7 Quick Fixes and 5 Strategies to Keep Stress from Killing You

Good stress, bad stress, we all stress — here’s what to do about it

Do you frequently experience any of these symptoms of stress?

  • Digestive upsets
  • Flashes of anger
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive worrying
  • Excessive irritation
  • Lack of focus
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Overuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Impatience
  • Temper
  • Burnout
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depression

The more yeses, the more stress.

In engineering, stress is the “internal distribution of forces within a body that balance and react to the loads applied to it.”¹ When a stress fracture occurs, a structure breaks apart.

This is not unlike what happens when you are under stress. Too much stress for too long a time can lead to serious consequences that negatively affect all aspects of your life. Your coping mechanisms break apart.

When you understand stress, how it works, and what you can do about it, you gain the resources you need to handle it more effectively. You can experience it, but not let it overwhelm you.

(If you need immediate, fast stress relief, skip down to Quick Fixes.)

Stress Is Natural and Necessary

Stress is anything that places physical, mental, and/or emotional demands on you. It is a primitive survival tool that heightens your senses and perception and improves your ability to handle any situation.

While you no longer need to dodge saber-toothed tigers and forage for food to avoid starvation, stress is still a natural state in both your work and life.

You experience stress any time you face a change in your status quo — getting married, having a baby, moving, changing jobs, losing a loved one, becoming ill, experiencing financial problems, and so on.

Both positive and negative changes affect your levels of stress, and the stress you experience as a result is either good or bad.

The good news: Stress can be controlled, and you’re behind the controls.

“The truth is that there is no actual stress or anxiety in the world; it’s your thoughts that create these false beliefs. You can’t package stress, touch it, or see it. There are only people engaged in stressful thinking.” Wayne Dyer

Good Stress, Bad Stress, We All Feel Stress

In the 1970s, Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye defined two types of stress: eustress — good stress — and distress — bad stress.²

© Patricia Haddock

How can you tell the difference?

“Eustress can lead to focused attention, emotional balance and rational thoughts. Distress, on the other hand, can cause impaired attention, boredom, confusion, apathy, excitement, burn-out and disorganized behavior….As long as the pushing of this boundary feels pleasurable or enjoyable, it is eustress. If it doesn’t feel good — even in a remote sense — it’s distress.”³

Stress is relative and personal. Whether stress is good or bad depends on you.

According to research by Richard Lazarus, Ph.D., “….the effect that stress has on a person is based more on that person’s feeling of threat, vulnerability and ability to cope than on the stressful event itself.”⁴

Bottom-line: The stress you experience depends on how much of a threat you perceive it to be and how well you believe you can cope with it.

Dr. Lazarus identified a two-part process, called Cognitive Appraisal, that occurs when you are confronted with a stressor.

A stressor occurs, and you evaluate how this situation may affect you:

  • This is not important.
  • This is good.
  • This is stressful.

You also experience feelings about the stressor. These feelings are either positive and resourceful or negative and debilitating.

  • If you have evaluated the stressor as good, you are more likely to view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Your mood will be upbeat, and your attitude toward it, positive. You will act accordingly. The stress you experience is more eustress than distress.
  • If you have evaluated the stressor as bad, your mood will be down, your attitude, negative. You will act accordingly and will suffer distress.

The stressor itself is neither good nor bad. It’s an event or issue that has arisen. Your response to it determines whether you feel eustress or distress.

If you’re under too much distress, you need to implement some quick fixes and long-term strategies to prevent the pressure from blowing up.

6 Quick Fixes for Stress

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“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Feeling overwhelmed? The symptoms of stress pressing down on you? No time for deep work?

Here are some quick remedies that can give you breathing room to cope in the short term.

  • Breathe. That’s it. Just stop what you are doing and breathe. Take long inhales and exhales — just don’t get dizzy. Breathe slowly in and out until you feel some of the tension releasing.
  • Take a time out. Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and get away from your desk for that amount of time. Get outside if you can. Take a walk and focus on your surroundings, not everything you have to do, or what is stressing you.
  • Head to the gym, tennis court, swimming pool, or hiking trail. Just move. Any type of movement from running to dancing to tai chi and everything in between can lessen feelings of stress.
  • Think about everything you are grateful for in your life, no matter how small. Just be thankful for what is going right and what is good. Simple, maybe, but a powerful, quick antidote to distress.
  • Remember joyful events from your past and let the memory improve how you feel.
  • Find something to laugh about. There are plenty of memes and short YouTube videos that can raise your mood.
  • Make a date to do something in next day or two that you can look forward to and focus on with positive anticipation.
  • Indulge in something relaxing like a long, soaking bath or a massage.
  • Don’t fuel your stress with caffeine, sugar, sodas, or nicotine.

Looming deadlines, limited resources, conflicting priorities, worry, and many other factors affect stress levels daily if not hourly. It is important to find ways of handling and releasing stress for the long-term in order to stay healthy, focused, and resourceful.

Long-term Strategies

“Worry and stress affects the circulation, the heart, the glands, the whole nervous system, and profoundly affects heart action.” Charles W. Mayo, MD

While eustress is usually short-term, distress can last a long time. Long-term distress affects you physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

Here are just a few things it can lead to:

  • Depression or anxiety attacks
  • Difficulty becoming motivated
  • Aggressive verbal and physical behavior
  • Developing ulcers or high blood pressure
  • Decreasing your body’s ability to fight illness
  • Inflammation
  • Lowered morale
  • Decreased productivity, creativity, and work quality
  • Accidents, injuries, and conflicts
  • Inability to focus

Let’s look at 5 proven strategies that work to lower and control long-term stress.

Strategy 1: Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Research by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., revealed the effect of mindset on achievement. A fixed mindset is a can’t-do mindset while a growth mindset is a can-do mindset. Stress can be relieved by shifting into a growth mindset. This will take effort, but the effort will be paid off a hundred-fold.

