by Jayne Anne Ammar
How to Manage Stress: A Beginner’s Guide
Ms. Ammar is a nationally board certified health coach who is passionate about helping people make small, sustainable changes so they can bridge the gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it. She often works online, and loves supporting clients who are also working with a physician. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve ever blushed when you felt embarrassed at saying something foolish, gotten clammy hands before meeting a job interviewer, or felt butterflies in your stomach ahead of giving a speech, then you know what a psychophysiological response is. In other words, this describes the way our physical bodies respond to our mental and emotional states. These examples are also mild forms of stress that we experience in the body. Common ways we experience stress can also include muscle tension, shallow breathing, and other physical symptoms when we encounter a stressor.
Recognizing the way our bodies respond at the most basic level in various ways from blushing to “butterflies” in the stomach is foundational to understanding how intricately our minds and bodies are linked and to understanding the effect that the stress of daily living can have on our health. While at first glance, it may seem impossible to control things like our body’s stress response, understanding that our minds can affect our body and vice versa is actually key to choosing and practicing effective ways to release stress daily.
The “Overflowing Bucket” Metaphor for Understanding and Ultimately Coping with Stress Well
The “Overflowing Bucket” is a metaphor I like to use to describe:
stressors (things that stress us out),
stress (the complex physiological responses in the body that occur in response to a stressor), and
managing stress (practical actions we consciously decide to take to release stress).
Imagine that you’re holding a bucket. All day long, you’re adding water to the bucket. The added water throughout the day are your stressors that may include everything from fighting daily traffic to taking care of your kids or aging parents. By the end of the day or even before then, the bucket is getting full, and it’s heavy. That’s stress. You may notice this as something like tight shoulders. When there’s no more room in the bucket, it may even overflow, which is when you may experience states like overwhelm, anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments like headaches. Each day, over and over, you need to continue to pour out some of the water so you can find your equilibrium and function at your best. In this metaphor, pouring out the water each day is the way you can choose to manage stress so that it doesn’t manage you.
The Connection Between Stress and Physical Health
While not all stress is bad, as evidenced by the concept of eustress (or good stress,) when our bodies undergo stress repeatedly day after day without releasing those stress hormones, it can be bad for our health. “75% to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments, complaints, and concerns,“ according to WebMD. When our nervous systems stays stuck in a parasympathetic or “fight, flight, or freeze” response for an extended period of time, without activating the sympathetic nervous system or “rest and digest” response regularly, it can result in physical illness.
Fortunately, there are ways to bring awareness to and manage the stress created in our bodies in a healthy way.
Stress Relief Practices
No matter what the cause of the stress is, whether it’s big or small, we can control how we respond to stress. While it can be worthwhile to consider ways to remove or change the stressor, the practices I suggest below are ways to manage the physiological stress response after a stressor in order to essentially take care of your nervous system. Developing healthy coping mechanisms rather than just ignoring stress, letting our stress out on other people, or numbing ourselves with food or addictions is the way to prevent our buckets from overflowing.
These mindful and embodied practices are tools we can use to bring more awareness to the stress we experience daily so that, with practice, we can become better at giving ourselves the time and space to respond to the stress in our bodies in a healthy way.
Exercise - this has been shown to help “complete” the body’s stress response. Meaning when we encounter a stressor and we are unable to fight or flee, we still have a physiological response. Allowing the body to purge itself of the hormones and reactions in the body through physical exercise is a solid way to release stress, according to authors Emily and Amelia Naoski in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Journaling - also called expressive writing can be helpful when we have an accumulation of thoughts, feelings, or situations we perceive as negative or stressful in order get it outside of us and onto the page, according to research done by James W. Pennebaker and outlined in his book Expressive Writing: Words that Heal.
Mindfulness - this has been described as the conscious awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations in the present moment, attended to with gentle, nonjudgmental awareness. We can bring mindful awareness to any action such as eating, walking, or through simply stopping to observe our internal state.
Breathing - considered both a voluntary action and a function of the autonomic (unconscious) nervous system, breathing techniques have been used since ancient time until the present day to induce a state of relaxation in the body. One modern evidence-based way to induce relaxation through the breath is using a pattern of breathing such as the 4-7-8 breathing.
Meditation - the formal practice of setting aside regular periods of time in order to basically do nothing with mindful awareness. Some popular secular meditation techniques focus on mindful awareness of one’s breath, tuning into the body’s five senses, or repeating a mantra silently to oneself. Guided imagery, which can be similar to meditation, can also produce feelings of relaxation through listening to voice guided meditations in which the listener is guided to visualize a peaceful setting. For example, Insight Timer is a free app that I enjoy that has a plethora of different types of meditations to explore
All of these mind-body practices are powerful ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system or the "rest and digest" response that supports our feelings of safety after a threat/stress. Doing one or more of these practices in the moment when we notice signs in our bodies that we’re starting to feel stressed, as well as experimenting with some of these as daily exercises, can keep our buckets lighter and allow us to meet stress in our daily lives with more equanimity.