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Five Ways to Improve the Way You Cope with Stress Today

You don’t have to feel so overwhelmed.
stress management, overwhelmed

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography

Three school-age children in three different schools, a house to manage without a cleaning lady or a nanny, a busy freelance writing career, a traveling husband, and two active Labrador retrievers. This all adds up to a to-do list a mile long . . . HELP!

I can hardly imagine I’m alone when it comes to the subject of having lots to do and seemingly no time to get it all done. So let’s talk about stress and, more importantly, how to manage it.

In an interview with ABC News, Kim Lebowitz Feingold, Ph.D., director of the Cardiac Behavioral Medicine Service at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, defines stress as our body’s natural reaction to a challenge or a threat to our well-being. The second part of stress is how we respond to that challenge. According to Feingold, stress is real and has a real effect on the body. It’s the body’s fight-or-flight response. Stress activates our nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, and even immune systems. It does so to help us protect ourselves from threats.

But what if the threat is a pile of dishes or laundry, an annoying coworker, or a big work project? Here’s what you can do to manage the daily stresses of life.

01. Take a break.

Stress often happens when our brain or body is on overload. Are we not all going 24/7? Many of us are plugged in electronically up to twelve hours a day. Even if we are not working, we are getting messages on Facebook or posting on Instagram, texting, watching videos, or reading online content. Besides the electronic overload, we also have to contend with the mental overload from all of life’s other demands: work deadlines, meals, finances, household management . . . the list can go on and on. So when do our brains get an unplugged mental break?

The answer is simple: Take a break. Step away from the computer, put away the phone, get away from the housework. Unplugging for fifteen minutes usually works for me. But twenty to thirty minutes, if you can spare them, is ideal. An hour is paradise!

My favorite breaks include drinking coffee or tea, a hot bath (time permitting), a quick twenty-minute nap, or a dog walk. A break with a book or a print magazine also helps. When I worked in a downtown office and did not have the luxury of taking long breaks in the middle of my day, I would leave the office and walk around the building outside. Or I’d walk up and down the stairs to clear my head. Not only does walking benefit my physical health, but my stress level also goes down in a matter of mere minutes. So find the kind of break that works best for you. The key is to take one even if it’s only five minutes.

02. Download with a to-do list.

This is my favorite. Much of our stress comes from physical or mental overload. I’ve found that a way to reduce this stress is by first downloading all that I have to do from my brain onto a list. Then I classify my tasks into one of three categories: urgent, non-urgent, or someday.

Tori Guyer, professional organizer and productivity consultant who runs Organized with Care, uses this strategy with her clients, along with a method of executing the three lists. While we check things off our lists, new demands are coming in, so managing the flux is key.

Working from home as a freelance writer has its definite advantages and disadvantages. But because I’m at my home post, I actually keep a running list on a Microsoft Word document. You can also choose from the myriad of to-do list apps. One of my favorites is Wunderlist. When I’m mobile or covering a story, I add new demands there as they pop up.

The actions that reduce a significant amount of my stress are (1) writing it down or electronically capturing the item so that I don’t have to store it in my head and (2) evaluating if that item is actually urgent. Only urgent items need to be done today, which makes my list manageable. Otherwise, I’ll feel like I have twenty things that must get done. And who can do twenty extra things per day on top of our normal work–life demands?

I realized that once I check off my actual urgent items, there is still time. But any items that don’t get done are just moved to the next day. I have peace knowing that even if my list is long, the world won’t fall apart. I’ve taken care of the most important tasks. The next day, I repeat the drill. It’s all in a day’s work.

03. Get involved in a creative outlet.

Finding a creative outlet is easier than you might think. If you are not creative at all, just take a trip to your local craft store or peruse Pinterest. You will find a treasure trove of ideas and activities to release your creative inhibitions. The key to creative stress relief is relaxing your mind as you nurture your creativity. Many of my friends do scrapbooking. And that exercise is kind of a two-for-one deal. They give their pile of photos a final resting place rather than that unwanted stack on the desk. Me? I prefer knitting, journaling, and crafting—anything with a glue gun.

More specific forms of creative release, such as art therapy, can also help combat stress. Social worker and art therapist Melissa Neher-Phelps has worked with pediatric cancer patients at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis and struggling children in the Indianapolis public school system. Neher-Phelps says that the children who undergo great trauma take part in art therapy to reduce stress.

My mom, who was dealing with breast cancer, found a lot of stress relief in coloring pictures with colored pencils. Adult coloring books are hugely popular right now—check out these intricate doodles by Ikuo Horiguchi and delightful animals by Valentina Harper. Neher-Phelps remarked that whether it is a paintbrush or other writing gadget, the finer the point of the instrument, the more stress you work out. So get to coloring!

04. Exercise.

The saying goes, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” I say: likewise for exercise.

If you’re looking for a powerful well-being punch, exercise heals a multitude of ills, including stress. Not only does exercise have immediate stress-reducing benefits, but it also prevents stress. According to Mayo Clinic research staff, just about any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can be a stress reliever. Exercise is so powerful a remedy that many mental health professionals and therapists treating patients with depression and serious stress (such as PTSD) prescribe regular exercise with or without medication, according to Mental Health America.

Even better news? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America emphasizes that a brisk ten-minute walk relieves stress immediately. While a thirty-minute workout just three times per week can significantly reduce and even prevent stress from happening, to relieve stress now, a ten-minute exercise break or other brisk activity will do the trick.

05. Do something you love.

The word recreation really means “re-creation.” When we have leisure time, it is downtime during which our whole self rests from the demands of everyday life. Recreation is a time to restore. Take inventory. Ask yourself: How many times per day or week do I recreate? Is it zero? For me, I’ve noticed a strong correlation between stress level and the amount of recreation I’ve had.

My child’s school recently hosted a recreation night for families. During the event, they discussed the idea of regular family game nights as recreation. Recreation allows our brains and bodies to rest so that we can go back to everyday life and re-create our work and our relationships with a fresh perspective. Recreation is an easy way to reduce stress and generally enjoy life.

So do something you love. Recreate every day if you can. Sometimes for me that means sleep (yes!), but usually it means doing a hobby I love. This could be playing the guitar or volleyball, taking my bike out for a spin, talking to a friend on the phone just to chat, or various other trivial pursuits. YouTube is a terrific resource for crafting, hobbies, and other forms of recreation that you may be unfamiliar with yet want to try. Whatever it is, find a moment today to go ahead and play.

Unless we could all quit our jobs, permanently ignore the demands of life, and be hermits on an island paradise, alleviating stress is a necessary task we all face. If you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, try one of these five simple strategies, and see where it takes you. You’ll find that you’re able to serve yourself and others with joy and peace. And isn’t that the best way to get anything done?