The big stressors in life—the ones we all dread that many of us will undoubtedly experience at some point in our life—can set our world into a tailspin, altering who we are and how we see the world forever. They also have the potential to eventually make us stronger if we can learn to approach things a little differently. Let me explain. . .
As we know, Stress is a normal part of the human condition—a part that most of us would rather eliminate. Some people are more prone to feeling stress than others, and stress impacts people differently due to temperament, inborn personality traits, and how we’ve been taught (directly and indirectly) how to respond to challenging situations. Some people are naturally more resilient, while others are more sensitive and reactive to stress.
The good news is that although we can’t undo our natural wiring, studies indicate that we can take steps to improve how resilient we are. Spoiler alert: one such step is termed a “stress inoculation.”
Top 10 Stressors in Life
But before we discuss how we can improve our resilience and cope with the stressors that people face, we should first know what they are. Below are the top ten stressors in life.
1. Death of a Loved One
Universally, this is probably the hardest event to go through. When someone close to us dies, we can feel a myriad of emotions and have difficulty finding our place in the world without that person in it.
Grief is a complicated process that is not the same for everyone. Coping with a loved one dying requires patience, understanding, and compassion for ourselves.
2. Divorce or Separation
Divorce or separation can be psychologically traumatic for many reasons, with many people experiencing shock, feeling powerless, betrayal, confusion, and heartbreak. Much like the death of a loved one, re-establishing your identity in the world can feel daunting.
3. Moving, Buying, or Selling a Home
From the financial cost of moving, taking on the burden of a loan (sometimes for the first time), being in an unfamiliar environment to the rollercoaster process of actually buying or selling a home, moving, buying, or selling a home creates stress for even the calmest of people. So much so that 40% of Americans say that buying a house is the most stressful event in modern life.
4. Major Illness or Injury
This life-changing event can impact us in a multitude of challenging ways. Our ability to earn a living and the way in which we are accustomed to being a part of—and contributing to—society can suddenly be called into question, not to mention uncertainty about the future and the discomfort of depending upon others for help/reduced independence.
5. Job Loss
Losing a job can feel like losing a big part of our identity, especially in this country where the first question anyone asks you when you meet them is “What do you do?”
Losing a job impacts our ability to provide for ourselves or our family. It creates uncertainty about the future and can heighten our insecurities.
A good kind of stressor, yes, but marriage has long been known to be an adjustment for many of us. It can be challenging learning to live with someone else and getting used to what being part of a “married couple” entails, including increased expectations and responsibilities.
7. Increased Financial Obligations and Decisions Involving Money
Taking on more financial burdens or making big decisions around money can tap into the core of some of our biggest insecurities and fears like scarcity and self-worth.
Additionally, feeling trapped in your job and always feeling like you need to be on the upward mobility track to keep up with financial obligations can keep anyone up at night.
Thinking of retirement is another “fun” stressor in the sense that many of us plan our whole lives for the moment we are able to finally retire.
For those that do, this also represents a major life change and a new identity. Being on more of a fixed income and realizing you are in the second half of your life can be daunting.
9. Caring for an Elderly or Sick Family Member
This is not only physically and emotionally draining, but the toll it can take on people is massive. With significantly increased responsibility sometimes around the clock, many caregivers are not able to care for themselves adequately, leaving the door open to a host of physical and emotional problems of their own.
10. Traumatic Event (Natural Disaster, Crime, Violence, Pandemic)
There are a lot of challenges that can fall into this category, but it seems the overarching issue is rooted in the feeling of being powerless.
How to Cope With Stress
Because stress impacts everyone differently, the best solutions and strategies are also somewhat individualized, meaning that there is no perfect one size fits all recipe. A strategically-tailored program based on each person is truly the most effective way to manage.
It’s important to note that how well we manage our day-to-day stress is indicative of how well we will manage life-changing events.
Practicing consistent healthy habits is the foundation of stress management. Waiting to implement strategies until a traumatic event occurs makes it tougher for that strategy to be effective.
Being a bit of a tennis geek, I like to use the comparison of being in the finals of Wimbledon and needing to hit a great kick serve to win the match. How successful are you likely to be if you haven’t practiced your kick serve up until the exact moment that you need it? Probably not very likely, right?
The same is true of managing stress. If you wait until the most stressful, traumatic, and life-changing events to take place and then try to implement new habits, it can be more difficult to get the result you want.
