Some stress is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to relieve it when it starts to overwhelm your mind and body or to prevent some of it in the first place. Here are my top 10 stress management techniques to help you reduce and manage the stress in your life for the long-term. These aren’t quick fixes, but rather are deeper strategies to more fundamentally alter your relationship with stress. Take your time working through these to truly make them part of your life, and you will see results.
1. Get to know your stress.
Before you can manage your stress, you need to know exactly what you’ll be managing. The big stressors will be easy to identify—changing jobs, getting divorced, looking for work, a fight with a loved one, moving to a new home—and the chronic stressors will take a little more digging. For example, is your work stress due to job demands, co-worker relationships, or your own procrastination?
Also pay attention to any of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may be contributing to your everyday stress levels, with a focus on your habits, your attitude, your self-talk, and your excuses. Consider (but don’t limit yourself to) these questions:
Do you blame your stress on outside events or other people?
Do you blame yourself for all your stress?
Do you see stress as part of your personality? (“I’m just high strung…” “Yeah, I’m a Type A….” I have a lot of nervous energy”)
Do you consider stress to be a permanent or integral part of your home life or work life? (“Oh yeah, things are always crazy here…”)
Do you minimize your stress or explain it away as being temporary even when you can’t remember the last time you had a break? (“I just have too much going on right now.”)
Do you view stress as a normal part of life?
Do you view stress as dangerous?
It’s important to be completely honest with yourself when considering these questions because until you take responsibility for the role you play in your life’s stress, your stress will remain firmly outside of your control.
2. Keep a stress log.
Keep a stress log for at least 2 weeks, if possible. Keeping a stress log or journal can help you find out what causes your stress and what you need to do to reduce your stress. In your log, rate your stress on a scale from 1-10*, then note how you felt (emotionally and physically), how you acted in response to the stress (behavior), and what you did to feel better. As your log grows and you have more information, you will be able to identify patterns and common themes, helping you to identify the sources of your stress and to change your behavior to reduce it.
*When choosing your rating, be sure to keep a healthy perspective. Ask yourself how much this will matter in a week, in a month, in a year, and consider where your stress falls on a scale of getting a hangnail to a catastrophe (natural disaster, sudden death of a spouse, etc). Try to not to underestimate or overestimate your stress levels. about how your stress level compares to losing your home or getting a hangnail. Also, make sure perfectionism isn’t increasing your stress. If you are stressing because something isn’t perfect, consider if “good enough” can be good enough for you this time.
As you get to know your stress, you will be able to identify triggers, evaluate how effective you are at managing stress, and improve your ability to manage stress in your life.
3. Change what you can.
Some stressors are predictable. You know they’re coming and you know they’re usually stressful—a meeting with your boss, a court date, a family gathering. It’s hard to plan changes to surprise stressors, but you can change aspects of predictable stressors to decrease your overall stress levels.
Change your stressors. Review your stress log and consider 2 or 3 stressful events or activities that you can change or get rid of in the future. Drop out of a committee, avoid back-to-back commitments, delegate responsibility, leave early to avoid running late, plan easy meals for Monday nights, or whatever works for you and your specific stressful situations.
Change your environment. If the news stresses you out, stop watching or reading it. If traffic tenses you up, go the back way or leave at a different time. If the same person consistently stresses you out, spend less time with them. If your job is draining you dry, be on the hunt for another option. Take a look around and see what you can change.
Change your answers. If you are one of the many people who struggle to say no to additional responsibility, even when you don’t have enough time or energy to do everything as it is, you need to practice saying no and setting boundaries. Read Learn How to Say No and Set Boundaries to learn more. Learning to say no when you need to will lower your stress levels and help you focus on what is really important in your life.
Change how you manage your time. Feeling overburdened by your “to do” list is a common cause of stress. You can’t do everything at once (unless your name is Hermione), so it’s time to prioritize. Prioritize them based on when they need to be done, how crucial it is that they get done, and how unpleasant they will be. Organize your list by priority and do the high-priority items first. Do the “must do” items before the “should do” items, and do the most unpleasant must-do’s first. Get your unpleasant tasks done first, because every time you think about them and anticipate them, you are causing yourself stress. Let unimportant tasks drop to the end of your list, or take them off completely. When possible, avoiding scheduling tasks or appointments back to back; allow some buffer time to deal with the unexpected and for your own well-being.
4. Make a stress relief toolbox and use it.
Make a list of healthy ways to cope, relax, and recharge. Look through our big lists of coping skills, coping statements, and self-care activities and add the ones you like to your own stress relief list. Choose the ones you truly like the most and that feel the most you to you.
