Stressed Out? Try These 9 Tips

Stressed? You’re not alone. Chronic stress harms mental and physical health. Learn its impact and nine proven strategies for relief.

krsitian wilson grow therapy By Kristian Wilson, LMHC
Woman sitting in a packing box.

Updated on May 20, 2024

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon

Feeling stressed out right now? You aren’t alone. Stress is an unavoidable part of life. For better or for worse, it’s part of the human experience.

According to a survey conducted by Grow Therapy, 34% of therapists said that stress and anxiety are the most common reasons their patients seek help. While some stress can actually be helpful, chronic stress can wreak havoc on mental and physical health. Plus, some people have more trouble coping with stress than others. This is why it’s essential to recognize your stressors, know when things are getting out of hand, and develop healthy strategies to manage and reduce stress effectively.

Here’s what you need to know about stress, its physical and mental symptoms, and nine proven ways to reduce stress.

What Exactly Is Stress?

“Stress” means a lot of different things and has tons of different causes, depending on who you ask. However, for a straightforward explanation, the World Health Organization refers to stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” Stress is natural, and it can (and does) affect everyone to some extent. It is usually caused by an external cause, known as a stressor.

Stress is your body’s response to a challenge or demand. It results in both psychological and physiological effects as a response to the challenge or threat that your brain perceives – ultimately letting you know that your well-being might be in danger.

Everyone experiences stress, which can be triggered by a range of events, from small daily hassles to major changes like a divorce or job loss. The stress response includes physical components, like an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, thoughts and personal beliefs about the stressful event, and emotions, including fear and anger.

“Our most basic need is to feel safe. Stress occurs when you do not feel safe, either mentally or physically,” says Britta Neinast, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. “The threat could be real or imagined but even if [it’s] imagined, it is perceived as very real. Once you are able to feel safe again, stress goes down.”

Stress serves an important purpose — it enables us to respond quickly to threats and avoid danger. But lengthy exposure to stress may lead to mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression, or increased physical health problems.

What Happens to the Body When It’s Stressed?

When you’re feeling stressed out, a lot is going on in your brain and body.

The body’s stress response, otherwise known as the “fight-or-flight” response, is designed to help you. Thanks to evolution, mammals and humans developed this mechanism so they could respond almost immediately to life-or-death situations. The changes in the body are both physiological and hormonal. This fight-or-flight alarm will sound regardless of if it’s truly a life-or-death situation, like if you need to get out of the way of a moving car, or if it’s something less intense, like a work deadline.

Here’s what happens in the brain and body when the stress response is activated:

  1. The amygdala in the brain detects a threat and sends an alarm to the hypothalamus, another part of the brain.
  2. The hypothalamus communicates with the sympathetic nervous system, which leads to the release of adrenaline.
  3. The adrenaline causes various changes in the body, including

4. If the perceived threat continues, the body releases cortisol, aptly referred to as the stress hormone. Cortisol helps the stress response stay on, keeping you alert to the threat.

Mental Symptoms of Stress

Feeling stressed out isn’t very fun. It can cause you to feel mental symptoms and emotions that can make you struggle to go on with your day. Examples of these symptoms include:

Plus, stress can worsen pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

Physical Symptoms of Stress

For many people, stress manifests physically, too. This is because stress releases cortisol, and cortisol plays an important role when it comes to regulating the body’s functioning, says Teresa Ellsworth, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy.

Ellsworth says cortisol affects body systems such as the:

When cortisol takes over in stressful situations, you might experience a combination of any of the following physical symptoms:

On top of these short-term symptoms, chronic stress can negatively affect physical health in the long run, making you more susceptible to cardiovascular problems, such as heart disease, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.

Additionally, severe stress and anxiety can lead you to have an anxiety attack or panic attack, which results in many physical and emotional symptoms that can feel very scary – although a panic attack is not inherently dangerous. Some panic attack symptoms include:

Along with these physical symptoms, you may emotionally feel:

Possible Stressors in Your Life

Our way of living today is quite stressful. Everyone is different, though, and what stresses one person out might be totally fine with another person, and vice versa. However, Ellsworth says some examples of common stressors today include:

9 Ways to Manage and Reduce Stress

While stress is sometimes unavoidable, there are plenty of effective, healthy tools for reducing and managing stress, improving your overall wellness along the way.

Everyone is different. Find what you enjoy most and what is relaxing for you. Experiment and see what your favorite stress-relieving activities are. Here are some ideas.

1. Exercise regularly

Incorporating regular exercise into your routine is an evidence-based game changer for stress reduction and stress management. Aim to get up and move for at least 30 minutes, at least three to five days every week to experience optimal mental health benefits. Whether you’re going for a walk, lifting weights, doing yoga, or running, any type of physical activity is beneficial. Ellsworth says that exercise can help change your perspective and promotes the release of “happy chemicals” in the brain, such as endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that reduce stress, boost your mood, and even relieve pain.