Here are 12 tips on how to cope with stressors in life effectively.
1. Be Aware of Your Feelings
Be aware of and allow yourself to process your feelings around the stressful event. This is the most important thing to start with.
All of these events can evoke major emotions. Being aware of those emotions and selecting an outlet for them will allow you to eventually move forward. Maybe you are someone who likes to journal, talk with a friend, or paint your feelings.
If you aren’t sure what might work for you, pick something to try for a short period (even five to ten minutes) and start from there.
Self-talk is a critical piece of how we are internally interpreting the stress in our lives. Work through your feelings/emotions (as we said), but be mindful of not adding to your stress by saying negative and judgmental things to yourself about the situation or how you are handling it.
Work to stop the negative commentary, and instead show yourself some empathy and kindness, encouraging yourself as you get through this stressful time in your life—much like how you’d encourage a friend or loved one.
3. Good Nutrition
Eating well not only helps support a healthy immune system but also improves energy and can help regulate cortisol levels. Being under stress causes us to crave foods that make our stress worse (like sugar and processed foods). You should try foods that reduce stress and anxiety instead, such as protein-rich foods and foods high in vitamin B.
4. Stay Hydrated
One of the worst things you can do when you are stressed is to allow yourself to become dehydrated. Being even mildly dehydrated can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, reduced energy, and more difficulty thinking clearly.
5. Try to Get Enough Sleep
This one is really tough because unlike staying hydrated (which we can force ourselves to do), staying asleep is not so easy when you have a lot on your mind. Better sleep is linked to having an easier time managing emotions and even recovering from a stressful event more quickly.
To give yourself a better chance of success, be intentional about having good sleep hygiene.
6. Get Some Exercise
There is a ton of research that backs up moving around to cope with stress. Activity has been shown to increase endorphins, improve sleep, improve your mood, clear your mind, and help negate the negative impacts of stress.
7. Be Selective With Your Surroundings
Be selective with your surroundings, and this includes your physical environment, the people you associate with, what TV shows you watch, or the news you read. This is one of the principles of neuroplasticity.
Our brain is like a sponge, absorbing what we expose it to and creating our internal world from there. If you expose your brain to peaceful, quiet, loving, agreeable people and environments, it will absorb that. If you expose it to the opposite, it will absorb that, too.
8. Set Limitations and Boundaries
Knowing what you can tolerate during stressful times is important. Protecting your energy, setting limitations and boundaries, and sticking to them are paramount.
It’s okay to speak up for yourself and what you need. People will understand. If they don’t, they are probably the exact reason that you need to set boundaries.
9. Breathe. Meditate. Relax.
Incorporate some mindfulness into your day to get centered and decompress. Studies show that mindfulness changes brain structure and activity in regions associated with attention and emotion regulation. Change your brain structure for the better.
10. Have a Good Support System
Connect with others. Spending time with friends, family, your church, tennis team, garden club, or a support group has been shown time and again to be an effective tool in managing stress as it promotes feelings of trust, safety, and comfort, which lowers the body’s response to stress.
11. Keep a Routine
Knowing what to expect each day helps reduce anxiety and stress. Besides that, routines can be fun and promote good overall mental and physical health.
And finally, the most surprising way to cope with stress that science says might also be the most important:
12. Find a Way to Embrace the Stress
Some of the newest research is courtesy of Stanford psychology Assistant Professor Alia Crum. Crum recommends that we work to have a mindset that embraces stress.
This sounds a little crazy, right? At first glance, probably yes. But embracing stress is important because how we perceive stress dictates how we end up reacting to it.
Crum recommends trying to create different beliefs around stress, such as 1) viewing yourself as able to handle stress, even knowing that you will learn and grow from the challenges you face, and 2) seeing stress as a normal part of life.
Depending on what you tell yourself about the stressful situation, you can create what’s called stress inoculation. It turns out that our brain does some heavy re-wiring for several hours after a significantly stressful event. This re-wiring creates an impression on our brain that helps us handle things the next time something stressful happens.
Also worth noting, studies show that when we see stress as being damaging, we are more likely to turn toward damaging methods of coping, like alcohol and drugs.
Unfortunately, if you are a human being you are likely going to experience some big life-changing events. Nobody can fully prepare for these, but having good daily habits in place can make weathering the storm slightly more bearable.
Sometimes, stress can be overwhelming. Please be sure to tell your doctor how you are feeling and reach out for help if you need it.