Next, make copies of your list and keep one in your wallet, in your car, at home, and at work. (Do one thing on your list every day, even if you aren’t feeling stress. It’ll do you good.)
Lastly, save a copy of your list to put in any container you’d like for your toolbox, and include items that will help you to immediately do something for stress relief, like a journal and pen, a candle and lighter, a stress ball or worry stone, a book, motorcycle keys, a fishing lure, whatever works for you. Review your list, choose some small easy items, and then find a container that will work for what you’ve chosen. Keep it someplace you can get to it often. Use as needed.
5. Relax and breathe.
Set aside time for relaxation in your daily schedule. Deep breathing, massage, yoga, meditation, and guided relaxation activate your body’s relaxation response, the opposite of the “fight or flight” stress response. Relaxation lowers your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rates, bringing your body back to a calm state.
If relaxation is new or difficult for you, start with getting a massage or following guided meditations at bedtime. It’s normal to find it difficult to relax at first; relaxation is a skill that will improve with practice.
Shallow breathing can be caused by stress, but it can also increase stress. By intentionally breathing more deeply and slowly, you will oxygenate your blood, slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, center your body, clear your mind, and decrease stress. While it may not be realistic to get a massage or do yoga every time you feel stressed, your breath is a tool that is always with you and can be used anywhere and anytime.
6. Express your feelings.
If something or someone is bothering you, speak up. Communicate your concerns in a respectful and open way when possible. For example, tell your chatty housemate that you only have 5 minutes to talk before you have to get back to what you’re doing. Pretending you have all the time in the world and that nothing is wrong will just breed resentment and increase stress.
Share your feelings with friends, in person when possible. Your social circle can be one of your best stress-management tools. Talk to others, share what’s going on, and get a fresh perspective while feeling understood and nurtured. If you don’t have anyone in your life who can take on this role, find a therapist you trust, call a hotline, vent to someone online, or imagine what a loved one would say to you. Getting together in person is best when possible, though, because the face-to-face social interaction triggers hormones that counteract the “fight or flight” hormones of stress. Being with other supportive humans reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, so do your best to build up social supports and connect with them regularly.
If you don’t have other people to talk to in the moment, you can express yourself on your own, too. Talk calmly to yourself, write in a journal, compose a poem, imagine what a loved one would say to you, or write a letter you’ll never mail.
7. Do something you enjoy each day.
Do something enjoyable and low-pressure every day, even if just for a few minutes. Do something creative, listen to music, take a power nap, stargaze, spend time in the fresh air, take a walk, go for a ride, or simply spend some time doing nothing in particular. A good belly laugh can lower cortisol and adrenaline while boosting endorphins, which improve your mood, and research shows that listening to calming music has a positive effect on the body and brain, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. Nurturing yourself is a necessity, not a luxury, so make sure you prioritize it accordingly. Peruse these Self-Care Activities for more ideas.
8. Limit self-judgment and change your self-talk.
Replace “I’ll never be able to do this” and “Why am I such a baby about these things?” with statements that are true and kind. For example, “I’m stressed right now, but I won’t feel like this forever.” For more examples, read the section for stress in our Big List of Coping Statements. Focusing on positive outcomes can help reduce tension and stress, making it easier for you to achieve your goals. It’s also helpful to reinforce positivity in general by surrounding yourself with positive quotes, positive music, and positive people, and keeping a gratitude journal to look over when times are tough.
9. Take care of your body.
Your body is your vehicle through this life, and stress on your body can increase stress on your mind. Work to maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle with a healthy diet (reduce caffeine and sugar), regular exercise, and enough good sleep. Avoid trying to self-medicate your stress with excessive tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. Taking care of your body will give you more energy and better brainpower to manage the stress in your life.
Even if you don’t exercise regularly, doing something physical when you’re feeling stressed out can still help. When under stress, the levels of your stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) increase, putting your body into “fight or flight (or freeze)” mode. Boxing, fast walking, running, marching in place, or other (preferably rhythmic) physical activity will help your body metabolize those hormones and restore your body to a calmer state.
10. Change how you think about stress.
It’s common knowledge that stress is harmful to your health, but did you know that some experts say believing that stress is harmful actually makes it more harmful? Stressing about how your stress may be harming you may actually be increasing your stress levels and stress’s negative health effects. When you change your mind about stress, you may change your body’s response to stress. Check it out:
If you consistently practice and use these top 10 stress management techniques, you will be better equipped to reduce and manage the stress in your life. Please share your own ideas or comments below!