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Get Better at Handling Stress by Fighting These 10 Unhealthy Habits

Find out which stress-fighting strategies are helpful, and which are downright unhealthy.

stress management

Art Credit: Regina Leah

When it comes to responding to stress, the possibilities are endless. So how do we know if our mechanism for coping is doing us more harm than good? You may feel like you can't function without coffee or you find yourself hankering for a smoke as anxiety sets in. You may be dealing with stress in ways that could have long-term negative effects on your health. Read on to find out the top 10 ways people deal with stress in unhealthy ways and tips on how to cope productively.

01. Caffeine Overconsumption

An occasional coffee is harmless, but remember that caffeine has lasting effects on the body. Caffeine has an average half-life of five to six hours in the body of a healthy adult. It blunts the body's ability to absorb adenosine, a chemical that calms the body, which gives short-term alertness but causes sleep problems later on. It increases adrenaline and dopamine levels resulting in feeling low after the initial high wears off, and could leave you agitated and edgy.

Fix: Pay attention to coffee's effects on your body and limit your intake. Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. since it stays in your system for several hours and can disrupt sleep.

02. Compulsive Spending

It's tempting to use stress as an excuse to treat ourselves with retail therapy. But overspending can lead to financial troubles and feeling ashamed, which only adds to more stress in the long run.

Fix: If you can reduce your stress level, it’s likely that you’ll also reduce the likelihood of spending frivolously. Seek out one element of your life that you can let go of for a while. This may mean taking a personal day from work or letting the laundry go undone. Whatever it may be, step back and give yourself some breathing room.

03. Drinking Excessively

While alcohol is related to stress-response dampening, long-term, heavy drinking can alter the brain’s chemistry, re-setting what is “normal.” It causes the release of higher amounts of cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone. When this hormonal balance is shifted, it impacts the way the body perceives stress and how it responds to it. For example, a long-term heavy drinker may experience higher levels of anxiety when faced with a stressful situation than someone who never drinks or who drinks only moderately.

Fix: Limit alcohol to one drink per day. If you find that alcohol is your only way of regularly relieving stress, pursue other forms of stress relief.

04. Over- or Under-eating

One in four Americans turn to food to help alleviate stress. People tend to fall into two appetite camps when stressed: craving carbs and sugar or a loss of appetite. While sugar can temporarily elevate your mood, glucose levels generally crash after two hours. Poor dietary choices leads to compromised health such as excessive weight gain, malnutrition, or chronic tiredness. And not eating enough is just as problematic, leading to fatigue, mood swings, and trouble focusing.

Fix: Maintain stable blood sugar levels by eating a balanced breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with healthy snacking in between. If you're a grazer, carry protein-rich trail mix or granola bars, carrot sticks, edamame, or butter-less popcorn. If you lose your appetite, look to tension tamers such as yoga and journaling to help relax an anxious stomach.

05. Taking OTC drugs

Taking over-the-counter drugs like pain relievers, sleeping pills, and muscle relaxers when you're stressed out can often be like putting a bandage on a gaping wound; you might stem the flow a bit, but really you need to go get stitches. OTC medication can provide some relief, but if your issues are chronic, it's simply masking the symptoms, not addressing the cause.

Fix: Instead of chemical dependency, determine natural ways you can address symptoms of stress. Perhaps you're experiencing headaches because of a lack of sleep, or it may be time to visit your doctor. If you're having trouble sleeping or your muscles feel tense, opt for a good workout or a massage.

06. Poor Sleep

When it comes to sleep in times of stress, you can have too much (or too little) of a good thing. Where oversleeping is linked to health problems like diabetes and obesity, under-sleeping is linked to hyper-anxiety and memory loss.

Fix: The Sleep Foundation recommends sleeping between seven to nine hours a day. Prep for a good night's rest by winding down at least half an hour before you go to bed—switch off the TV and put your phone on "Do not disturb."

07. Smoking

For smokers, a cigarette can feel like a good stress reliever. But while the cigarette industry's dwindling band of apologists claims that smoking relieves stress, a recent study found that smokers who quit were less anxious than before.

Fix: Quit smoking programs are difficult, so when you feel like lighting up, seek support from family or friends, sharing your feelings and concerns openly. It's helpful to connect with someone who is quitting tobacco or has successfully kicked the habit long-term.

08. Overworking

If you think you can manage stress by working harder and more than normal, consider that overworked individuals tend to make more mistakes which only leads to increased stress levels.

Fix: Work smarter, not harder. Take a break, have a nap, go for walk outside, and go back to spending time working as productively as you can.

09. Social Withdrawal

When we're feeling stressed, isolating in our comfortable beds for days seems like an attractive option. While some alone time is healthy, prolonged social withdrawal is a leading sign of depression.

Fix: Fight this feeling by reaching out to friends and family who help you relax best, or schedule a fun activity with people you've been meaning to reconnect with.

10. Not Dealing With It at All

Sometimes we feel that our problem is so great, it's better to sweep it under the rug, never to be heard of again. Also known as severe procrastination, this is the worst way to cope with stress, as those stressors often return to bite us in the bum.

Fix: Instead of ignoring the problem, decide how much time you'll need to walk away from it and when exactly you will return to find solutions. Whether this means a couple hours or a couple days, don't convince yourself that ignoring the stress will automatically erase it.