How to Overcome Stress
Five key steps (and lots of tips) for understanding and beating stress.
You know the feeling. You can’t find the release switch for that tightness that keeps building in your body and mind. As stress hormones begin seeping into and flooding your body, they prepare you for fight or flight, increasing your pulse and breathing rate and pulling your body’s attention away from everything else. It’s stress you’re feeling!
Chronic stress gets you stuck—the neural pathways in your brain become super-sensitized to stress-inducing situations, and when that happens time and again, your body can get chock-full of stress hormones that it can’t get rid of fast enough.
The body’s reaction to stress was intended to serve our ancestors as an occasional fight-or-flight mechanism when they came face to face with a grizzly bear and needed to run away, fast!
When we experience danger, the body does not know the difference between an actual threat (a grizzly bear) and a perceived threat (the guy who cut you up in traffic). So, we can find ourselves beset by a daily fare of stress hormones which flood the bloodstream, causing tension and stress. Of course, this chronic stress is awful for our health, but to beat stress, we need to know what to do.
How to calm your fight or flight stress response fast!
Square breathing. Special forces worldwide, such as the US Navy SEAL units and our NZ Defence Force, use square breathing to stay calm and improve their concentration in extremely tense situations. Breathing is your gear stick to put your engine into the appropriate gear. Slow, stable breathing calms the heart and blood pressure and helps you think clearly.
To perform square breathing, follow these easy steps:
- Focus on something square
- Focus on the bottom left-hand corner, inhale for the count of 4 while you trace your eyes across the top of the next corner
- Hold your breath for 4 while you trace your eyes across the next corner.
- Exhale for 4 as you trace your eyes down to the bottom corner.
- Hold your breath for 4 while you trace your eyes back to the beginning
- REPEAT x 10 times
If you try square breathing for a few minutes and it doesn’t feel like it’s working, keep going. Your body may take a little while to respond.
Practice square breathing daily at times when you aren’t feeling stressed. Once you are used to square breathing, it is much easier to use when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.
Where does chronic stress come from?
Now that you’ve performed your square breathing and are thinking more clearly, it’s time to investigate where your chronic stress comes from. Is your stress coming from some physical stressor—like gut discomfort or pain? Or is there an emotional component—such as depression, disappointment, or fear? Possibly your stress comes more from something mental—like overthinking, unrealistic expectations, a non-positive attitude, or rumination.
You could also experience social stress—like being exiled from the “group,” feeling a sense of inadequacy or abandonment, shame because of poor performance, or not being liked or loved enough. There can be external stress—like experiencing prejudice or poverty. And there is environmental stress—like mould or airborne toxins in your food. All of this adds up to your total stress load.
Finding the roots of your stress
Sometimes finding the source of your stress is easy—the job, the romantic partner, the kids, or the financial issues. But usually, the roots of your anxiety are more complicated, hidden, and challenging to resolve. A great place to start is to investigate what’s causing your stress until you get a clearer picture of your unique stress profile’s complexities.
Once you can see where, why, and how you get stressed and acknowledge the patterns your stress follows, you can concoct methods for avoiding stressful episodes, practice ways of dealing with them better and clear your body of excess stress hormones.
To start, explore some possible ways to decrease stress:
- Explore stress reduction at work
Consider changing jobs or changing some aspect of the job, causing stress. Perhaps a committee or workgroup you are part of is sapping your energy and amping up pressure. Ask to be moved to a different group, restructure the time constraints required to fulfil those responsibilities, or work for another manager/boss. You could negotiate more work-from-home flex time.
If you are the boss and feel overwhelmed at work, consider delegating more of your less-preferred tasks or responsibilities to promising employees. And if you work for yourself, you could outsource some tasks. Consider taking a sabbatical, a holiday, or scheduling a long-weekend break. Attempt to design your “perfect job” and gradually find a way to delegate the rest or let those tasks go and restructure the work.
Such an approach may only sometimes be possible but look at options to see if there is a creative way within that job to rearrange your tasks, lessen your responsibilities, or share them with others to lighten your stress load at work.
- Explore stress reduction at home
Perhaps you have a critical in-law, a jealous sister, a cheating mate, or screaming children who make too many demands on you, causing stress. Consider arranging share-time with other mothers so you have some free time for yourself, or if needed, consider some childcare.