Here’s what Dweck recommends:⁵

  1. Listen to the fixed messages you tell yourself about the stressor. Example: “This is too hard. I’ll never be able to handle it. I’m so overwhelmed, I’ll never get out from under.”
  2. Agreeing with these types of negative messages fuels your distress. Instead, choose to dispute it. Example: “You’ve handled a lot harder things than this in your life. Take a break and figure it out. You can do this. Just take one step at a time.”
  3. Take a growth mindset action. Do some research about your options. Preform a best-worst case scenario. Ask for help from someone. You only need to take one, small step to start breaking the fixed mindset habit and begin shifting into a less stressful, more resourceful state.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare

Strategy 2: Learn to be More Optimistic

In his groundbreaking work, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., highlights the “explanatory styles” of optimists and pessimists. Your attitude toward adversity, rather than the adversity itself, impacts you. Optimism is the ability to consistently see the positive side of things rather than the negative.

Optimistic people:

  • Approach life expecting positive outcomes.
  • Focus on successes and minimize failures
  • Look for the positive aspects of a situation
  • Think in terms of the opportunities posed by challenges.
  • View problems as puzzles to be solved.

Taking a more optimistic view of your situation and reframing how you think about it to be more positive can help you handle stress more effectively.

Strategy 3: Strengthen Your Resilience

Resilience is the ability to handle stressful situations without letting the stress undermine your resourcefulness. Resilience is like a muscle. You can strengthen it.

The American Psychological Association suggests these ways to build resilience for handling stress.⁶ Choose three of them and describe how you can use each to become more resilient.

1. Maintain good relationships with close family members, friends, and others.

I can do this by taking this action:

2. Avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems.

I can do this by taking this action:

3. Accept circumstances that cannot be changed.

I can do this by taking this action:

4. Look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with stress.

I can do this by taking this action:

5. Develop self-confidence. (See my article How Self-talk Leads to Self-confidence — or Not.)

I can do this by taking this action:

6. Keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context.

I can do this by taking this action:

7. Maintain a hopeful outlook, expect good things and visualize positive outcomes.

I can do this by taking this action:

Strategy 4: Meditate or Pray

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There is a growing body of scientific research that shows the effectiveness of meditation for reducing stress.

Meditation elevates your mood, relaxes your body, and reduces feelings of tension. Many studies show that regular meditators consistently score higher in coping skills. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), “a clinically standardized meditation, has shown consistent efficacy for many mental and physical disorders.*

You don’t need anything special to meditate. Just sit quietly in a place where you will not be disturbed for five or ten minutes and pay attention to your breath. If you find your attention wandering — and it will — just refocus on your breath.

Meditation Apps

Unless noted otherwise, all these apps are free; some offer in-app, paid options.

  • Insight Timer: You get access to experienced mindfulness teachers and coaches. The app lets you choose by time (how long you want the session to last), type of meditation (music only or guided), and theme (stress reduction, pain management, theta waves, and so on). It offers a daily, guided meditation and meditation courses.
  • Calm: Calm offers a variety of options, including sounds, music, guided meditations, and stories. It has both free and paid subscriptions; I find the the free one completely adequate.
  • Headspace: This is one of the most well-known meditation apps. It offers guided meditations, sounds, and tools. It even has something for kids. It is a paid app.
  • Bells and Bowls: Like all of the apps mentioned, this one gives you a variety of options from one-hour tracks to a few minutes. It has guided meditations, music only, sounds, binaural beats, and brainwave trances. It also offers the option of mixing your own sound meditations. You can choose from a long list of sounds (bird song, rain, white noise) and combine it with a long list of music.

Strategy 5: Engage in Regular Activity

Physical activity of any type enhances your well-being and relieves the symptoms of stress.

Moderate physical activity is a natural outlet for the hormones released by the “fight-or-flight” response to stress. It cleanses adrenaline from your body and produces endorphins in the brain. These are your body’s natural tranquilizers. You lower your blood pressure and release tension. The positive effects can last up to three hours.

It also boosts your self-esteem and confidence. When you feel more in control over your body, you gain a sense of control over other aspects of your life. This can help relieve stress resulting from feelings of helplessness.

If you are not physically active or have medical conditions, check with your health care provider before starting any physical activity program.

Don’t Let Stress Get to You

You can’t eliminate stress from your life, and you shouldn’t! Eustress is good for you, but too much is counterproductive. If you suffer the symptoms of stress, take action to gain some relief.

  • If necessary, implement one of the quick fixes for immediate relief.
  • Start a stress log or journal to record what triggers stress and your responses, using Cognitive Appraisal.
  • Describe what happened that led to the stressful feelings.
  • What symptoms of stress are you experiencing?
  • Note your self-talk about the situation.
  • If you hear fixed mindset messages, immediately dispute them.
  • Take one small positive action step toward a growth mindset.
  • Introduce a long-term strategy to counter your stress.
  • Seek professional help for long-term stress that leads to physical, mental, and/or emotional issues that you can’t handle on your own.

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” Steve Maraboli

Resources

1. NDT Resource Center

2. “Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress)” by Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Stress Reduction and Management

3. “What is Eustress And How is It Different than Stress?” by Juliette Tocino-Smith. Positive Psychology

4. Summary of Lazarus and Folkman’s Theory of Stress, Appraisal, and Copingby Joko Gunawan Faculty of Nursing, Chulalongkorn University

5. “How You Can Change from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset.” www.mindsetonline.com

6.American Psychological Association

7. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Stress Management in Healthy People: A Review and Meta-Analysis” by Alberto Chiesa and Alessandro Serretti The Journal of Alternative and Complementary MedicineVol. 15, №5

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