Dealing with Chronic Stress? 7 Mind Body Strategies to Attend to Your Stress
Stress as a part of life
Everyone experiences stress at some point in life. We may feel overworked at our jobs, frustrated by interpersonal difficulties, or hopeless by simply trying to stay afloat with the daily stressors of work, school, childcare, chores, and finances. Often these forms of transient stress do not pose an issue for significant health concerns. However, when stressors persist, potentially detrimental forms of chronic stress may arise. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been experiencing chronic stress. Stress, particularly chronic stress, can negatively impact the mind and body. Individuals experiencing chronic stress may have decreased tolerance for emotional discomfort, difficulties regulating emotions, increased irritability, anxiety, and depression, worsening concentrating, outbursts of tearfulness, insomnia, fatigue, increased blood pressure, more frequent illnesses, headaches, and physical pain.
The useful parts of stress
If you experience stress, this does not mean you’re weak, incapable, or a failure. Again, stress is normal to some extent. Stress is your mind and body’s natural response to being activated by some sort of threat. Your stress response system is doing its job by trying to signal that something is impacting you. It helps us to take notice, slow down, ask for help, attend to self-care, and make adjustments to how we are operating. Therefore, stress may be useful if it is identified and attended to. It is important to build awareness of our stress response so we may tune in to our needs and better function and thrive.
Links in the stress chain
Stress can erupt from a number of factors, biological as well as environmental. It may be useful to determine if any internal experiences or behaviors impact our level of stress. This can help us determine if there are things that we can do to alleviate stress. For instance, sleep impacts our mood. Mood impacts our feelings of self. Feelings of self impact our relationships with others. Our relationship with others impacts our thoughts and emotions. Our thoughts and emotions impact the way we care for ourselves. The way we care for ourselves impacts how we choose to eat, sleep, and exercise. Work to determine where you can break a negative cycle in these links. Identify areas where it would better serve you to pay greater attention to your mind and body.
7 ways to attend to stress
Because stress impacts the mind and body, it is important to target both parts of us when trying to alleviate chronic stress.
1. Engage in Mindfulness. Mindfulness is our ability to set an intention, shift our awareness to the present, and be nonjudgmental about our experience. Mindfulness has been shown to have benefits for reducing stress, decreasing anxiety, and improving emotion regulation, among other things. Incorporate selfcompassion scripts as part of your mindfulness practice.
2. Notice worry thoughts. Focus on the present and what is in your control in the here and now. When the mind catastrophizes (thinks worst case scenarios), remember to focus on the probability that something will occur rather than the possibility. Also, try to identify more balanced thoughts (e.g. “Things are difficult at work right now. Thankfully, I have been able to complete assignment in a timely fashion and maintain strong working relationships”) as opposed to letting your mind wander to worry thoughts (e.g. “Things are difficult at work right now. If I don’t complete these assignments, I am going to lose my job”).
3. Reduce body tension. Engage in a body scan, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, massage, or acupuncture to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response system). Engage in exercises and pleasant activities to release the body’s stress hormones and encourage improved mood.
4. Focus on sleep. Create a calming wind down routine before bed. Take a warm shower, listen to calming music, and massage the soles of your feet. Write down worry thoughts a couple hours before bed to reduce nighttime stress and insomnia. Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time. Reduce naps during the day.
5. Disconnect. Set aside time in your day to leave behind electronic devices. During that time, spend some moments in nature. We tend to experience improved mood when we are outdoors and become active participants in our surroundings.
6. Create a daily routine. It can be helpful to visualize our day by writing out our daily routine. We can have a general routine that is somewhat consistent day to day and a more specific routine that includes tasks that we have to accomplish on a particular day. Use time frames but be flexible enough with your daily routine as needed. Make sure to incorporate pleasant activities in to your schedule. A daily routine can help create predictability for our day. Predictability reduces stress and anxiety and can encourage a sense of control and mastery.
7. Break tasks down in to manageable steps. By breaking larger tasks down in to smaller ones, we are creating more opportunities for accomplishing what we set out to do. We can celebrate these smaller accomplishments, as each one moves us one step closer to accomplishing our overall goal.
Finally, it is important to engage in these steps even during times when we are not experiencing stress. These steps can serve as a buffer in preventing stress from developing or reducing the impact of stress when it occurs.