“You are the sky. Everything else — it’s just the weather.”
- Pema Chödrön
Some call it burnout. Others may call it an anxiety disorder. Buddhists refer to it as having a “monkey mind.”
It’s stress. And if affects us all.
In a recent analysis of chronic stress in the United States, for example, 33% of Americans said they are “living with extreme stress.” 48% said they are so stressed, they end up lying awake at night. 77% said the stress they live with causes physical symptoms.
So, what can we do with this information?
While there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all answer for chronic stress relief, we can offer some insight into how you can better manage your own stress on the individual level. Each and every one of us has the power to tackle the “monkey mind” and achieve a calmer, happier life as a result.
Below, we’ll outline the best techniques for managing your stress. But first, let’s identify what stress really is, what causes it, and how it can negatively affect your life when it’s left unchecked.
Stress is a response — in particular, your body’s response — to challenging feelings, situations, responsibilities, and threats. Stress happens naturally in your body, but it can manifest in many ways: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Because stress is a response, and because everyone responds differently to different situations, it makes sense that what causes stress is unique to the individual. For example, while one individual may become excessively stressed at the prospect of speaking in public, someone else who doesn't mind public speaking may find it much more stressful to be late for a meeting.
Furthermore, their different levels or intensities of stress. These can be divided into three categories:
Small annoyances, causing mostly un-harmful stress
This includes things like accidentally spilling a drink at the table, forgetting someone's name who you’ve met before, or being late to a dinner party.
Medium challenges causing mid-level stress
This level of stress includes things that are slightly more serious — for example, the knowledge that you may be downsized at your job, planning a wedding, or worrying about a family member going into surgery.
Serious situations causing debilitating stress
Finally, these stressors are the most serious and include things like being diagnosed with a serious illness, losing your home to a natural disaster, or going through a divorce.
In the short-term, most types of minor stress can be okay (we’ll talk more about this later). We’re able to deal with these levels of stress. However, problems with stress begin to occur when the stress response or “fight or flight” is activated for too long or too often.
Fight or flight is a natural response that humans have built into our DNA. It’s a survival mechanism, brought on when we sense danger.
When an immediate threat is present — such as a bull charging right toward you or the strong smell of smoke when you wake up in the middle of the night — this brings about an onslaught of stress hormones. These hormones react in the body and produce an immediate physiological response.
The Stress Response Step-by-Step
The stress response happens so quickly and automatically that you’d never notice the individual steps.
Essentially, however, this is what’s going on in your brain when you experience the stress response (fight or flight):
You may have heard of cortisol, which is often referred to as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol stays at high levels when a continued threat is perceived (for example, if the car coming at you were to continue chasing you). However, it’s easy to see that if cortisol stays in your system for too long and unnecessarily — essentially holding its finger down on your body’s alarm button — this can cause problems for your heart and other systems.
The stress response, or “fight or flight” response, can be good — when we need it.
However, the bad news is that this response can be brought on by situations that aren’t actually serious threats. For example, our bodies may begin to produce the same fight or flight stress hormones in reaction to essentially minor challenges or obstacles — accidentally making a faux pas in public, getting stuck in traffic, or receiving a bad grade on a report.
It’s important to notice when these non-life-threatening scenarios continually produce the hormonal stress response because when they do, the stress response’s repeated activation can cause you harm. For example, many people want to know how stress affects the immune system, digestion, and cardiovascular health — all of which are common areas that are affected by excess stress. Here are some of the specific health problems associated with chronic stress:
Stress is a part of life.
Most of us don’t like to hear this because we dream of a life that’s stress- and worry-free. And why wouldn’t we? This is a perfectly normal desire.
However, the truth is that in a very practical way, not one of us would be here without stress. It’s how our ancestors stayed alert and, therefore, alive when predators lurked in the dark while they slept. Stress is also what protects you and tells you to quicken your pace and stay out of the shadows as you walk home alone in the dark.
We need some stress as a catalyst to keep us alert, motivated, and driven to succeed.
