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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

7 Effective Ways to Cope with Stress

7 Effective Ways to Cope with Stress

We all experience stress, but how we handle it affects our lives to various extents. Maybe you’ve tried to be less stressed, but you haven’t found many effective ways to cope with stress.

Before getting into how to reduce stress, let me give you an introduction to what stress is.

There’s no medical definition of stress, and health care professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them. This can make it difficult for you to work out what causes your feelings of stress or how to deal with them. Stress affects us in a number of ways, both physically and emotionally, and in varying intensities.

During my career, I’ve helped many people that had an extremely demanding lifestyle (mainly due to their job) to manage and reduce stress. The core of my practice is to help busy people feel good (both physically and mentally), and managing stress is often the most important component of every program I write.

Over the years, I came up with a set of practices that, when done consistently, can help even the busiest executive to keep his/her stress levels under control and generally be healthier and more productive.

Did you try to be less stressed but with poor results?

To fully understand why these practices are so effective, we first need to understand that stress can actually be divided into two different categories that are tightly intertwined:

Emotional Stress

Emotional stress is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure. This pressure can come from different aspects of your day to day life; such as an increased workload, a transitional period, an argument you have with your family or new and existing financial worries. You may find that it has a cumulative effect, with each stressor building on top of one another.

During these situations, you may feel threatened or upset, and your body might create a stress response. Your body’s reaction to your emotional state is the release of a multitude of stress hormones that, in turn, affect the way your body feels, moves, and responds to external stimuli. This can cause a variety of physical symptoms, change the way you behave, and lead you to experience more intense emotions.

You can see that emotional stress has a tangible physical repercussion on your body. This is due to your body’s reaction to your thoughts and not to physical activities or external sensory inputs.

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In simple words, when you’re thinking “stressful thoughts,” and you are unable to stop thinking about them (especially if you are worried about something that is outside of your control), you experience what I call emotional stress.

Physical Stress

Physical stress is your body’s reaction to external stimuli that trigger a “fight or flight” response and also, your body’s metabolic reaction to what you breathe, drink, and eat.

Physical stress is not intrinsically bad; in fact, it can be very helpful. For example, exercising causes physical stress, but it relieves emotional stress.[1] Also, having a stress response because a car is about to hit you while you’re crossing the road may turn out to be life-saving.

On the contrary, eating processed food, drinking alcohol or sugary beverages, and smoking or using recreational drugs are all negative physical stressors.

Physical stressors like exercising are something that we want our body to experience often, but they are still a form of stress that, when added to a lot of other stressors, may actually have a detrimental effect on our health.

For example, trying to run a 10k fasted when you had a four-hour sleep and an emotionally stressful week may not be optimal for your health. You would probably be better off doing a 5k after a good meal and a 20-minute long meditation.

At this point, it’s easy to see that everyone experiences stress to various degrees. However, when it is affecting your life, health, and wellbeing, it is important to tackle it as soon as possible.

7 Effective Ways to Reduce Stress

If you had looked online for “ways to reduce stress,” you probably found a bunch of generic advice like “try to sleep more” or “exercise regularly” and “eat healthily.” While these are all great things that we all should do every day, I found that, when trying to help a very busy client to reduce his/her stress levels, this simple advice wasn’t really helping them. In fact, it only made things worse.

For this reason, instead of giving you generic advice, I am going to give you 7 practical strategies that instantly reduce stress, and can be implemented in your daily routine without taking too much of your precious time.

Reducing Physical Stress

1. Manage Your Blood Sugar Levels

When we ingest foods or drinks that contain sugars (20g or more) or high glycemic carbohydrates (like white rice, bread, or potatoes), we quickly experience a burst in energy. This is due to our blood sugar levels rising. When this happens, our pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which, in turn, lowers blood sugar levels by storing the nutrients we have in our bloodstream either in our fat cells, muscles, or liver. This process causes an “up and down” in our energy levels and, also, when the blood sugar levels become low, we experience hunger and cravings.[2]

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These ups and downs in blood sugar have been linked to an increase in stress. It’s easy to see that, when we are having a stressful day, being all of a sudden tired and hungry won’t really make our stress levels go away. Quite the opposite, in fact, fatigue, and eating disorders are clear symptoms of stress.

