1. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is absolutely critical to our ability to deal with stress. But in a cruel irony, sleep is often hard to find when we’re under significant stress. Without sufficient rest, you’ll find your resiliency lowered significantly.
In fact, sleep deprivation alone can be enough to create major stress in our lives. Long-term lack of sleep can cause symptoms akin to psychosis, but even moderate sleep deprivation can be troublesome: after 17 hours without sleep, subjects in one study performed about as well on cognition tests as an intoxicated control group.
Most adults need around eight hours of sleep to function at their best, but under times of great emotional stress or intense physical activity, you might find you need more sleep. If eight hours is unattainable, make sure you’re not getting less than six hours every night.
2. Eat Well
When we’re under stress, our body attempts to adapt to the situation by increasing our intake of simple carbohydrates. In the modern world, these come in the form of sugary snacks that increase our short-term energy levels but offer little nutritional value. It’s crucial to overcome this ancient neurological response that’s better suited to times of physical danger. Instead, you must force yourself to maintain a balanced diet. There’s no magic diet that will help you deal with stress, but giving in to your body’s cravings or overeating can make things that much harder.
Exercise helps keep our bodies healthy, but it’s also a great way to let off steam and improve your mood in both the long and short term. You don’t need to be a fitness nut to get the benefits, either. Even moderate exercise, like brisk walking or low-impact aerobics, has been shown to reduce stress and fight depression. Just getting outside can do a world of good too, changing your perspective and providing a brief respite from whatever’s putting pressure on you.
4. Meditate or Breathe Consciously
Meditation in all the rage these days: it can seem like it’s the cure for everything. Regular mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to improve stress responses, and it’s been used to great success in high-stress environments like hospitals to improve patient outcomes for even the gravely ill.
If you have trouble meditating, or you just think you can’t do it, try to focus on your breathing instead. In times of acute stress, you can use a technique called “box breathing,” which is used by the U.S. military’s special forces to keep calm under immense pressure.
As with meditation, the idea is to focus on your breath, carefully control your breathing cycle in a proscribed way. This makes it harder to ruminate, and deep breathing also has a physiological effect, lowering states of arousal and calming your body’s stress reaction.
First, sit up straight and breathe out fully. Then, begin the process:
IN: Breathe in evenly for four seconds. Use your diaphragm to draw air into your body, making your abdomen rise gently.
HOLD: Hold your breath for four seconds. Don’t strain to hard, though.
OUT: Breathe out evenly for four seconds. And the end of four seconds, your body should be empty of breath.
HOLD: Let your body stand empty for four seconds before returning to the first step.
This creates a 16 second cycle with four, four-second sides: a box. You can change the duration of the steps as is comfortable for you, but keep the count the same for all steps. Keep going until you feel a little better.
5. Keep a Sense of Perspective
When you’re in the midst of a stressful period in your life, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the horribleness of it all. You can’t sleep, you’re overeating, you’re irritable and hard to be around, and nothing seems to be helping. That’s why keeping a realistic perspective is so important: otherwise, it’s easy to get swallowed by your worries and lose all sense of proportion.
Remember that, no matter how stressful the situation is, it will eventually pass. That doesn’t mean everyone will live happily ever after, but it does mean that periods of acute stress don’t last forever. Further, this stress probably won’t kill you. Sure, it’s deeply unpleasant, but all things have a way of passing us by eventually.
As Alphonse Karr wrote, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
6. Change Your Mindset
While it’s not typically possible to think your way out stress, changing your mindset can do wonders for your mood. Even simple things, like purposefully noticing things you’re grateful for, can make dealing with stress easier. This goes well with keeping a rational perspective.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you feel like you can, make a list of everything you’re grateful for at the beginning of each day. A warm house, a full stomach, a partner or spouse: even when everything is going wrong, you can often find something you’re lucky to have.
You can also try to shift your perspective to a more positive one, choosing to focus on something else. As William James wrote, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
7. Deal with What You Can
Finally, if your stress is coming from a real, external source, and you have the power to affect it, try and deal with it as best you can. For example, if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew at work, try delegating some tasks or asking a coworker to help out. If you’re in legal trouble, get a good lawyer (like a personal injury lawyer) that can offer professional legal advice. But if the problem is outside your control, like a sick loved one, try to live through it as best you can and take good care of yourself while you do.