Stress management: Examine your stress reaction

Stress management starts with an honest assessment of how you react to stress. You can then counter unhealthy ways of reacting with more-helpful techniques.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

It’s hard to avoid stress these days with so many competing demands for your time, attention and energy. But with good stress management skills, you can cope with stress in a healthy and creative way.

One of the first steps toward good stress management is understanding how you react to stress — and making changes if needed. Take an honest look at how you react to stress and then adopt or modify stress management techniques to make sure the stress in your life doesn’t lead to health problems.

Evaluate how you react to stress

Stress management skills often don’t come naturally. You can learn new stress management skills or modify your existing stress management skills to help you cope better. These techniques can be practiced, learned and incorporated into your daily life.

First, take a look at how you react to stress. Some people seem to take everything in stride. Their naturally laid-back attitudes shine through, even in stressful situations. Another deadline? They can handle it. The dishwasher is leaking? No problem. It will be a simple repair. Others get anxious at the first sign of a stressful situation. Running late for a meeting? Time to panic! Stuck in a traffic jam? Let the cursing begin!

Here are some common but unhealthy reactions to stress. Do any of these describe your reactions? If you’re not sure, consider keeping a daily journal for a week or so to monitor your reactions to stressful situations.

  • Pain. You may unconsciously clench your jaws or fists or develop muscle tension, especially in your neck and shoulders, all of which can lead to unexplained physical pain. Stress may also cause a variety of other health ailments, including upset stomach, shortness of breath, back pain, headaches, insomnia and irritability. Even little things become a major crisis.
  • Overeating or undereating. Stress may trigger you to eat when you’re not hungry. You may gain weight as a result. In contrast, you may eat less, actually losing weight when under more stress. Major changes in your weight can indicate that you may benefit from professional help.
  • Anger. Stress may leave you with a short temper. When you’re under pressure, you may find yourself arguing with co-workers, friends or loved ones — sometimes with little provocation or about things that have nothing to do with your stressful situation. These co-workers and family members can become targets of your anger. Try to be alert and aware of this issue.
  • Crying. Stress may trigger crying jags, sometimes seemingly without warning. Little things unrelated to your stress may leave you in tears. You also may feel lonely or isolated. Major swings of emotions, especially if they ordinarily don’t happen to you, can be signs of distress.
  • Depression. Sometimes stress may be too much to take. You might avoid the problem, call in sick to work, feel hopeless or simply give up. Chronic stress can be a factor in the development of depression or anxiety disorders.
  • Negativity. When you don’t cope well with stress, you may automatically expect the worst or magnify the negative aspects of any undesirable situation.
  • Smoking, drugs or alcohol. Even if you quit smoking long ago, a cigarette may seem like an easy way to relax when you’re under pressure. In fact, stress is a leading cause of smoking relapse. You may also find yourself turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the effects of stress. If you are tired, angry and feeling isolated, and you’ve had a tendency toward alcohol or drugs, you could be on the verge of a major crisis.

Take the next step toward stress management

Once you’ve identified the unhealthy reactions you may be having to uncontrolled stress, you can begin to improve your stress management skills. Stress management techniques abound, including:

  • Scale back. Take a close look at your daily, weekly and monthly schedule. Find meetings, activities, dinners or chores that you can cut back on or delegate to someone else. Pause. Slow down. Cut back on those commitments that aren’t in line with your goals.
  • Prepare. Stay ahead of stress by preparing for meetings or trips, scheduling your time better, writing to-do lists, and setting realistic goals for tasks both big and small. Stress mounts when you run out of time because something comes up that you didn’t account for — build in time for traffic jams, for example.
  • Reach out. Make or renew connections with others. Surrounding yourself with supportive family, friends, co-workers, or clergy and spiritual leaders can have a positive effect on your mental well-being and your ability to cope with stress. Volunteer in your community. Keep in touch with people by calling, writing and being available to them.
  • Take up a hobby. When you engage in something enjoyable, it can soothe and calm your restless mind. Try reading, gardening, crafts, tinkering with electronics, fishing, carpentry, music — things that you don’t get competitive or more stressed out about. Have a list of hobbies that you make time for during the week.
  • Relax. Physical activity, meditation, yoga, massage, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can help you manage stress. It doesn’t matter which relaxation technique you choose. What matters is refocusing your attention to something calming and increasing awareness of your body. Set aside time to relax and to unplug from your phone and other communication tools.
  • Get active. Reduce your stress and improve your mood with movement. Aim to get regular physical activity about 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Set aside time in your schedule for exercise.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sufficient sleep affects your immune system and your judgment and makes you more likely to snap over minor irritations. Most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a day to function well.
  • Get professional help. If your stress management efforts aren’t helpful enough, see your doctor or a mental health professional. Chronic, uncontrolled stress can lead to a variety of potentially serious health problems, including depression and pain.

Stress usually doesn’t just get better on its own. You may have to actively work on getting control of the stress in your life so that it doesn’t control you. When you first identify how you react to stressful situations, you then can put yourself in a better position to manage the stress, even if you can’t eliminate it. And if your current efforts at stress management aren’t working, try something new.

July 28, 2021

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