In the book 12 Rules For Life, Dr Jordan B. Peterson explains how, when treating patients suffering from stress and depression, he always prescribes them to swap their breakfasts and lunches with low carb options like eggs, meat or fish. Dr Peterson says that this little trick is often as effective as prescription drugs. In fact, most patients won’t need any prescription drugs and simply get better because they have stabilized their blood sugar levels throughout the most stressful part of the day.

If you are used to having a high-carb breakfast like yoghurt, cereals, Caffe-lattes, or fruit smoothies, try to swap them with scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, or sliced meat. You can do the same for your lunch by having meat or fish with some vegetables. This little bio-hack will allow you to have a more stable level of energy throughout the working day and, also, give you a feeling of satiety. Reducing hunger and fatigue will inevitably help you reduce stress too.

2. Drink More Water

Drinking water has a multitude of health benefits, but when it comes to reducing stress, the most noticeable are:

A well-hydrated body allows you to think clearer and faster and get more things done because you won’t feel as tired. Most biochemical processes that happen inside the brain require water and minerals. Staying constantly hydrated will optimize your brain function and help you to perform better at your job.

Having too many things to do and, yet, feeling unproductive, is a huge cause of stress amongst busy people. Something as simple as having a refillable water bottle always with you and sipping every five minutes or so can have a positive impact on your stress levels, health, and performance.

3. Working out on the Same Day/Time Each Week

I already said that physical exercise had been proven to reduce stress levels (despite being metabolic stress itself). I also said that working out when you are already stressed and short on time may actually have the opposite effect and increase your stress levels even further.

Having a fixed day and time each week dedicated to exercise (preferably in the morning, before meetings, and calls start to disrupt your day) is essential if you want to reduce stress.

A very useful trick is to book the time blocks you want to dedicate to exercise a week or two in advance, before booking work meetings and social events. By doing this, you accomplish two very important things that will lower your stress levels:

  • Be more consistent with exercise (since you will be less likely to skip your sessions once they’re pre-booked in the early mornings)
  • Remove the thought that “you still have to exercise” from your head, so that you won’t have to think about ways to squeeze that hour-long workout within an already packed working day. The less stressful thoughts you have in your head, the lower your stress levels are.

4. Sleep Following Your Circadian Rhythm

We all know that sleep is paramount when it comes to managing stress. What you might not know is that each individual may benefit from sleeping and waking up at different times.

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In the book Why We Sleep, Dr. Matthew Walkers observes that some individuals benefit from a regular sleeping pattern (the typical 10 pm to 6 am) while other individuals have a better quality of sleep when they can sleep late at night and wake up late in the morning ( 1-2 am to 10 am). This phenomenon is due to the body’s tendency to follow the circadian rhythms (basically our natural clock that is affected by the movement of the Earth).

Dr. Walkers noticed that, when the latter group of people had a typical 9-5 job, they were much more prone to stress, and they were also more likely to develop conditions like depression and neurodegenerative diseases.

If you are a fan of early mornings, waking up as early as 5 am and going to bed as early as 9 pm is probably a good thing for your health and will definitely lower your stress levels, since you will have some extra time in the morning to either exercise or to get ahead with your to-do list.

If you are a nocturnal animal and you struggle to get to bed before midnight, you should try to get at least three lay-ins (when you wake up later than 9 am) each week. This could be done by taking some late shifts at work and not booking early activities during the weekend.

Reducing Emotional Stress

Before exploring my favourite ways to reduce emotional stress, I need to stress the fact that physical stress should be addressed first. This is because emotional stress is often due to interaction with other people or situations that are outside of our control zone.

