Stress is a natural and very normal part of daily life. But some days are inherently more stressful than others: you have a job interview, you know your schedule is going to be jam-packed, you’re hosting a houseful of guests for a holiday meal — you get the point.
And the current backdrop of negative global news events (inflation, war, political strife, and climate change) has put Americans’ daily stress levels at alarmingly high levels, survey data shows.
“Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed and stressed by our mounting life tasks and responsibilities; juggling heavy workloads, household tasks, and childcare responsibilities,” says Monica Vermani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, and the author of A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas.
Oftentimes it’s when we take on other people’s stress and let their stress overwhelm us that we start to feel out of control, adds Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell School of Medicine in New York City and the host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio.
Peta-Gaye Sandiford, a licensed mental health counselor at Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York City, agrees that even mental professionals (herself included) have to work on managing stress and keeping it from getting overwhelming on busy days. “There’s a lot that goes into ensuring that I’m always present and putting my best foot forward while meeting my other responsibilities,” she says.
Here are the stress-busters that Vermani, Sandiford, and others swear by to prep ahead of days they know the list of stressors may edge off the charts.
1. Don’t Skip Self-Care
While it might seem like the last thing you want to do — or have time for — on overwhelming, busy days, keeping up self-care routines is important on these days, too. We start to feel stressed because our activity levels (what we’re doing) surpass our energy levels, Vermani explains — and self-care is all the things you do to fill your cup and replenish those energy levels.
Maybe it’s a walk outside, cooking a nourishing dinner, writing in a gratitude journal, or dancing to pop music. These can all be things that help you recharge your energy, Sandiford adds. “Remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.”
2. Schedule in 15 Minutes of Fun
Include an element of joy in daily activities; something that brings you pleasure and interest, and keeps you connected to yourself.
Whether you categorize it as “fun” or “self-care,” engaging in any pursuit that you love and are confident in will relieve stress, Sandiford says. Running, biking, walking in nature, listening to music, and painting are among her personal favorites, and she sets aside at least 15 minutes per day for one of those activities — especially on days she predicts will be challenging ones.
3. Set Reminders to Check in on Breathing
When stressed, Vermani notices that she can go an entire day taking only shallow breaths. So she sets a reminder in her calendar between clients to pause and take deep, nourishing breaths. It’s a good daily habit, but it’s especially important on the days when stress levels rise, she says.
You might try taking a few full, gentle breaths in for a count of 4, and exhaling slowly for a count of 6; then just notice how you feel. This style of paced, deep breathing calms the sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, nervous system, which helps the body feel less anxious in the moment, research finds.
4. Have an Affirmation Ready
Ruminating thoughts of being unable or incapable of managing a situation causes stress, Vermani says. To counteract rumination and turn the stress response down, she repeats a positive affirmation — some call this a mantra — to encourage feelings of being capable and able to manage the demands of the day.
Here are some of her favorite simple affirmations that “are a great source of strength, grounding, and resilience,” according to Vermani:
- I can do this
- I am capable
- I am worthy
- I am safe, healthy, and protected
When you know a day may be stressful, start it off from a place of strength by repeating one of these affirmations first thing in the morning.
5. Plan Ahead to Avoid Overcommitting
Some of the most common triggers for emotional meltdowns are feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. Dr. Saltz says part of her strategy for not letting these feelings run her down is planning ahead as much as possible to not overextend or overcommit herself.
“Instead of committing to something because I think that’s what I ‘should do,’ I aim to plan for what I feel is manageable. If I’m hosting a dinner party, for instance, I might make it a potluck so I’m not responsible for every dish,” Saltz says.
“Much of my anxiety comes from walking down the gangplank despite feeling it’s not what I want to do,” she adds. Making an effort to prevent overwhelming situations before you’re in them (or spot them in enough time to change course), means she’ll feel less stressed and frazzled along the way, she says.
6. Have a 5-Minute Relaxation Practice in Their Back Pocket
Haley Perlus, PhD, a sport and performance psychologist in Denver, likes to practice deep belly breathing when she finds herself in stressful situations. She puts her hands on her belly and takes a slow, deep breath in and out.
“When I breathe in, I focus on feeling my stomach expand. When I breathe out, I feel my stomach contract. I like to remember: control my breath, control my stress. This brings me back to center and momentarily distracts me from the stressor and brings me to a place of perceived control both in my mind and body,” Dr. Perlus says.
Mind-body relaxation techniques are among the best stress busters, Perlus says. And many you can practice in just a minute (or a few) whenever, wherever you feel overwhelmed.
When she has a full five minutes, Perlus says she likes to find a quiet spot to lie down, breathe deeply, and try to clear her mind to allow it to shift towards more peaceful emotions.
7. Remember Personal Strengths
When she finds herself on the verge of catastrophizing and imagining worst-case scenarios, Vermani tries to flip the script by replacing a negative thought with a more accurate and adaptive one.
To put this into practice, Perlus likes to remind herself of her strengths — and she leads with those. She knows that she’s a good listener, so in situations in which she anticipates conflict or is worried about getting her point across, she focuses on that skill rather than the possible battle ahead.
“When I lead with a strength, I’m giving myself the best opportunity to feel confident. Confidence tends to reduce anxiety and help me lead with my best foot forward,” Perlus says.
8. Ask For Help
Saltz says that much of her stress relates to “anticipatory anxiety,” rather than the day or event itself. So when she notices anticipatory anxiety creeping up, she lets her inner circle know that she needs extra support.
“This will literally relieve the burden of any tasks that need to be completed while also emotionally making me feel lighter mentally and emotionally,” Saltz says.
Vermani surrounds herself with people and resources that can help manage her stress levels, coach her through negative thought patterns, and help reconceptualize seeing the good amongst the bad. And yes, those people include her own mental health care team.
Sandiford echoes that sentiment, adding, “Therapists need therapy, so I connect with someone who can help me process all of my feelings in an environment where I feel validated and supported.”