By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 28 January 2015)
Stress can trigger not only panic attacks and generalized anxiety, but also a variety of health complaints ranging from headaches to back pain to stomach upsets to skin rashes. It can also reduce sex drive and cause weight gain by increasing appetite.
Betty Burrows, PhD (n.d.), notes that “90 percent of all illness and disease is stress-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The following are some techniques that you can use to reduce stress in your day-to-day life.
Keep a Stress Journal
A stress journal is useful for identifying the stressors that contribute to panic attacks, general anxiety, headaches, or other symptoms of anxiety or distress, particularly if you have a tendency to suppress emotional responses. Things to record in your journal include:
- The cause of stressful feelings on any given day – What happened over the course of the day? What worries are lurking at the back of your mind? You may not have linked the feelings you’re experiencing with a particular event, but writing it all down can help you identify those connections.
- Your overt response (what you did), and your physical and emotional responses (how you felt) – What emotions did you experience? How did your body feel (describe sensations such as rapid heart rate, exhaustion, headache, etc.).
- Your coping strategies – Did you do anything to reduce or eliminate the stressor, or modify your reaction to it? Did it work? If not, what could you do differently next time?
- Supportive statements – What would you say to a good friend or close family member who was going through what you’re going through right now? How would you support and encourage that person? Write a note to yourself as if you were writing to a friend or family member.
- Visual representations – Do you think in pictures more than words? Are your feelings difficult to express linguistically? Try drawing to illustrate your feelings. You may develop new insights into what is causing your stress (and perhaps even unearth some latent artistic talents as well).
Stress Journal Tips and Precautions:
- If you’re suffering from writers’ block, try free writing – Just write down anything that pops into your head, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Don’t bother with punctuation or anything else that might slow you down; just let it flow.
- Don’t feel that you have to write in your journal every day – Journaling shouldn’t be another stressful chore. View it as positive time that you use to release your stress, or at least develop a greater understanding of it so that you can do things to reduce it in the future. Burrows recommends against purchasing a journal with dates on each page because you might feel pressured to write a certain amount each day – instead, she recommends buying a plain lined notebook that encourages free writing of whatever length is best on a particular day.
Divide Your Stressors into Categories and Tackle Them One by One
Stressors can be divided into four categories, some of which arise from the external environment and others from the body and mind. Determine which ones apply to you so that you can create a plan of action for addressing them.
Take your list of stressors and decide which strategies you could apply to each of them. Then create a plan of action. You probably won’t be able to do it all at once – set small, achievable goals as you work toward overall stress reduction.
Smith and Segal (2012) provide an excellent framework for stress reduction and coping strategies: “avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.” The first two involve changing the situation, while the latter two require changing your response to the situation. The following table shows the ways you can apply this framework in day-to-day life.
Replace Quick Fixes with Healthier Stress-Busting Activities
There are quick fixes that may make you feel better in the short term but worse in the long run. Unhealthy quick fixes that can trigger worse rebound anxiety and stress include:
- Spending sedentary hours surfing the Internet, watching television, or playing videogames– These things may be useful as temporary distractions during an actual panic attack, but if done for hours on end, they contribute to anxiety and stress in the long run.
- Abusing substances (drinking, smoking, drugs, etc.) – There are no free rides – every calm or happy moment obtained via substances must be paid for with worse anxiety, stress, or depression later on.
- Overeating, avoiding food, eating junk food – Many stress and anxiety sufferers have unhealthy eating habits. Overeating or consuming junk may provide a brief mood boost, but anxieties over weight gain or the physical symptoms of a sugar crash (nervousness, exhaustion, heart palpitations, etc.) will trigger more stress in the long run, and missing meals can cause panic attacks by destabilizing blood sugar.
- Avoiding difficult situations – The longer you wait on a necessary confrontation or unpleasant task, the more you’ll suffer – it’s best to get it over with as soon as possible.
- Lashing out in anger – There’s a difference between healthy assertiveness when a situation warrants it and simply taking a bad mood out on others. If you feel on the verge of snapping at someone, walk away and take a few deep breaths (or just take a few deep breaths if you’re not able to walk away). When responding to others, think about how you will feel about your actions later on, and then respond in a manner that will make your future self proud.
Replace quick fixes with healthy options such as working out, walking, yoga, Thai chi, arts and crafts, writing, getting back to nature, reading, listening to (or making) music, watching something funny (but not too long), playing with pets, gardening, spending time with friends or family (assuming that they don’t stress you out), getting a massage, doing relaxation exercises, or taking a bath. Be sure to do something enjoyable, relaxing, and positive each day, even if you can only spare a few minutes for it.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- Burrows, B., PhD. (n.d.). “How Stress Works.” HowStuffWorks.com.
- Cahill, J., PhD; Landsbergis, P.A., EdD, MPH; Schnall, P.L., MPH. (n.d.). “Reducing Occupational Stress.” Job Stress Network, WorkHealth.org.
- Maertz, K. (2014). “Panic/Anxiety Attacks.” University of Alberta, UWell.UAlberta.ca.
- Segal, J., PhD; Smith, M., MA; Robinson, L.; & Segal, R., MA. (2012, April). “Stress at Work: How to Reduce and Manage Job and Workplace Stress.” HelpGuide.org.
Smith, M., MA, & Segal, R., MA. (2012, April). “Stress Management: How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress.” HelpGuide.org.
- Smith, M., MA; Segal, R., MA; & Segal, J., PhD. (January 2012). “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” HelpGuide.org.
- University of Alberta. (n.d.). “Panic/Anxiety Attacks.” UWell.UAlberta.ca.