What are some effective ways to reduce and manage stress?

Stress is a natural response to situations where we feel pressured, unable to cope, or overwhelmed. Stress can affect people in different ways. You may feel irritable, anxious, angry, or sad. You may find it hard to sleep, withdraw from whānau/ family/ friends, or be more tearful and emotional. 

When we feel stressed our ‘fight or flight response’ is activated leading to physical changes in the body. These changes were designed to help us survive by preparing the body to fight or run away from danger. However, this response does not have the same advantage when faced with modern everyday stresses, such as deadlines at work or financial or relationship issues. Additionally, the biological stress response was designed as a response to short term stress; it should switch off when the danger is gone. But when we experience everyday stress over a long period of time, called chronic stress, the stress response stays switched on. This is harmful as it leads to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and causes damage to our body. 

Chronic stress is a major public health issue and is linked to many physical and mental harms. These include sleep problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, and the onset of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders. 

We cannot remove stress completely from our lives but there are ways we can reduce feelings of stress, learn how to cope with stress, and in turn improve our general well being.  

Here are some simple practices and lifestyle changes to help reduce and manage stress:

1) Stay physically active.

Regular physical activity has many physical and mental health benefits, including reducing stress and improving mood. It is recommended that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of more intense exercise per week. Aerobic exercise, such as running, is particularly beneficial as it causes the release of endorphins, which are known as the “feel good” chemicals in the body.

Any form of exercise is great - walk, bike, swim, dance - find something that you enjoy. 

2) Practice breathing exercises.

When we are stressed we can find ourselves taking fast shallow breaths. Taking time to focus on taking slow deep breaths can help to switch off the ‘fight or flight response’, lower your heart rate, and make you feel calmer. Practising breathing exercises regularly has been shown to lower levels of stress hormones in the body and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

3) Get enough sleep. 

The quality and quantity of sleep you get can impact your mood, concentration, and energy levels over the day. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Practising good sleep hygiene and making sure you are getting enough sleep can reduce stress and improve general well being.

4) Practice relaxation techniques and meditation.

Making time in your daily schedule to practice muscle relaxation, meditation, and/or breathing exercises can help to reduce feelings of stress and mean you are better able to cope with stress in the future. 

There are many types of meditation and relaxation exercises. Here are a few examples:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: 
    • Find a quiet comfortable place to lie down. Lie on your back with your arms by your side and legs extended. Work your way through each area/ muscle group in your body; starting at your feet and moving up to your head. Focus on each area, tensing and then relaxing all your muscles, then move onto the next area. 
  • Mindfulness meditation: 
    • Mindfulness meditation is the act of being fully present and aware of your body and surroundings, and accepting your thoughts and feelings without judgement. 
  • Yoga:
    • There are many styles of yoga which incorporate meditation, movement, poses, and breathing exercises. The aims of yoga are to increase awareness of the connection between your mind and body, and to focus on your breathing. 

5) Stay connected with whānau/ family/ friends.

Having a strong support system can help you to cope with stress. Joining a club, sports team, or community group can be a good way to meet new people and expand your support network. 

6) Take time for yourself.

It is important to make time for yourself. Take time to do the things you enjoy and that allow you to relax and recharge.

7) Stay organised, make plans, and identify your priorities. 

Being unorganised and overloading ourselves with work can increase stress. To be more organised and productive over your day it may help to make a daily plan or to-do list, set time frames in which to complete tasks, identify priorities, and set goals for each day. 

8) Spend time outside in nature. 

Spending time in nature, particularly around trees, has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood. 

9) Eat a healthy balanced diet.

Eating a healthy diet rich in vitamins and minerals can help improve overall well being. Try to avoid a diet which is high in added sugars and processed foods, and avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.

Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower stress levels and improved mental and physical well being. Key foods in the Mediterranean diet are vegetables, fish, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and olive oil. 

10) Help others and get involved in your community. 

Volunteering and helping others can help increase resilience and improve mood. 

11) If needed, get professional help. 

If you are struggling with stress you may benefit from seeing a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or counsellor. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy, and other forms of talk therapy and counselling can help to reduce feelings of stress and develop healthy ways to cope with stress.