowing what’s going to happen and when, not to mention that routines promote positive physical and mental health,” Schiff says. “When faced with events that are scary and largely out of our control, it’s important to realize what you can control.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the extra stress you’re feeling and perhaps take your stress management up a notch.

If you’re feeling trapped and the worrying is getting in the way of your daily routine, a therapist may be able to help you find a way forward, according to Mayo Clinic.

It’s also a good idea to lean on your social circle in times like these. “Spending time with family or friends who make you feel good, or finding a community with whom you share interests or spiritual beliefs, reduces stress,” says Alka Gupta, MD, an internal medicine and integrative medicine doctor in private practice in Washington, DC.

Establishing a mindfulness practice may help. “Meditation is an important tool that can support us during those [stressful periods],” says Kelley Green, a mindfulness coach based in Brooklyn, New York. “Grounding ourselves through our breath can bring calmness and peace to our mind instead of letting the outside world take control of our emotions and feelings.”

Numerous studies suggest, for example, that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — a therapy technique based on mindfulness meditation — can help with mood issues, sleep trouble, and emotional health struggles (as well as helping with symptoms of physical health problems).

“Learning to stay in the present moment breaks the train of everyday thought that can stress you out,” Dr. Dossett says. “Whether you’re meditating, doing yoga, or taking a walk, if you pay attention to your body and your breath, you can’t be worrying about something else.”

Do keep in mind: Your stress management tools should serve you and not add to the stress. “It should feel natural and enjoyable, and should fit into your routine relatively easily,” Dr. Gupta says. That means choose stress management practices that are affordable, convenient, and that fit into your schedule.

How to better cope with stress in the moment

Even if you do all the above, you may still enter that “fight-or-flight mode” when a stressful moment strikes (the casserole burns, your train is delayed, you’re about to give an important presentation at work). You know the feeling: Your heart starts to race and your muscles tense up.

Pay attention to these signs. “It is important to recognize the physiological signs of stress and address these symptoms in the moment to alleviate the potential harmful effects,” Dr. Sieka says.

Stress can not only lead to short-term effects like headaches or insomnia, but if it lingers it can affect your hormones, blood pressure, and relationships.

When this type of response happens, your body is prepping for survival mode (hence the physiological changes to help your body fight or flee), according to Harvard Medical School.

The goal of stress management here is to acknowledge the feeling and then dial down those physiological changes and approach the challenge rationally with your mind (unless you truly do need to flee a fire or fight a bear), explains Melissa Dowd, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the San Francisco–based therapy lead at PlushCare, a virtual health platform.

If your reaction to stress (increased blood pressure, heightened alertness, and so on) sticks around even after the trigger is gone (you catch the train, the presentation goes just fine), short-term stress can become chronic, Dowd says.

“Stress that is not handled well and continues without relief can lead to chronic stress and contribute to physical concerns, such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and high blood pressure, and mental health problems, such as irritability, depression, anxiety, and substance use,” Sieka says.

Dowd says some people are more prone to chronic stress. “This can be due to genetics, life experiences, and unhealthy coping mechanisms,” she says.

It’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve that can help you de-escalate stressful situations quickly, such as squeezing a stress ball, distracting yourself with fidget spinners, cueing up a mindfulness app, and trying deep-breathing exercises.

The point of these in-the-moment quick fixes is that they help turn off the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, so that you can more calmly cope with the challenge at hand and so that stress doesn’t become chronic, Dowd says.

If you find yourself frequently feeling that fight-or-flight response, or it's difficult to manage, consider seeking help from a mental health provider (or asking your doctor if you don’t have one). Difficult-to-manage stress can be a sign of past trauma, and may need trauma-informed care.