It’s also crucial to remember that even annoying and disruptive stress — stress that really isn’t helpful — is simply a part of life. This is another way of saying that life has ups and downs, and that’s unavoidable. In fact, life would be very boring and static if it didn’t.
Toasters break. Favorite sweaters get lost. Cookies burn.
And sometimes, even worse — friends drift apart. Jobs are lost. Loved ones get ill.
Once you start to shift your mindset and understand that life will never be perfect, you can learn to accept this fact and live better. Through acceptance of at least some level of stress in your life, you’ll be better able to “let go” in the Buddhist sense. Jack Kornfield, a teacher of American Theravada Buddhism, explains this well:
“In this human incarnation we experience a continuous ebb and flow of pleasure and pain, gain and loss. Inhabiting our human society is the same: we encounter praise and blame, fame and disrepute, success and failure, arising and passing constantly.”
Kornfield suggests adopting Buddhism’s Third Noble Truth in order to learn to accept these notions. This Noble Truth is labeled “the Cessation of Suffering,” and it can be achieved through letting go of our tendency to “cling.”
In other words, we must let go of our tendencies to cling to things like all green lights on our way to work, blemish-free skin, an untarnished record of paying your bills on time, perfection in the workplace, an ideal relationship with our partner, and other so-called perfect habits and situations.
It’s natural to want all of these things, but it’s in clinging to them that suffering by way of excess stress is caused.
Those who resist letting go and cannot stop clinging will also continue to suffer. This is when chronic stress enters the scene. And although some stress is good, and some stress is simply normal, chronic stress is a terrible burden for anyone to bear.
Not sure if you have too much stress in your life or an “average amount”? Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “yes” to five or more of the questions, chronic stress may be something you should examine in your life.
Stress management is a way to combat the stress that inevitably enters our lives on a regular basis. As stated previously, there’s no way to eliminate all stress. Therefore, this leads us to understand that accepting and managing inevitable stress is a cornerstone of keeping the negative effects of chronic stress at bay.
As the American Heart Association notes on its website:
“Your mind deserves better than to be loaded down with the never-ending job of worrying!”
You can help your mind by employing regular stress management techniques.
Everyone requires stress management, and whether you realize it or not, you’re likely already using stress management techniques in your life. Of course, not all techniques that people use are positive. For instance, managing stress with drugs, alcohol, or excessive spending are decidedly negative strategies.
Other, better strategies must be found, and it’s important to find the stress management techniques that work for you.
Remember that everyone is different, and that means not all stress management techniques will match what you need personally. That’s okay. It’s important to find the management techniques that vibe with your unique personality and challenges.
Below is a list of useful stress relief techniques to try in your own life. Again, look for those that resonate with you. Try out several, and don’t feel bad if certain strategies simply don’t help. The goal is to locate your unique stress management style.1. Mindfulness Practice
This is the practice of learning to focus 100% on what is going on in the present moment. Notice everything as it comes, including full awareness of your body and mind and all thoughts, emotions, and feelings that enter your consciousness. Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere.2. Meditation Practice
Meditation is more formal than mindfulness — although it can be also be practiced while walking or even in a public space.
Meditation practices can vary, but one of the core goals is to quiet the “monkey mind” that so many of us struggle with. The concept of having a “monkey mind” refers to the sensation of your mind “swinging” from one idea, thought, realization, or feeling to the next with great speed — similar to the way a monkey swings from branch, to branch, to branch.
This tendency to bounce back-and-forth from thought to emotion, thought to emotion can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety and tension. But meditation can help by promoting focus on one thought, emotion, or sensation at a time.
Generally, meditation practice involves centering the mind on something specific — such as the breath. Focusing on the in and out breaths, the practitioner learns to notice intruding thoughts or sensations, to "watch" each one, and then to let each one go — only to return to the breath.
This is only one basic iteration of meditation; there are many others. But it’s a good place to start. Over time, consistent meditation can lead to lower stress levels, improved concentration, and a calmer mind that no longer “swings from branch to branch” like a monkey.3. Deep Breathing Strategies
Deep breathing techniques can be implemented into meditation practices or used on their own. Here’s a simple one to start with:
- Sit in a comfortable position, and close your eyes.
- Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Starting with an inhale, push your stomach out as you take air into your lungs. Count to 4 as you do so.
- Hold the breath softly for another 4 count.
- Slowly, allow the air to exhale from your lungs as you feel the hand on your stomach go down for a count of 4.
- The hand on your chest should barely move. Repeat this process 4 times.4. Yoga
Yoga incorporates ideas of mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing with physical movements and poses. The incorporation of the physical can add to your flexibility, overall fitness, and oneness between the mind and body.5. Yoga Nidra
Yoga nidra is a mind-body practice and a deep meditative state that can be achieved through guided meditation. The phrase means “yogic sleep” in Hindi.
Using yoga nidra to combat stress is effective because it helps you access your rote thinking patterns in a brand-new state and ideally, to alter them and become more accepting of life’s ups and downs. The yoga nidra state rests right on the brink of sleep when you are deeply drawn within and resting semi-hypnotically. Yoga nidra can also help you sleep better and improve cognitive performance.6. Creating a Simpler Environment
Clutter in your life can lead to clutter in your mind. Cleanliness, organization, and simplification of environmental spaces (like your bedroom or office) can have profound effects on your wellbeing and stress levels.7. Cultivating a Better Diet and a Lifestyle With More Physical Activity
What you eat and how much you exercise greatly affects your health — both physically and mentally. You can help reduce unnecessary stress in your life by avoiding drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and excess sugar and by exercising on a regular bases.
A sedentary lifestyle and foods like alcohol and sugar often leave you feeling sluggish and tired. This is a recipe for added stress. Participating in regular cardiovascular exercise and eating healthy foods, on the other hand, will give you the energy you need to go about your day, keeping your mind awake and alert to handle stress and keeping your hormones in check.8. Improved Sleep
Getting the sleep you need each night will improve stress levels by keeping your energy levels high as well. When you do encounter unavoidable stress during the day, you’ll have a better capacity for dealing with it and better control of your innate stress responses.
The following resources can be helpful whenever you hit a roadblock in your management of stress:
Like some other stressors in life, a certain amount of workplace stress may be unavoidable. However, excess stress is all too common. The World Health Organization (WHO) blames several factors for stress in the workplace, including:
- Low workplace support
- Interpersonal conflicts
- Lack of latitude and recognition in the decision-making process
Anyone can experience workplace stress; however, C-level professionals appear to have the most challenging time dealing with stress. Here are several key tips that can assist you if you are experiencing excess stress as a business professional.1. Try walking meetings.
Walking meetings are just what they sound like. Instead of having a meeting in a stuffy office or boardroom, take the meeting outdoors, and walk while you talk. Holding your meetings outside allows you and the others in your meeting to get some fresh air, exercise, and freedom while you discuss and collaborate.2. Learn to handle “decision fatigue.”
“Decision fatigue” is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals are faced with making decision after decision in a short period of time. By the last decision, the quality of the individual’s decisions has often deteriorated and may lead to poor choices — such as eating cake and ice cream for dinner after a hard day at work or shouting at your children when they ask for help with their homework.
Handling decision fatigue means limiting the number of decisions you need to make in a day as much as possible. This can be done through simplification of your work life overall, better delegation of tasks, having a rote process for making decisions, giving yourself more time for decision-making, and learning to limit your options when you must make an important decision.
Teenagers often undergo a tremendous amount of stress in relation to their changing bodies, an overload of schoolwork, relationship and friendship ups and downs, and the anxiety of social and societal pressures.
Teens often note feelings of nervousness, fatigue, and trouble concentrating. Feeling overwhelmed is another common complaint. The following tips can particularly help with these anxieties.1. Focus on sleep.
Getting enough sleep can be especially challenging for teenagers. This is because the demands on teens are often uniquely high. Most teens spend all day in school, go to sports or other practices or lessons after school, and come home to finish up multiple assignments of homework.
When your schedule is like this, however, that’s when it’s most important to focus on sleep. Teens should:
- Try to go to sleep around the same time every night
- Not take phones and other digital devices into bed
- Sleep more on the weekends if that’s the only time to catch extra hours
- Avoid "biting off more than they can chew" and "burning the candle at both ends" — especially when it causes lack of sleep2. Take time away from social media.
