Have you ever felt a knot in your stomach before having to do a presentation? Or, felt your heartbeat racing when walking to a first date? Then you – like everybody else – have experienced stress.
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is a natural reaction developed by humans a long time ago as a way to protect themselves from predators and other threats. In terms of our body, this means that our energy, heartbeat rate and blood pressure increases so we can be prepared for a “flight or fight” response; that is, to run away or fight the problem.
While today we are not as easily at risk of being devoured by a cave lion, our bodies still keep this natural alarm system in order to cope with everyday challenges. However, if the stress mode is activated for a long period of time, it can have detrimental effects on our body and overall health.
The American Institute of Stress (yes, there is one!) lists a very long set of items as the common symptoms and signs of stress that affect every part of your body, moods and behavior – from neck pain, to weight gain/loss, to mood swings, to insomnia and even depression. Equally significant, stress affects our body systems, organs and other body tissues.
All these symptoms can impact your life not only by making you feel physical pain but can also affect your relationships with other people, diminish your productivity at school or work, and deteriorate your self-confidence and worth. Therefore, working towards a more stress-free mindset is an investment that can bring significant benefits and improvements to your life.
“But, how to do that?!” you may ask. Worry not, here’s how:
1.) Focus on the now
I have found that one of the greatest sources of stress in life comes from thinking about the past or the future; in other words, thinking about things that are out of our control in the present moment. Therefore, a simple yet effective way to reduce stress is focusing all your attention on the now. I know… it is easier said than done but with persistence and some thinking strategies, you can begin to live more in the present.
For example, one of the strategies I often use to bring myself out of a stressful mindest, is by asking myself “Is there anything I can do about it right now?”. If the answer is “yes”, I go ahead and do something to put my mind to rest; but often times the answer is “no”, which then means that stressing is pointless and once I realize this, it helps bring my mind to the present. The most important thing is to be aware that your mind is drifting away and stopping yourself whenever your mind starts to wander.
2.) Rely on your support system
Sometimes, telling your mind that stressing is pointless, won’t do the trick. For this, it is crucial that you surround yourself with people that are understanding and supportive during stressful times; and more importantly – stay away from those that make you feel more stressed. Reach out to whomever you feel close to and share with them what’s causing you stress. Many times, other people can offer advice or perspectives that you might have missed because you are so close to the problem.
3.) Sweat it out
Other times, you might feel like being around people is just making the stress worse; but sitting at home alone won’t make it better either. A practical solution in cases like these is to move and sweat a little bit. Exercising releases endorphins that help improve your mood, and at the same time allows your mind to focus on something different. Whether it be a walk in the park or a trip to the gym, always keep physical activity as a tool to release stress.
4.) Rest well
Have you ever laid in bed awake at night for hours thinking nonstop? This is a very common symptom of stress and one that can have very damaging repercussions. When we don’t sleep well and are tired we tend to be more irritable and more likely to get frustrated. So if you feel like you’re not getting a good night’s sleep you should probably reconsider your bedtime routine.
For instance, avoid watching scary or suspenseful shows before sleeping; instead, watch lighter, comedy shows that are not going to make you anxious. Other relaxing bedtime ideas include: lighting a candle and doing a few breathing exercises; keeping a notebook on your bedside table to write down any thoughts or things to do that your mind might bring up; and putting your phone at a distance where you cannot reach it in order to avoid the screen light which will keep you awake.
5.) Get help
If the stress prevails after trying different techniques to reduce it, get professional help with a psychologist or a mental health professional. Many universities like Webster Vienna, offer counseling services free of charge to their students to help cope with stress in a more effective manner. The Psychologische Studierendenberatung (Psychological Counseling Centers) offered by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research in Austria also offer assistance in overcoming stress and other personal or academic challenges. The services are offered in English, free of charge and if desired, anonymous.