2. Get enough sleep

High levels of stress and difficulty sleeping can go hand in hand. In fact, it can be a vicious cycle, since stress can worsen insomnia, and a lack of sleep can worsen stress. For this reason, Ellsworth says it’s so important to have a regular sleep routine and get enough sleep. Try to get at least seven hours per night. Your body and brain have time to recharge as you sleep, and sleep helps your brain function optimally. When you’re sleep deprived, you may be less equipped to handle stress.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, Ellsworth suggests the following sleep hygiene tips:

3. Nourish your body

A healthy diet isn’t just important for physical health – it’s also important for your mental health.

Neinast says that healthy eating (along with movement) is one of the most effective ways to manage and reduce stress. “It fuels your body and mind to help you think clearer and react in a more empowered way to stress,” she says.

Opting for a healthy diet of whole foods, plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats can give your brain and body the good fuel they need to fight acute and chronic stress. You may specifically want to consume foods that are high in:

Knowing what to avoid putting into your body is just as important. Some types of food and drink can increase your stress-related symptoms and raise cortisol levels, including:

4. Try deep breathing exercises

Breath is a simple and powerful tool for stress reduction. Stress and anxiety can result in shallow, quick breathing. Ellsworth says mindful, slow breathing exercises counteract this and help you activate your vagus nerve and stay present. The vagus nerve helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is also referred to as the rest and digest system. This relaxation response is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system response –– the fight-or-flight response. Slow, deep, belly breaths with long inhales will help slow down your heart rate and tell your brain to be calm, Ellsworth says.

Popular examples of deep breathing exercises include:

5. Maintain healthy relationships

Foster quality relationships and cut out toxic ones – whether that means platonic relationships or romantic relationships. “Just as unhealthy foods are toxic to your body, unhealthy relationships are toxic to your mind and spirit. Healthy, supportive relationships strengthen you both,” Neinast says.

No one should have to go through life alone, and having healthy relationships where you can lean on another person in tough, stressful times can help reduce your stress levels, cope with conflict, improve your mood, and ward off loneliness. Quality is more important than quantity here. It’s better to have a small handful of friends who you can truly confide in about your stress (and vice versa) as opposed to acquaintances who you don’t feel comfortable opening up to.

6. Practice meditation or mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness have a slew of both physical health and mental health benefits, including stress reduction. Mindfulness basically means being present in the moment without judgment. It involves keeping your attention on what is happening right now – such as your breathing, any physical sensations, and any emotions that pop up. Then, on top of this attention, you must find acceptance, being an observer of all these sensations without any judgment.

You can incorporate mindful moments throughout your day or practice mindfulness more formally by meditating. Plenty of research has proven that this reduces the body’s stress response and improves other mental health conditions. For example, mindfulness may also help with symptoms of depression and burnout.

If you need assistance with this practice, plenty of mindfulness and meditation apps provide guided audios or videos to help you.

7. Practice gratitude

Take stock of what you’re thankful for. To start, Ellsworth suggests physically writing down at least one thing that you’re grateful for every day. “This helps us pay attention to the things that are going well in our life, not just the problems of daily life,” she says. When we’re feeling stressed, it’s too easy to get swept up in the negative, so a gratitude practice helps you focus on the positive, count your blessings, and get a much-needed mood boost. Not to mention, research has found that practicing gratitude even reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

8. Be mindful of media consumption

What you watch, read, and hear, can increase your stress levels – especially with the ways of the world today. “Be mindful of what you watch on TV and read on social media,” Neinast says. “What you feed your mind will influence how you think and feel about life.”

If you feel extra stressed after watching the news, certain types of TV shows, or scrolling social media, this is a sign that you should limit this type of media consumption. Instead, use this time to watch or listen to more positive, stress-relieving things, or engage in one of the above healthy ways to cope.

9. Learn to say no

Learn to assert yourself and say what you need. It’s OK to say “no” to demands on your time and energy that’ll place too much stress on you. You don’t always have to meet the expectations of others.

If stress is an ongoing problem for you and if it’s negatively affecting your quality of life or day-to-day functioning, this could be a sign that it might be time to find a therapist. While you can’t completely cut stress out from your life, you can certainly learn ways to reduce stress and improve your mental health – coming out stronger and better equipped to handle life’s curveballs than you were before.

Get support

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
krsitian wilson grow therapy Kristian Wilson, LMHC

Kristian Wilson is a licensed mental health counselor located in Jacksonville, FL. Kristian enjoys working with individuals, couples, and families who would like to explore different perspectives on their overall well-being.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon