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Strategies You Can Use to Combat Stress

Triggers don't play fair. They'll get you online, in real life, at work, rest and play.
Helen Massy
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Helen Massy

When we think of stress, the biggest triggers are work, finances, relationships and health. But those stressors come from an internal place. The outside world has stress coming at us from all kinds of places, even the places you actively rush to every day for entertainment.

Let's start with social media.

"One of the biggest challenges of social media is its encouragement of comparison," said Eloise Skinner, an author, former corporate lawyer, and yoga, meditation and fitness instructor based in London. "We can so easily start to look at the lives of others their jobs, relationships, fitness routines and so on and forget to engage with our own lives and with our own experience of the present moment."

We begin to compare our lives to others and worry our life isn't exciting enough, our body isn't the right shape, we don't travel enough and so on. But to quote former President Theodore Roosevelt, "Comparison is the thief of joy," and comparison certainly leads to increased stress levels.

And that's just the tip of the media's influence on your stress levels. News surrounding climate change, mass shootings, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine or just "politics as usual" can be oversaturating and easily overload our mental health.

In the American Psychological Association's "Stress in America 2022" report, 76 percent of American adults said the future of the United States is a significant source of stress in their lives, and 62 percent disagreed with the statement, "Our children are going to inherit a better world than we did."

These statistics are not encouraging.

We are surrounded by stressors that can impact each and every one of us, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to deal with stress and maximize health. Here are a few tips from the experts to help reduce stress levels and make life a little more manageable.

Minimizing the effects of media

Terence Watts, M.C.G.I., a psychotherapist, an author and the founder of the BWRT Institute, based in the United Kingdom, said it would be ideal if we could avoid the news and media. Of course, that's not always practical, so he recommended an alternative in the shape of learning "temporary cynicism."

"Remember that bad news sells, and social media looks for clicks and likes," he said. "So when something is disturbing, say out loud, 'Huh! Really?'"

He added it's also helpful to bear in mind that very rarely is anything as good or as bad as it's first reported.

"As a nontechnical rule of thumb, the more dramatic the report, the more likely it is that it's designed to impress rather than inform," he continued.

As with most things, managing media is about experiencing everything in moderation, said Alexis Powell-Howard, M.A., psychotherapist, TEDx speaker and managing director at Fortis Therapy & Training, based in Lincolnshire, England. In other words, manage the time you spend on social media by limiting screen time and filtering what you see.

"Consume information about things you are interested in or curious about, follow people who make you feel good about yourself or who share similar values to you, and unfollow or block accounts and news topics that you know cause you stress or worry," she said.

Powell-Howard stressed that it's all about creating digital boundaries to protect your peace, just as you would in the physical world.

Skinner added that if you compare yourself to others on social media, one way to counteract the tendency is through a quick mindfulness practice. She offered three simple steps for what to do when you find yourself getting stressed out online:

  1. Take a moment and put down your phone. If you're sitting in a chair, ground your feet fully on the floor and bring your attention to your breath.
  2. Then ask yourself: "What three things am I grateful for right now?" This could be something as simple as the ability to breathe fully and deeply or your energy levels. Or perhaps you're thankful for the people in your life or your opportunities in the coming day. Whatever it is, take a moment to remind yourself what's important to you.
  3. Then take a few final deep breaths, accompanied by a quick stretch, and continue with your day.

The goal of this "centering" mindfulness practice, Skinner explained, is not to prevent the comparison tendency but to create some space when it does happen. You can use this space to bring yourself back into your own life and to remind yourself of the depth of your own experience.

Dealing with stress at home

Being stoic and plowing on regardless of stress is something many people do. But as Watts highlighted, keeping stress to yourself to avoid upsetting others is a bad idea. For a start, they may be upset that you're keeping some secret or other from them. And if you avoid them completely, they may believe they're the cause of your low mood or sadness.

Try to talk about what's troubling you.

"Remember to begin whatever you want to say with 'I feel' rather than 'You make me,'" Watts advised. "Telling others that they 'make' you feel something is telling them they have control over you, and they'll be either hurt or delighted. But you still won't feel better."

