stressed woman resting forehead on hand

In my office stress is classified as a disease, just as it is for diabetes and hypertension. A majority of my patient visits are related to stress, and it’s often the underlying cause of most people’s physical problems. It’s high time to take stress seriously because it can be discouraging, debilitating, and, in a growing number of cases, deadly.

What does stress do to your body?

Stress is your body’s natural “flight or fight” response and it’s meant to protect you from danger. When you face stress (real or perceived):

1. Your brain’s hypothalamus is activated.

2. Your sympathetic nervous system and pituitary system are also triggered — releasing “activating chemicals” like cortisol.

3. Your body prepares to fight an enemy or flee a threat. Your heart rate becomes rapid, blood pressure rises, blood glucose levels increase, and your respiration quickens.

Then after the threat is passed, your body is supposed to return to a more level state. Under normal conditions, stress is used to help you survive and thrive. It’s when stress becomes more intense or doesn’t recede that your adrenal function is pushed into overdrive and stress symptoms arise.

Before you get even more stressed out, there is good news about stress. New ways to prevent and relieve stress are proving to be extremely effective and can help roll back a level of stress in your life, along with the symptoms it causes.

While I’ve always encouraged my patients to practice stress relief every day, I’ve learned that many of them simply don’t know how. Learning how to identify the effects of stress is the first step. That’s important because stress, and stress symptoms, can accumulate and build up over time. Chronic, unrelenting stress results in a chronic state of “flight or fight” that is damaging both to your hormonal health and your overall wellness.

What kind of stress do you have?

In general, stress exists in two forms today, mental/emotional stress and physical stress.

  • Mental/emotional stress is often a reaction to the burdens of daily life, the strain of unresolved traumas in your past and the mystery of the unknown or unexpected.
  • Physical stress is often introduced to your body by certain elements of your daily life or in response to mental stress. Common physical stressors are wide-ranging and include wireless technology and the devices that go with it, processed foods, inadequate or poor quality sleep, stimulating substances like caffeine, downers like alcohol and lack of exercise.

Since mental and physical stress can go hand-in-hand, removing one will help lessen the impact of the other.

7 doctor-tested tips to relieve stress

When it comes to dealing with unexpected everyday stress, or that stress that just won’t go away, here’s what I suggest:

1) Write it out. Take all your tasks, appointments and plans for the day and jot them down on paper. This achieves two goals – it provides you with a nuts-and-bolts way to organize chaotic and unconnected tasks into one, less intimidating to-do list. You’ll also feel a sense of empowerment when you scratch each accomplishment off as you go.

Lists are great, but may not be enough. Consider taking five minutes to write down what’s really bothering or stressing you and then put it away — or even better, burn it!

2) Eat stress-free foods. Caffeine, alcohol and processed foods can actually exacerbate stress and its effects. These choices leave you with fast energy or a false sense of calm — but then drop you off a seemingly hundred-foot cliff, searching for the next quick fix.

To feel less stressed, you don’t have to completely give up any foods or completely overhaul your diet. Simply take a minute before you choose a food or drink. First of all, do you really need to consume it? Or are you just trying to avoid the stress effects a little bit longer? Then ask yourself, is there a better choice I could make, such as herbal tea instead of coffee?

3) Sleep like a baby. Set yourself up for the best night’s sleep possible by creating restful conditions in your bedroom. When you put a child down to rest, do you hand her an iPhone so she can check social media just one more time? Do you make sure to leave the TV blaring so she can catch the last few minutes of her favorite show? No! You give the child a warm bath, a cuddle, read her a story and lay her down in a comfy bed, in a cool, dark and quiet room.

You should be doing the same for yourself. Babies sleep well (for the most part) because they’re practicing perfect sleep hygiene (though they may not know it). Quiet, calming patterns with no electronic stimulation let your body know it’s time to rest and restore. Getting both the amount and quality of sleep you need leads to a better sense of well-being, and much less overall stress.

happy and relaxed woman

4) Silence your phone. Turn down the volume of your busy world by shutting off your phone for a period of time every day. During that time, focus on the here and now, and don’t worry about your plans for the rest of the day. Your quality of sleep will improve greatly if you turn your phone off at night, or simply keep it out of the bedroom.

5) Get up, get out and exercise. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, feel-good chemicals that are natural anxiety reducers. It doesn’t take much physical movement to start the process either. A few jumping jacks may be all you need to find relief from an immediate stressful situation. Then, incorporate regular exercise to provide long-term stress relief and improve your physical well-being. Start out as slow as you like, and then aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days per week. And mix it up — variety makes exercising easier and more fun.

Try 3 second breathing any time

Inhale a deep breath counting 3 full seconds. Hold it for 3 full seconds and then exhale counting 3 full seconds. Do this at least 3 times in a row and take your time. You’re forcing your body to slow down and de-stress.

woman managing stress with meditation

6) Find your best form of meditation. Meditation is a well-studied method of stress reduction, but I know from personal experience it’s not easy for everyone. Even when I created a mediation corner and followed YouTube meditation videos, I always felt like I was doing it wrong.

I finally discovered the key to meditation is finding a way that fits your lifestyle. I try to meditate for a few minutes at a time. Here’s what works for me:

  • Sit in a comfortable chair or on the floor.
  • Take a deep breath and exhale, blowing out the heaviness and stress in your mind.
  • Find the pulse on your neck with your fingers and feel the gentle “bump, bump” of your heartbeat (don’t press too hard or you’ll cut off your circulation).
  • Keep breathing in and out, and just sit and listen to that gentle pulsation.
  • If it’s too hard to concentrate, try repeating the sound of your heart over and over again: “ba bump, ba bump, ba bump.”

There are also countless phone apps that walk you through a meditation. Try as many as you need to until you find one you like.

7) Say yes to starting a positive affirmations journal. Writing in my Affirmations Journal is by far my absolute favorite stress-reducing technique and I practice it every day. Choose a time of day that you have as little as 5 minutes to yourself, and write down 5-10 things you are grateful for right at that moment. I learned this trick when I was going through a very rough period in my life. I found myself waking up in the morning dreading the day, hyper-focused on my burdens at the time. By writing a gratitude journal I was able to shift my attention from negative influences to what was good that day.

Stress is a terrible burden on your body and I encourage you to get started on relieving it today. Make simple changes — perhaps try out one or two of my suggestions — in a way that matches your lifestyle. When you take an active role in managing stress, you will be taking a big step toward relieving the miserable symptoms that stress is causing. You’ll find your blood pressure improves, those sugar cravings disappear and soon, the day will feel a lot brighter too.