You might be emotionally stressed because you’re being pressured by your boss or because you’re experiencing some tension in your relationship. You also might be stressed because you’re worried about things that you can’t do much about (like someone else’s health or the economy).

Emotional stress is often outside of your control zone, while physical stress is nearly always a conscious choice that you have total control over. Put simply, you can’t change the economy, but you can definitely exercise, eat well, and sleep more.

Now that I’ve made this clear let’s move on to my favourite ways to reduce emotional stress.

5. Carefully Plan Your Week on a Sunday Evening

The one thing that will help you manage and reduce stress after taking care of your health is “improving productivity.”

Being able to get more done in less time can help you stop feeling overwhelmed and allow you to find some extra time to do activities that reduce stress like meditation, being in nature, or reading a book. For this reason, spending a whole hour on a Sunday evening to carefully plan your working week, hour-by-hour is a must-do. Use this system to maximize the efficacy of this exercise:

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  • Start by booking exercise, grocery shopping, and time alone (to do whatever non-work-related activity you desire). Give those activities the same priority you would give to a work meeting.
  • Once you booked those, go through your to-do list and prioritize the different voices from most important to least important. Book them accordingly.
  • Make sure to book the least important activities later in the week, so that you can reduce the stress load caused by the most demanding tasks before it starts to build upon you.
  • Last but not least, book your sleeping time. This might sound funny to you, but you probably check your calendar more than 20 times each day. Seeing a time-block called “sleep” at a precise time in your calendar will automatically instruct your brain to prepare for sleep around that time.

6. Book Big Chunks of Alone-Time for Your Most Demanding Projects

Another crucial factor in reducing stress is avoiding distractions. Phone notifications, emails, phone calls, and interactions with people can totally disrupt your flow when you’re working on a demanding task.

Multiple studies confirm this. Distractions don’t just eat up time during the distraction; they derail your mental progress for up to a half-hour afterwards (that’s assuming another distraction doesn’t show up in that half-hour). In other words, that “30 seconds to check Twitter” isn’t just 30 seconds down the drain; it’s 25 minutes and 30 seconds.

And all these distractions not only hurt productivity, but they also have negative emotional effects. Research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood, and lower productivity.

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport explains how the greatest thinkers in history had the habit of isolating themselves for hours (or even days) to fully focus on their most meaningful work. While you don’t need to move on alternate weeks on a medieval tower with no electricity (like Carl Jung used to do), you can definitely find a quiet space where you can immerse yourself in your most stressful tasks.

When you do that, make sure to turn off all phone notifications and ask not to be disturbed. You will be surprised by how big of an impact this practice has on your overall stress levels.

7. Delegate the Least Important Tasks

Last but not least, spending time on doing tasks that you don’t deem important or could/should be done by someone else can cause stress. This is due to the fact that you won’t dedicate time to the most important voices of your to-do list and, consequently, build up emotional stress.

When you plan your week, spend some time thinking about how you could delegate those annoying tasks to either a paid professional or someone that would be eager to help you. Don’t be afraid to open your wallet and hire someone like a cleaner or an online assistant. If you fall ill because of stress or you end up in need of a therapist, your bill will turn out much higher.

Here’s a guide to help you learn to delegate: How to Delegate Work Effectively (Step-By-Step Guide)

Bottom Line

These seven tricks I’ve just listed are extremely effective and very easy to implement in your day-to-day life. Feel free to experiment with them and find the perfect mix that works best for you.

Note that I didn’t mention any strategy to deal with your own negative thoughts, I actually wrote a whole book about it — Stress-Free in 7 Simple Steps: A practical guide to mindfulness for beginners. When your negative thoughts are the main cause of stress, you should always seek the support of your loved ones and also the help of a skilled therapist.

More About Stress Relief

Featured photo credit: Radu Florin via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Davide Alfonsi

Online Weight Loss And Exercise Specialist

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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

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