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December 28, 2022

To reduce stress levels in the new year, try sleeping more, adopting a hobby and other strategies

The inability to manage life's challenges in a healthy way can lead to an array of health issues

Mental Health Stress
Stress Management Strategies Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

More than half of Americans report high stress levels, which can wreak havoc on their mental and physical health. Though stress can't be eliminated fully, there are strategies to manage it better.

It is again time to make New Year's resolutions, and for many people, reducing stress remains a top priority. More than half of Americans report high stress levels, which can wreak havoc on mental and physical health.

Though stress cannot be eliminated completely, health experts say developing healthy coping strategies can make managing it easier.

Stress and your health

Stress can come from many different areas – from a job loss to relationship problems to the declining health of a loved one. And it causes the body's central nervous systems to become overwhelmed by stress hormones.

High levels of cortisol – the "fight-or-flight" hormone – and other stress hormones are known to raise the risk of depression, anxiety and heart disease, and can cause digestive problems, headaches, memory problems and weight gain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The most common signs of stress include physical symptoms such as muscle tension, jaw clenching, fatigue, headaches and restlessness. Emotional symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, becoming more emotionally reactive, difficulties with problem-solving, racing thoughts and forgetfulness.

Most stress is temporary; it takes about 90 minutes for the body to return to normal after the trigger has been removed. However, there are times when people are living with stress everyday. The inability to manage chronic stress in healthy ways can dampen the immune system, increasing the risk of poor health.

People under a lot of stress also may have trouble sleeping, experience sexual difficulties, and eat less or more. They also are at a higher risk for substance abuse.

One recent study found that stress can significantly increase the risk of stroke. It found that increased stress at home or at work, and recent stressful life events — like getting divorced — are linked to an increased risk of an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a blood clot, and a hemorrhagic stroke, which is due to bleeding in the brain.

Yet, perceived control over stressful situations, lowered the stroke risk, the researchers found. 

It is important to note that not all stress is bad. It can lead people to perform better – like the stress of a job promotion. It all depends on how people perceive new stresses on their lives. 

Viewing stress in a positive light, rather than as something to avoid, has been associated with improved health, productivity and emotional well-being – even in high-stress moments.

So how can stress be a good thing? Mental health experts advise people to view it as an energy that they can use to meet their goals. For instance, instead of letting job loss lead to greater alcohol consumption, people should use it to push out more resumes so they can start the next chapter of their lives. 

Sometimes, behaving in ways to avoid stress only makes situations worse. One study found that people who sought to avoid stress were more likely to experience depression, divorce and getting fired. The researchers said this was due to them also being more likely to rely on unhealthy coping strategies like avoidance, procrastination, fixating on worse-case scenarios and substance abuse.

Even if a bad situation can't be changed, feeling in control and trying to find meaning in the event can help people thrive, experts say.. A more positive outlook can make people more likely to tackle situations head-on and to seek help when they need it.

Studies consistently show that the effects of stress are not as significant when people feel like they can navigate through stressful situations.

How to manage stress better

There are many strategies that can help people better manage stress, so that it's not overwhelming. Here are some tips culled from the Mayo ClinicVerywell mind and Amherst College.

Get more sleep. Not clocking in enough ZZZ's can cause extra stress. Poor sleep can negatively affect your health in many ways, so not getting a good night's sleep while experiencing high stress only increases damage to your body. Talk to a doctor to rule out the possibility of a sleep disorder like insomnia.

Having a hobby or an activity that makes you passionate, like playing a sport or volunteering, can reduce your stress levels. Make 2023 the year you focus on what you enjoy the most.

Turn up the music. Music can lift your spirits and give you a much-needed boost of energy when you feel like you can't take another step forward. Music therapy is often used in medical settings to help patients reduce pain and stress.

Declutter and simplify your life. This means getting rid of the objects in your home that don't serve a purpose, but also slimming down your daily obligations to those that are absolutely essential. Learn to prioritize your health. Say no when something isn't important and ask for help when it is.

Carve out time for yourself. Exercise, eating healthy, getting a good night's sleep, spending time with loved ones and doing things you enjoy – these are all important for our physical and mental health. They are also great stress relievers.

Invest more in your relationships. When people are stressed, they tend to turn inward and prefer to be alone instead of spending time with others. That is counterintuitive for good health. People need strong connections with others to get them through the tough times. Don't shut loved ones out.

Find stress-relieving techniques that work for you. Whether it is a massage, yoga, or meditation, doing these things each week can help you manage your daily stresses better.

Cultivate a more positive outlook on life. If you focus on the things in life that make you grateful, it makes it easier to get through bad times. According to the Mayo Clinic, feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood and immunity. It can also decrease depression anxiety, chronic pain and risk of disease.

Eliminate the stress you control. Though not all sources of stress are in control, like the death of a loved one, there are others that we can control to some extent. For instance, if you are in a job that makes you miserable, try to find something new that will meet your financial needs, but also be less stressful.

Laugh often. Laughter is a great stress reliever. Not only does it lift your spirts, but it also causes physical changes in the body that help relieve your stress response.

If you feel like the stress in your life is too overwhelming, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional who can help identify coping strategies that work best for you.

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