If your kids need some diversion, you and your kids can take your pet (or a neighbour’s pet) for a walk or sign your kids up for a neighbourhood project, afterschool club, or art class.
If your spouse is creating stress for you, ask yourself: Are they overworked and taking it out on you as the closest person who won’t get them fired, or is there an underlying relationship issue that needs to be resolved?
- Explore mental stress-reduction
If taking a thorough look at what’s causing your anxiety and its resulting stress doesn’t come up with any answers, what should you do? One approach is to take an honest look at your beliefs, values, and perspectives on life. Try to be more cooperative, compassionate, considerate of others, friendly, good-natured, and optimistic. We are less stressed when we are relatively open and flexible rather than uptight. And we are less stressed when we are happy or having fun!
- Explore healthy approaches to stress reduction
People tend to handle stress better when they are healthy, so follow these rules for healthy living:
- Eat nutritious food in moderation. The “Mediterranean Diet is often extolled as the “healthiest” with its wide selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, and fish. It allows light servings of chicken, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, and red meat. This diet recommends avoiding excess sugars, fizzy drinks, processed foods, refined grains, processed meats, and trans-fat. Eat mindfully and slowly, chew well, avoid overeating, and avoid toxins that can seep into your food.
- Exercise. Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise several times a week is recommended. Moderate exercise gives the muscles an outlet for stress and can help your overall well-being. There are also many benefits associated with taking a daily walk. It’s even better when you walk in nature, which is calming and healing.
- Get enough sleep. Generally, 7-8 hours of sleep is recommended, but this will vary by age, gender, the intensity of physical exertion, and habit. Listen to your body: if you’re tired, then sleep.
- Take breaks from tech. Today, with the omnipotence of the digital world, where almost everybody has a cell phone, and most are mesmerised by the internet, we should be aware of digital overload and screen fatigue, which can cause eye strain, headaches, and even reduced well-being.
- Socialise. With so many people glued to their computers and cell phones all day long and then watching TV, news, or movies into the evening, our once interactive communities suffer today from a new form of isolation. Most jobs include socialising with others, be that of clients or co-workers, but more and more people find themselves isolated from others as more people work at home alone post-pandemic. Loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions among young and old alike. So remember to reach out to friends and family because sharing our lives with others is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.
- Explore relaxation techniques for stress reduction
- Taking several long, deep breaths is one of the quickest ways to shed stress, and it can be done anywhere.
- Consciously tighten and then loosen different muscle groups while sitting at your desk. Stress causes muscles to tighten, but you can unlock their grip by consciously working those muscles.
- Turn on some soothing music and listen to it. Or have it as background music to calm you as you work or relax.
- Develop a meditation practice. If you don’t know where to begin, you can start by closing your eyes while taking deep breaths. Slowly count your breaths on the exhale to help you quiet your restless mind. Keep bringing your focus back to your breath. Continue counting breaths up to 50 or for a set period, gradually lengthening your practice until you no longer need to count. Guided visualisations help reduce stress as well.
- Take a hot bath or soak in a hot tub. Water is soothing for most people, and hot water relaxes your muscles.
- Do something creative that you enjoy. Try sketching, singing, dancing, making jewellery, gardening, etc. Maybe you like to write. Journaling, whether organised or stream-of-consciousness, can be a helpful way to process your thoughts to release stress.
- Do something physical. Anything! Do chores around your house or go somewhere. Make a plan and follow through with it.
I hope these tips help to make your life a little better.
Sharon is a New Zealand-qualified Health & Wellness Coach and Personal Trainer. Sharon was awarded the Health & Wellness Coach of the Year 2022 by The Health Coaches Australia & New Zealand Association.
She focuses on you as a whole person, mind, and body. And understands how your physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social dimensions play an essential role in your life and wellness. Using powerful Coaching techniques, evidence-based Lifestyle Medicine practices and Personal Training, her approach guarantees you’ll gain greater health, more resiliency, a stronger body, and next-level support.
From individual coaching and personal training to team training and workshops, Sharon is passionate about helping more people to find fun, creative ways to be and stay -healthy.