Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it can pose some serious health threats. An infographic on the The American Institute of Stress's website lists several facts about stress, including the following:
- Stress is the cause of more than half of all human illnesses and diseases.
- Three-fourths of visits to the doctor are for stress-related ailments.
- Extreme stress can reduce gray matter in the brain, leading to psychiatric problems.
While cutting stress out of your life altogether isn't completely possible, proper stress management can lead to a healthier, happier, more balanced you. External and internal stressors might face you on a daily basis, and learning to deal with both sources of stress is important. Here, we'll focus on ways to handle external stressors.
The Difference Between Internal and External Stressors
Simply put, an internal stressor is something that comes from inside you. An internal stressor can be related to your personal goals, worries, and perceptions. You might be disappointed with your latest evaluation at work, or you might be afraid to fly on an airplane or embark on a new project outside of your comfort zone.
External stressors are closely tied to factors that you have little or no control over. Your boss might be difficult to work with, your family might be dealing with difficult circumstances, or maybe you might be experiencing a major life change, such as a divorce.
Crossover between external and internal stressors exists. Your boss might demand that you deliver an important presentation, and your anxiety over that presentation may be a mix of your personal fear of public speaking and the pressure that comes from interacting with other people.
Common External Stressors
Every person's circumstances are distinct, but you may be able to relate to some of the following common external stressors:
- Money: According to a poll from the American Psychological Association (APA), financial worries are the leading cause of stress among adults in the United States. 64 percent of people have significant concerns about money. 77 percent of parents worry about money, and 75 percent of millennials have the same concern.
- Work: The same APA poll found that work closely follows money as cause for stress; 60 percent of adults stress over work-related topics.
- Family responsibilities: Forty-seven percent of adults stress over situations within their families.
- Health concerns: This external stressor affects 46 percent of American adults.
- Major life changes: This broad topic can cover situations such as the death of a loved one, a move to a new city, or a change of careers.
What stresses you out? Being able to name the external stressors that most affect you is the first step in dealing with them. Pinpointing some stressors can be somewhat easy — for example, if you're struggling financially or you're dealing with a major illness. However, you should also be ready to acknowledge stressors that you might not have thought of as problems. Perhaps you were excited about moving across the country, but now that move is affecting your emotional equilibrium.
Dealing With External Stressors
Since you can't remove all the sources of stress from your life completely, how do you cope with external stressors? The following tips will get you started on the path toward being a master of your stressors:
1. Take Reasonable Steps to Change the Stressors
Brainstorm ideas for ways to face the issues that cause you stress. Perhaps your boss doesn't realize that you're overwhelmed at work. You may need to talk with your manager about your workload. Or maybe you can reexamine your budget and make adjustments that will ease some of the financial pressure you're feeling.
If you find that circumstances are simply out of your control, acknowledge that understanding and focus on using other techniques to lift you out of your anxious mood.
2. Get Enough Rest and Recreation
The admonition to get enough sleep might seem counterintuitive, especially since stress can affect your sleep patterns. However, by making the effort to get a solid seven to eight hours of rest every night, you equip yourself to have a more positive attitude.
To help you sleep even when your mind is racing, try some of the following suggestions:
- Avoid caffeine after noon.
- Go to bed at the same time every night. This routine will help get your body into a good routine.
- Set aside the last hour or two before bedtime to do something relaxing. Read a book, take a bubble bath, or have a lighthearted conversation with your significant other, a family member, or friend.
- Avoid alcohol before bed. While alcohol can help you fall asleep, it also negatively impacts your sleep quality.
Recreation is also important. Instead of working through your breaks at the office, do something you enjoy. Make plans for the weekends that won't wear you out but will distract you from the stressors weighing you down.
3. Be Physically Active
Exercise produces endorphins, and this production can result in a significant lift to your mood. Plus, as you get into a good routine, your body will feel better, and you'll have fewer aches and pains that can cause you stress. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.
Make your workouts fun by creating a playlist that features all of your favorite feel-good music. Alternatively, you could adopt a workout buddy who will encourage you and help you refocus your attention off your stress.
Some people find that specific types of exercise, such as walking outside or practicing yoga, are particularly helpful for reducing stress.
4. Think About Your Attitude
You could adopt some new attitudes that might help you gain a new perspective on your stressors. For example, one licensed mental health counselor, Donna M. White, says, "Nothing and no one can 'make' you feel anything. How you feel and the way you deal with a situation is a choice …. You cannot control others' actions, but you can be responsible for your reactions."
You might find a point from a religious book that helps you, or you could read a self-help book that focuses on fostering positivity. Find something that works for your personal circumstances.
5. Eat Well
A number of foods can help to reduce your stress levels. Carbohydrates, for example, encourage your body to produce more serotonin, a brain chemical that boosts your mood. Try to stick to healthy carbs, like whole grains and other fiber-rich foods.
Other foods, such as those foods that improve your immune function, can also play a role in combating stress.
6. Take Supplements
A few dietary supplements could help to battle stress including the following:
- 5-HTP: This all-natural, advanced wellness supplement can increase serotonin levels, thereby boosting your mood, and may also help you lose weight by reducing your appetite.
- Magnesium: Magnesium promotes relaxation and can help to balance hormone levels. Be careful not to take too much magnesium because overuse may cause diarrhea.
- Vitamin B: B vitamins are associated with increased metabolism, improved mood, and better sleep quality.
Not all supplements are right for everyone, so you may want to talk to your doctor or another medical professional who can offer advice on which supplements will best serve you.
7. Stay Organized and Focus on One Task at a Time
A study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women who described their homes as cluttered had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also experienced more fatigue and depression than women who felt their homes provided a restful environment.
Staying organized can also help you eat better and stick to your workout routine, and those healthy habits will further help you in your efforts to battle your stress. You might sleep better and be more productive.
While the task of cleaning out your closet or finally tackling the piles of boxes in your garage might seem overwhelming, you can take those projects in small parts at a time. Also try to find an app — or use a paper calendar — that will give you a method for planning how you'll use the time in your days.
Varying opinions exist about what makes up meditation. Some experts advocate specific techniques, while others say that you meditate any time you clear your mind and focus on only one subject at a time. Some different types of meditation include mantra meditation, spiritual meditation, and mindfulness meditation. Sometimes, meditation goes hand in hand with other practices, such as yoga or tai chi.
You can research the different types of meditation and choose one that fits with your personal beliefs and circumstances. To help you get started, you might take a meditation class or buy an instructional video or book.
Meditation can help you relax and give you a refreshed perspective on your circumstances.
While you may not be able to completely change your circumstances and remove the external stressors that weigh you down, you can better manage those stressors by making a few adjustments to your lifestyle. Eat well, stay active, and strive to maintain a positive outlook.