According to American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, more than 60% of adults say that work is a source of stress. Seventy-five percent of adults say they’ve experienced physical or emotional symptoms of stress, including headache, fatigue, or changes in sleeping habits. That’s a lot of stressed people.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, so we thought it would be the perfect time to try to help you deal with your stress. Instead of just listing a bunch of stress busters and leaving you on your own to figure out which one might work, we’re taking a different angle. We’ve picked 10 of the most common signs of stress and a stress-relieving activity that addresses each one. After all, it’s not really helpful to hear that listening to music helps reduce stress if stress gives you a headache, right? So, give it some thought, pinpoint your stress reactions, and let’s get rid of some stress!
Muscle tension is one of the most common physical reactions to stress. When we feel under attack (even if it’s just mental), we tense up. Constant tension can lead to muscle aches like back pain and a stiff neck.
Shake it off with better posture. Focusing on your posture can help with aches and pains and also improve your mood. If you have a standing desk, try a power pose. Stand up straight, roll your shoulders back, and lengthen your neck. Think about holding this posture as you work. If you’re sitting, make sure you’re seated properly. No slouching! Sit all the way back in your chair so the chair back can help support your back. Keep your shoulders rolled back and your neck straight. Proper posture reduces pressure on your back and neck to you’ll feel less pain and this sort of power posture can help you feel mentally stronger as well.
We’ve all had days when we get home completely drained even though all we’ve done is sit at our desk all day. That’s stress at work. Prolonged stress leaves you on constant high alert and that leads to fatigue.
Shake it off with a walk. It doesn’t seem to make sense. If you’re already tired why would you want to do anything active? Walking gets your blood flowing which moves more oxygen through your body which help you feel more awake. Even a short 10-15 minute walk can boost your energy by as much as 20%! Any walk will do, but you’ll get even more stress-relieving power if you take your walk outside.
Raise your hand if you’ve spent a night staring at the ceiling while your mind races, just wishing you could fall asleep. You aren’t alone. According to the Stress in America survey, more than 50% of adults say they’ve had trouble sleeping in the previous week due to stress.
Shake it off by ditching your phone. Not permanently. We aren’t crazy enough to suggest that. Just try to wean yourself off it later in the evening. Constantly checking your phone can encourage that “on” feeling you get when you’re stressed. If you want to sleep, you need your brain to slow down. Put your phone away 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Instead of scrolling through your social media one last time, listen to some quiet music, read a book or magazine, or just space out for a while. When you do go to bed, try leaving your phone in another room. If you have it with you, turn on sleep mode to keep notifications from disturbing your sleep.
Stress can make your mind race. It’s part of that fight-or-flight response. You feel like you have to pay attention to every little thing. That leads to loss of focus. How are you supposed to decide what to focus on when everything seems urgent?
Shake it off with mindless tasks. You can slow down your mind and regain focus by completing a mundane task, something that keeps your hands busy but doesn’t need too much brain power. At home it can be something like washing dishes or folding towels. At work activities like doodling or shredding a stack of papers are good options. You can also try taking some time over lunch or during your afternoon coffee break to do a word search or other simple puzzle. Once you’re done you should be better able to focus on the task at hand.
Stress often leaves you feeling overwhelmed. There’s too much to do. There’s never enough time to do it. Pressure mounts up. This leads to forgetfulness, disorganized thoughts, and often a disorganized physical space. And that makes it even harder to get things done.
Shake it off with an organization break. This one practically fixes itself. Research shows that the act of decluttering reduces stress. So if your stressful day has you feeling disorganized, take a few minutes to sort through that stack of papers on your desk, do some filing, or organize your email inbox. You’ll literally be less disorganized and you should feel less stressed as well. That’s five minutes well spent.
Even under normal circumstances there’s a limit to how many (good) decisions we can make in a day. The more decisions we have to make, the harder each additional one gets. It’s called decision fatigue and we all suffer from it. Stress just makes it worse.
Shake it off with a game. It’s not going to help you in the moment but playing action-based video games or strategy-based board games can train you to be a better decision-maker. So plan a family game night and watch it start to pay off at work. Oh, and if you need a quick fix for a decision dilemma, try making one or two small, inconsequential decisions, like what to eat for lunch or what to wear to work tomorrow. It can help nudge you out of your mental paralysis.
Just like your ability to make decisions, your will power and ability to motivate yourself is finite. You only have so much of it. When you’re tired and stressed, you have to use more of it just to get through normal everyday activities, which leaves less of it for larger goals and challenges.
Shake it off with a new project. If you’re feeling unmotivated at work, trying something new can give you the energy you need to get over the hump. Think about what kinds of projects or tasks you might really enjoy. Is there anything you’ve always wanted to learn or try? Talk to your boss to see if there’s a way to work one of these new things into your schedule. If there’s no time at work for anything extra, use your weekend to pick up some new skills. Sign up for a class or start up an old hobby.
When you’re stressed your body sends out extra cortisol. It helps you respond better to the “threat” you are facing. That’s great in the short term, but if your stress remains high for a longer period of time the extra stress hormones can lead to anxiety.
Shake it off by counting your breaths. Deep breathing is always high on the list of stress busters. It’s a great way to relax, but it can also feel vague and unstructured. If you’re feeling anxious, a more mindful breathing exercise could produce better results. Try something like the 4-7-8 exercise. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, and then exhale through your mouth for 8 counts. Repeat at least three times. Counting your breaths makes you focus on something other than your anxieties and gives you time to mentally reset.
When you’re dealing with longer-term stress, it’s common to pull back from social interactions. You’re tired and irritable, even angry. It seems easier to hole up by yourself until it passes.
Shake it off with a pet. Another of the stress relievers you see all the time is “Spend time with friends.” They say it’s a great mood booster. But that’s not much help if you spending time face-to-face with someone feels like too much. It turns out you can get similar stress-reducing benefits from pets and you won’t even be expected to answer questions about how you’re doing. Spending some quality time with a dog can lower your blood pressure and improve your mood. Don’t have a dog? Try a fish or a new house plant. You’ll get some of the same benefits. And once you’re in a better mood, you might feel more excited about seeing your friends.
As you can see from everything we’ve discussed above, stress makes things hard. It’s hard to think, hard to concentrate, hard to get things done. When that happens over a long period of time it’s natural to blame yourself. You’re a hot mess. Why can’t you finish this project? How did you manage to mess up such a simple task? This constant stream of negative thoughts hurts your self-esteem.
Shake it off with positive thinking. If you want to feel better, you have to break this negative thought loop. Every time you notice that you’re browbeating yourself, make a conscious effort to push back with a positive thought. Writing down something that went well or for which you’re grateful. If you find yourself pointing out your flaws, think of a good quality you possess. Recall a past success or ask a friend or coworker to point one out to you.