While social media can be a great way to stay connected with friends, keep up to date on news, and have some fun, too much time devoted to sites like Facebook and Instagram can cause excess stress. Many teenagers find themselves comparing their lives to the lives that their friends and classmates present online.
It's important to remember that, first of all, social media is not real life. We don't post about the bad things that happen or the challenges we face, and this often makes it look like certain people have the "perfect life."
Furthermore, focusing on social media essentially mean staring into a screen for often hours at a time. This isn't good for our brains or bodies. Take breaks from social media. Put your phone or tablet in a drawer and go outside, have a meal with your friends, or partake in your favorite (non-screen) hobby. This will remind you that life is about more than how many Facebook friends you have or how many "likes" you get on Instagram.
College stress can be especially problematic when it comes to stress. According to Harvard University, “1 in 5 students surveyed reported thoughts of suicide in [the] last year.” Experts believe this is brought on by the onslaught of new experiences presented during college — from new living circumstances and friendships to budding romantic relationships and a host of new responsibilities.
The following are several stress management techniques uniquely catered to college students.1. Make it a point to stay organized.
Staying organized in college will be a huge boon to your psyche. Many college students are so excited to go off to school that the added responsibilities of their new lifestyle slip by them at first. Before they know it, assignment due dates are floating by, classes are being missed, and grades begin to plummet.
Naturally, this causes a lot of stress.
That's why it’s crucial to remember that your primary focus at college should be learning. This isn't to say that you shouldn't have fun with your friends and other activities as well. But when you can stay on top of your studies by maintaining an organized lifestyle, this sense of accomplishment and dedication will quell many of the most common stressors present in college students.2. Don’t be ashamed to reach out for help.
University and college campuses have numerous resources for students who are experiencing abnormally high levels of stress. That’s the good news. The bad news is that many students feel shame or guilt over asking for help when they need it.
Getting assistance by way of therapy or counseling is never something to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s the smart thing to do when you notice your stress levels getting too high. If you’re experiencing excess stress in your life, do a quick online search of what resources are available on your campus. Even writing the phone number and address of your school’s counseling services on a piece of paper and keeping it in your planner can help remind you that when you need it, help is always there.
Parents deal with huge amounts of stress — and it never stops. From the moment your first child is born, the stress of ensuring their safety, health, and happiness can feel both completely necessary and overwhelming.
Dealing with stress as a parent and the many faces it can take on, depending on your circumstances, often revolves around reminding yourself that you are both a parent and an individual. Use the following tips to help yourself deal with parental stress.1. Take time for yourself.
You’ve given your children so much — food, shelter, and most of all, unconditional love and support. Of course, this is what you’re there for. This is your role.
But how often do you give yourself unconditional love and support? It is absolutely essential to take time to nurture yourself through self-compassion and self-care. This means not focusing your entire being on your children at all times. Cultivate hobbies and activities that are just your own. Involve yourself with friends who are not just parents of your children’s friends. Spend time alone.2. Take time for your relationship.
There are many relationship combinations in a given family. There is the entire family unit relationship, the relationships between multiple siblings, the unique relationships between each parent and each child, and ... your relationship with your partner.
Whether your partner is also a parent to your children or someone new in your life, cultivating this relationship is essential. Make time for “date night.” Have your own inside jokes. Close the door to your bedroom without feeling guilty. Have alone time together where you don’t only discuss parenting and the kids.
Doing these things will not only help your own stress levels, they will help you be a better parent.
Both mothers and fathers can experience lots of stress when a new baby arrives, but often, new mothers bear the brunt of the responsibilities — at least for a while. Nine months of pregnancy, the pains and stresses of childbirth and breastfeeding (if this is something you choose to do), and the close bond you feel with your baby are all unique to moms.
During each of these phases, stress can come in varying waves of intensity. You may find yourself in a panicked frenzy at one moment and crying the next. New moms can use the following stress management techniques to help deal with this often-exhilarating, yet challenging time called post-partum.1. Resist isolation.
