We all make light of how much stress we’re under, whether because of our jobs, school, family problems, health issues or financial pressures, but the truth is that stress is not so funny.  While some stress is unavoidable, and even healthy, as it’s related to the body’s natural response to danger, too much can have a huge negative impact on both your emotional and physical well-being. 

Excessive stress can cause irritability, memory issues and trouble with concentration, and is a contributing factor to generalized anxiety disorder, which, when untreated, can develop into depression or other mood disorders.  The toll stress takes on the body is also considerable.  Besides fatigue and general aches and pains, stress also increases blood pressure, which, of course, can lead to a heart attack or stroke.  It can also cause digestive problems, insomnia, low sex drive and recurring skin conditions such as eczema.  As a secondary complication, many sufferers of extreme stress turn to alcohol or drugs to help them relax, which can create a whole new host of problems.

So, how much stress is too much? Everyone’s tolerance level is different, but it’s safe to say that if you just can’t seem to relax, you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep and your thoughts are always focused on the both the big and small worries in your life, you’re probably overwhelmed with stress. The good news is that it’s never too late to take control of it. While we can’t rid ourselves entirely of everything that troubles us, it is possible to keep it from ruling our lives.

1. Reassess your life. Are you taking on too many tasks at work? Are you not allowing anyone to help out at home? We often spread ourselves too thin without realizing it, and then feel guilty and stressed out when we can’t stay on top of our responsibilities. It’s okay to say “no”! Have a meeting with your boss and ask if your daily tasks can be prioritized. Don’t always be the first to volunteer with projects at church or your children’s school. Remember that you’re entitled to time for yourself.

2. Take a walk. It sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s true: a brisk walk around the block can lower blood pressure, making you feel less anxious. In fact, regular exercise, including walking, hiking, swimming and bicycling has been proven to have long-term positive effects on mental health.

3. Try meditation. Not necessarily the chanting kind of meditation, but the kind in which you sit in a quiet place for a little while and just allow yourself to relax with your eyes closed. Believe it or not, just learning to relax and calm ourselves takes practice. Check online if there are any classes in meditation in your area, or read instructional books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meditation.

4. Listen to music or watch a funny movie. Though it may seem like you’re incapable of relaxing, we all have something that makes us feel good. Allow yourself these little indulgences as often as possible! Listen to music you enjoy while making dinner or doing household chores, or check out some funny clips on YouTube. A cool head and a sense of humor can work wonders against life’s troubles.

5. Spend time with friends and family. Though your first instinct when feeling overwhelmed may be to shut down and isolate yourself, this actually can make it worse. Our loved ones serve a valuable purpose, as shoulders to cry on when times get tough, sources of comfort and entertaining distractions and to help take on some of our burdens. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for some help, even if “help” just means a short phone conversation or meeting for lunch.

6. Maintain a healthy diet. Try to avoid the temptation of caffeinated beverages and sugary foods to power you throughout the day, as you’ll only end up crashing later. Snack on fruits, nuts and crunchy vegetables, and treat yourself to the occasional piece of dark chocolate, a surprisingly healthy indulgence!

7. Keep a journal. Whether private or public, keeping a journal of your thoughts can help reduce stress and anxiety. If you feel like everything is about to fall apart, sit down and write it out. Often seeing our thoughts and issues on paper either calms us down or allows us to refocus on the real issues. Even just writing down a daily “to do” list and checking it off can create a sense of accomplishment.

8. Get a good night’s sleep. This is critical. Exercise an hour before bed, or try taking a warm bath, then end the evening before falling asleep by reading or listening to soft music. Avoid watching TV or spending time on the internet. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, natural sleep aids such as valerian or melatonin may be helpful. If you find yourself only able to get a couple of hours of sleep per night, consider seeing a doctor with experience treating insomnia.

9. Have a nice cup of tea. Studies have shown that one cup of black tea can reduce the level of cortisol, the hormone in the brain that controls stress, by nearly 50 percent. A healthier alternative to coffee, herbal teas such as green tea and raspberry tea also provide valuable antioxidants.

10. Just breathe. Remember that few of the daily problems we face are insurmountable. Take a deep breath, realize that much of what is bothering you will eventually pass and keep moving forward. One day you’ll back on it all and laugh. Well, maybe not laugh, but it’ll all be behind you nonetheless.

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