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Manage your stress

There is no single right way to cope with stress. To cope with your own stress, you need to understand what causes you to feel stress and how to control how you respond to stress.

Take the pressure off, reduce your stress

Your first line of defense is to identify your stressors and try to remove them from your life, if possible. For example, you might be able to change your job, alter your schedule or avoid certain people who cause you stress.

One way to avoid stress is to make sure you’re not setting unrealistic goals for yourself. If your goals are too difficult to achieve, you won’t achieve them and you’ll feel stress.

Try setting personal goals using the SMART approach:

Specific: Choose one small goal and write it down. Make sure to include as many details about your goal as you can (when, where and how).

Measurable: Make sure you can count it or check it off a list.

Attainable: If your goal is too difficult, you set yourself up for failure.

Realistic: Make sure your goal is something you are willing to work towards.

Time-limited: Set a specific, realistic date to finish or achieve your goal.

When it’s not possible to avoid excessive stress, you need a strategy to help you cope.

There are three basic types of coping skills:

  • Physical/behavioural skills, 
  • Thinking (cognitive)/mental skills and
  • Personal/social skills.

Physical/Behavioural coping skills

These are skills that involve taking care of yourself and staying as healthy. Some examples include being physically active, doing yoga, stretching and relaxation exercises, eating a healthy diet and getting enough rest.
 
Physical activity

Physical activity can clear your mind, reduce tension and boost your energy. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate- to-vigorous aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Being active with someone else – a walk, a fitness class or a game of table tennis – is doubly effective. Doing an activity with freinds or loved ones is good for your mental health and boosts motivation to be active.

Yoga and stretching

Yoga and slow stretching – even just five to 10 minutes a day –promote relaxation to reduce stress. Here’s how to do it:

  • Choose a body part to stretch.
  • As you stretch to a comfortable limit, think about the muscles being stretched and imagine the tension leaving your body.
  • Exhale as you stretch. Inhale as you release. Breathe deeply and slowly. Do not hold your breath.
  • Close your eyes for better awareness of your body’s responses.

Relaxation exercises

There are lots of different relaxation techniques, but breathing exercises are among the most popular and effective. Two simple ones that you can try are exhalation breathing and deep breathing.

Exhalation breathing

Do this exercise for 10 minutes or more to help you calm dowm.

  • Lie on your back with your arms at your sides.
  • As you begin to breathe in, raise your arms toward the ceiling (with your elbows bent). Move your arms all the way up and over your head to the floor as you inhale.
  • Reverse the order: Breathe out slowly and smoothly as you return your arms to your sides.
  • Repeat this motion several times. Then slowly inhale and exhale without moving your arms. Relax and enjoy the peaceful feeling.

Deep breathing

Do this exercise for three to five minutes whenever you feel tense. It allows your body to release endorphins which are naturally occurring hormones that re-energize and promote relaxation.

  • Slowly inhale through your nose, expanding your abdomen before allowing air to fill your lungs.
  • Reverse the process as you exhale.

Healthy diet

Your body runs on the fuel in your food. If you eat good foods, your body will work better. But a diet that includes too much caffeine, sugar, salt and fat can make you feel restless, agitated, and sluggish. It will also erode your stress response.

Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy (and dairy alternatives), and lean meat (and meat alternatives). Limit salt, sugar, saturated and trans fats. Learn more.

Good rest

Can’t sleep? Then get up. Don’t even try to sleep if your body won’t let you. Clock watching, tossing and turning will only make you tense, and that leads to stress. Instead, relax in a comfortable chair. Read a book, watch television, play cards or do a puzzle. Even if you don’t actually fall asleep, you will be more relaxed. Reducing your anxiety about not sleeping will ultimately make it easier to sleep.

Thinking (cognitive)/Mental coping skills

These skills involve using your thoughts and mind to counteract negative effects of stress. The activities below offer a few ways of coping.

Problem solving

If you feel overwhelmed and panic when faced with a stressful situation try some classic problem-solving skills to solve it.