If you're too stressed to talk, take a few moments first. Breathe deeply, clench and unclench your muscles, and start the conversation when you're calmer.

"We can sometimes bring the stress of the day home with us regardless of whether you work in an office or at home so it is important to take time to recover from the day," Powell-Howard said.

She explained this recovery could be in the form of going for a walk, taking a shower or bath, reading or even cooking. Whatever makes you happy, take time to do that and destress yourself from the day.

Skinner added there is power in creating a home routine. For example, try a gentle morning routine to set the day off right:

  • Set your alarm a few minutes earlier than usual and take the time to pause before you begin your day.
  • With your eyes closed or open, take a few full, deep breaths, maybe with a roll of your shoulders as well.
  • Set an intention for the day ahead. The intention could be as simple as just staying present with yourself throughout the day or it could be something more specific whatever works best for you.
  • Then, if you can, remind yourself of your intention at the end of the day before you go to bed.

"Daily intention-setting practices can bring a level of focus, direction and purpose to each day, something that can be helpful in the face of stressful situations," she said.

5 tips for combating stress

Setting a daily routine is good for avoiding stress during the day, but if those triggers catch up with you while you're not looking, here are five ways to combat those unwanted thoughts:

  1. Remember to play. Most situations, unless they constitute an immediate threat that must be resolved now, don't change if you leave them alone for a while. "Take time out to play with your child or your dog, belt out a tune on an instrument, practice juggling badly or do anything physical," Watts suggested. "Physical action depletes the stress hormone cortisol."
  2. Have a gentle stretch at the beginning and end of each day. Skinner said the start and the end of our days are great moments to pause, pay attention to our body and connect with our breath. "Even a few gentle stretches a forward fold, for example, or a slow neck stretch can create a more peaceful way to start or finish each day," she said.
  3. Learn to meditate. Watts said meditation has the effect of lowering cortisol, which lowers inflammation and contributes to feeling better. Relaxing deeply and concentrating on breathing with the stomach muscles can also have a similar effect.
  4. Notice when tension starts to build up. If you work at a desk or you're on your phone for long periods of time, tension can build up around your neck, upper back or shoulders. "If you start to feel tightness, restriction or tension, see if you can observe where the sensation is coming from," Skinner said. "Then work out a few easy stretches to target that area and make it a daily habit to practice them. You can also roll out these areas with a small massage ball or foam roller."
  5. Create small pauses throughout the day. In a fast-paced world, it can be easy to rush through life without really noticing where we are or where we're heading. Skinner suggested trying to create tiny moments in which you can pause, take account of how you're feeling physically, emotionally and mentally and gather your thoughts before beginning your day again.
Useful resources

Several meditation apps are available for your phone and there are fantastic relaxation videos on YouTube. You also may want to listen to audiobooks on mindfulness. The list is long, but here are a few of our favorites to try:

  • Calm is an app to aid sleep, meditation and relaxation. It contains a wealth of different resources, such as guided meditations, soothing music, calm stories for kids, audio programs taught by world-renowned mindfulness experts, nature scenes and sounds to enjoy while relaxing, and much more.
  • Headspace is an app designed "to improve the health and happiness of the world." It provides science-backed meditation and mindfulness tools and claims to reduce stress by 14 percent in just 10 days.
  • If you're looking to try out a few meditation apps for free before committing to a paid app that has everything you need, follow this link and experiment a little.
  • Looking for something for your kids? The Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame app helps teach skills such as problem-solving, self-control, planning and task persistence. Kids help the monster calm down and solve challenges. And it's free.
  • The Great Meditation YouTube channel focuses on keeping things short and simple with clear, easy-to-understand guided meditation videos.
  • And if you're looking for active stress relief, try Yoga With Adriene on YouTube. Her sessions are tailored around specific needs and she also combines guided meditation into some of her yogic practices

For those of you not looking for a tech resource, Watts had one final tip.

"When I need to unwind, I don't use an app," he explained. "I just sit quietly and imagine I can breathe in through my fingertips, that the breath is moving easily through my arms, down through my body and out through my feet, where any tension just evaporates. Works every time."