So many new mothers think that their feelings and emotions during this turbulent time are unique to them. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. All new moms have a certain amount of mandatory stress during this period — it’s perfectly normal.
The goal is to realize this and to speak to other moms about it. While speaking with your partner or a therapist can certainly help as well, it’s best to find a mothers group, friends who are moms, or others who have been through the same scenario. They might even be generous enough to offer you some stress relief gifts that worked for them while they were in your shoes. Speaking with these women can help you realize that your post-partum stress is normal, and the worst of it will subside with time.2. Ask for help.
New moms have the tendency to assume all responsibilities related to their baby. Of course, this makes sense. They have essentially been “in charge” of the baby for nine months. Now, it’s hard to let this feeling of complete responsibility go. Yet, it’s extremely important.
While you’ll always be your child’s mother, it’s important to pass on some of the responsibilities of caring for your baby to others. This includes the baby’s father, older siblings, and other family members and friends who offer to help. It’s simply not possible to be a “perfect mom” who does everything. Furthermore, it’s increasingly difficult to be a good mother when you don’t give yourself time to take a shower or a bubble bath, organize your personal life, and continue cultivating your own hobbies and interests. In order to do these things, however, you must ask for help.
Above, we discussed the physical, emotional, and mental ramifications of chronic stress. However, many people wonder whether these are correlations or causations. In other words, is there obvious evidence that chronic stress actually causes physical diseases like heart attack or diabetes?
There is no hard-and-fast answer to this question. However, the links between certain types of physical illness and chronic stress have been continually chronicled.
A recent study in Australia, for example, found that men aged 45 to 79 had a 30% increase in their risk of heart attack when they had high/very high levels of psychological stress in their lives. Excessive psychological stress among women resulted in a 44 percent increase in their risk of stroke.
Another study looked the physical effects on those who had recently been through earthquakes — obviously stressful events. This study found that:
“There is an increased risk for pulmonary embolism in the wake of earthquakes … In 2004, Central Nigata, Japan, was struck by 3 strong earthquakes and 90 aftershocks in the ensuing week. One hundred thousand residents were evacuated from their homes, and many of them spent nights sleeping in their cars. The combination of the psychological stress and the relative immobilization in cars resulted in a dramatic increase in pulmonary embolism”
Some anxiety disorders have been shown to run in families. Furthermore, there may be evidence that stress-linked disorders such as depression may have genetic connections.
However, chronic stress is generally a sign of an environmental issue, such as a stressful job, financial problems, or a recent breakup. It may also be linked to excess anxiety. For the most part, research has not shown that certain individuals have a predisposition to become excessively stressed.
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mental, physical, and emotional health. That’s why it’s crucial to deal with stress at its onset as completely as possible. Unchecked stress has been linked with eating disorders, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, cardiovascular diseases, hair and skin problems, and gastrointestinal conditions like ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Eustress is the term professionals use for good stress or positive stress. Essentially, it’s stress that comes from positive events in your life — such as landing a job or promotion, getting married, or having a baby. These events can bring on feelings of accomplishment, joy, and pleasure while still causing a stress response.
Think about the nervousness you might feel on your first day at a new job or the all-too-common jitters of a first date. These events may be outside of your comfort zone, but you do them willingly. This is eustress, and it’s an important type of stress that can empower you to grow emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Results of eustress include learning new things, pushing your boundaries (safely), achieving more in your work and personal life, and increasing your positive habits — such as exercising daily and eating a more balanced diet.
From fears about job security and financial challenges, to worries about health and relationship issues, stress is ever-present. But how you handle stress is what’s important.
The amazing thing about your life is that you dictate how you manage it. Anyone can change their life for the better — and you don’t need permission to do so. The teachings and information above are meant to guide you on your quest to a life that is less stressful, less riddled with anxiety, and more full of peace.
Embrace and trust the process. Learn to let go. Remember that each and every challenge that you meet along your path has something to teach you. If you listen and study these events, you will become wiser and stronger as a result, and chronic stress will have less of a hold over you.