  • Write down a list of every possible solution or way of dealing with your stressful situation.
  • Rank the solutions by how possible they are to do and how effective they’re going to be.
  • Act on your top-ranked solution.
  • Assess whether that action solved your problem. If it did, great! If not, select the next solution on the list and see if that works, and so on.

Reappraisal

Sometimes your interpretation of a stressor can magnify it, making you feel more stressful than necessary. If you think that might be happening to you, follow these steps to make sure you haven’t blown the situation out of proportion.

  • Identify your thoughts about the situation. Ask yourself: What am I saying to myself about this situation?
  • Challenge your thoughts about the circumstance. Ask yourself: Is what I’m feeling realistic? Am I grounded in fact, not fear?
  • Reappraise your position. Ask yourself: How can I change my thinking to be more realistic about this situation?

Meditation

Meditation can help settle your mind, allowing you to think more calmly. It also allows you to live in the moment and observe your thought processes.

Meditation is not a quick fix: It requires patience and practice but it has lots of benefits.
 
Start by meditating for 10 to 15 minutes once or twice a day. Increase this to 20 minutes no more than twice a day. Avoid meditating just before going to bed because you might become too energized to sleep.
 
There are many different meditation techniques so it’s best to do some research into which one might work best for you.
 
Here’s one technique that you can try.

  • Choose a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
  • Take time to relax. Don’t rush into meditation.
  • When you are relaxed, breathing slowly and evenly, close your eyes. You may wish to slowly repeat a pleasant-sounding word or mantra, such as peace or harmony, in your mind as you breathe. Do this for 10 to 20 minutes. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to concentrating on your mantra or your breath.
  • When you’re ready to finish, you can say your mantra out loud, deliberately and slowly. Then open your eyes and look around. After a minute or so, stand up and stretch.

Please note: If meditation is overdone, you can be completely cut off from feelings of anxiety. This isn’t healthy. Everyone needs a certain amount of stress in order to function.

Personal/Social coping skills

Taking the time for things that give you pleasure and nurture your spirit, is an important coping tool. Some of the most effective activities are to:

  • Spend quality time with your friends and family.
  • Explore your spirituality. Get involved in a place of worship, such as a church or mosque. Spend time in nature.
  • Develop your hobbies and personal interests.
  • Enjoy outings in nature, whether it’s a city park, a beach or a country road.
  • Try volunteering, it helps divert attention from yourself and can reduce your anxiety.
  • Take a vacation or a break from your normal routine, but only if it doesn’t cause you stress. 

To help you decide which coping skill to use, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is my coping response suitable in this situation?
    Physical activity may calm you, but it may not be appropriate in a job interview. A breathing exercise might be the right response in that situation.
  2. Is my coping response positive?
    Not all ways to relieve stress are good for you. Some people use drugs and alcohol to cope with stress, but those can have dangerous side effects. Even healthy options, such as physical activity or dieting, can be bad in extremes. Moderation is the key.
  3. Is my coping response going to help me in the long run?
    Short-term solutions won’t solve long-term problems. Ten minutes of slow breathing might help you deal with a stressful moment at work, but it won’t change your job or the stress that goes with it. Instead, try talking about your situation with a friend or trusted colleague to help find solutions.
Stress-busting tips
  • Figure out what is causing you stress. Eliminate or avoid that thing, if possible. If not, learn about and use a coping skill.
  • Be physically active. It can be a great stress-buster and can boost your heart health, too. Be sure to talk to a medical professional before starting any activity program.
  • Share your feelings. Talking to friends, family or coworkers can help you feel better.
  • Take time for yourself. In trying to meet everyone else's needs, don't short-change yourself.
  • Make time to laugh. It's your body's natural stress-release mechanism.
  • Eat well. Don't skip meals, because hunger can leave you vulnerable to stress. And don’t overeat, either, because you might feel lethargic and unable to cope.
  • Take your vacations or staycations. Getting away from your normal routine is good for your mental and physical health.
Resources

Information on stress, what to do about it and where to get help.

Information on minimizing stress and the government’s role in helping deal with stress and other mental health issues.

Health Canada

UCLA has several free guided meditation (audio; English and Spanish) developed with their Mindful Awareness Research Center

Assess your stress management skills