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Five Keys to Manage Stress and Anxiety

By:
Jane Eklund

For many of us with busy or complicated lives, stress is unavoidable. But over the long term, stress can lead to health problems. Chronic stress suppresses the body's immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems, which can lead to irregular functioning. Stress also makes it hard to focus and can affect our moods and our relationships.

Happily, there are many ways to keep stress at bay.

Five Approaches for Stress and Anxiety

Try this five-pronged approach: manage, nourish, exercise, relax, and sleep.

  • Manage

    Being in control of an anxiety-producing situation can help lower stress. Those of us who have a lot on our plates at work or at home can organize our time, our schedules, and our family members/coworkers in advance. Prioritizing tasks, checking them off a to-do list as we finish them, and asking for help as needed can make everything more manageable.

    We need to keep in mind, too, that we don't have to take on everything that's asked of us. It's okay to just say "no" when we're already juggling a lot of things.

    Planning ahead for a stressful event, like a hard conversation with a boss or a spouse, can remove some of the anxiety. Where will the conversation take place? How will we approach it? Which directions could it go, and how will we respond? How can we end it early if we need time to think things through? Thinking of these things in advance will make us more prepared and less stressed.

  • Nourish

    While it's tempting (and human!) to grab fast food or reach for fatty or sugary comfort food, it's important to eat well to combat the negative effects of stress on the body. Some tips for eating to beat stress:

    • Don't Skip Meals

      Eating regularly keeps blood glucose levels steady, which keeps brains functioning at their best.

    • Include Healthy Fats

      Deficiencies of omega 3s--those fats found in fish oil, flaxseeds, and walnuts--can lead to anxiety and depression.

    • Up the Fruit and Veggie Intake.

      The vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, can offset harmful molecules the body produces when under stress.

    • Increase Fiber

      Add to the fiber intake from vegetables by eating oats, beans, nuts, and other fiber-rich foods--they can help lower perceived stress.

    • Eat Healthy Snacks

      Have healthy snacks at the ready. Keep high protein and high fiber foods handy. Try almonds, carrots with hummus, or yogurt with fresh fruit.

    • Consider Supplements

      Certain supplements may promote relaxation. These include lemon balm, ashwagandha, valerian, and kava kava. Green tea supplements may increase serotonin levels. Some people have found CBD supplements to be useful for anxiety.

  • Exercise

    Get moving. It's one of the best things we can do to reduce stress. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, the brain's feel-good chemicals. Exercise also reduces stress hormones like cortisol.

    Schedule regular exercise--30 minutes a day is good for a mood boost. For really stressful moments, take a quick walk around the block or up and down the staircase, or do head and shoulder stretches.

    Physical fitness and mental well-being have been linked in research studies, as exercise has been shown to help prevent anxiety, cause positive chemical changes in the brain, and improve self-esteem, self control, and the ability to take on new challenges.

  • Relax

    Promote inner calm by practicing relaxation. The Harvard Health blog suggests these techniques:

    • Breath Focus

      Take long, deep, slow breaths while letting go of distracting thoughts and sensations.

    • Body Scan

      Breathe deeply for a few moments, then focus on one section of the body at a time, mentally releasing tension there.

    • Guided Imagery

      Picture soothing places or experiences to help you relax. Look for online apps and recordings to help.

    • Mindfulness Meditation

      Focus on breathing, paying attention to the present moment, and letting go of concerns.

      Yoga, t'ai chi, and qigong. These ancient practices mix breathing with postures and flowing movements, enhancing balance and calming the mind.

    • Repetitive Prayer

      Silently repeat a short prayer or phrase from a prayer while practicing breath focus.

  • Sleep

    In times of stress, it's critical to get a good night's sleep every night. Some of the techniques mentioned above will help with that--including exercise, relaxation, and supplements like valerian. You can also try aromatherapy (calming scents include lavender, geranium, rose, sandalwood, and bergamot) and reducing caffeine.

    Other tips for enhancing sleep:

    • Avoid long daytime naps.
    • Don't exercise within a few hours of bedtime.
    • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
    • Talk to a friend or family member about your troubles.
    • Keep your bedroom dark and quiet.

To Recap

Stress and anxiety are regular parts of everyday life, but if they go on too long they can wreak havoc with our mental and physical health. Incorporating regular stress-busting techniques into our routines can keep the damage caused by stress at bay.

Sources

"5 things you should know about stress," National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov

"10 ways to relieve stress & more," Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org

"Get active for mental wellbeing," National Health Service UK, www.nhs.uk

"Manage stress," US Department of Health and Human Services, https://healthfinder.gov, 8/20/19

"Nutrition and stress," https://campushealth.unc.edu

"Relaxation techniques to reduce stress" by Jeannette Moninger, www.WebMD.com

"Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress," Harvard Health Publishing, www.health.harvard.edu