Managing stress is vital to your heart health. And the best way to begin to manage stress is to realize you are in control of many aspects of your life.
While some things are out of your control—for example, there’s never enough time in the day and money doesn’t grow on trees—you still have choices. You are in control of your thoughts, feelings, schedule, and attitude. You alone choose how you react to stressful situations. SecondsCount can help you learn how to become a more positive, organized, and relaxed person who can better handle life’s stress. Choose to get started today!
Physical Activity and a Healthy Diet
There are many ways to combat stress. Start by maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle. Physical activity is often recommended to manage stress. That’s because it helps lower blood pressure, releases hormones that contribute to happiness (called endorphins), and provides an outlet for relieving tension and taking your mind off your problems. Healthy eating is also important. Fueling your body with wholesome foods gives you longer-lasting energy that you need to tackle a day’s worth of challenges.
Stress Management Strategies: “StressBusters”
Beyond healthful food and physical activity, you can manage stress with any technique that helps you relax, regroup and redirect yourself in a positive way, mentally and physically. In general, effective stress management techniques often include:
- muscular relaxation (such as stretching, yoga or Pilates)
- a quiet environment (such as going for a walk, or listening to soft, soothing music)
- a passive attitude (easy going and positive, not quick to anger)
- deep breathing, sometimes with the repetition of a word or phrase and
- skills training to identify and reduce stress.
Of course, sometimes you may fall into a pattern of attempting to manage stress in unhealthy ways. These include overeating or under eating, smoking, drinking alcohol excessively, withdrawing from friends, or even using illicit drugs, to name a few. These behaviors are unhealthy and, more importantly—they do not help you manage stress. Rather, they may create more problems and challenges and continue the cycle of stress.
Break the Stress Cycle
Breaking the cycle of stress is not easy, but it is possible. It is an ongoing process and best taken one step at a time. Here are the steps:
Managing Stress Step by Step
- Identify your stressors by keeping a stress journal.
- Look for ways to avoid stressors.
- Change your approach or attitude to be more positive.
- Learn new ways to relax and relieve stress.
1. Identify stressors by keeping a stress journal. Identifying stressors can be more difficult than you might think. Many things may be causing you stress all at once, some more than others. Or maybe procrastination or disorganization may be the cause of your stress, not your job or the project you’re working on.
Try keeping a stress journal for a week or so to determine stressors in your life. Using the table as an example, record the following information and then look back and evaluate the information to identify what is causing your stress:
- When you’re stressed (date/time)
- How you’re feeling (physically and mentally)
- What caused the stress (if you can pinpoint it)
- How you reacted to the stress and
- What you did to relieve the stress.
Here’s how an entry in stress journal might look:
2. Look for ways to avoid stressors.
- Change whatever situations you can.
- Avoid traffic by taking public transportation or carpool to have pleasant conversation as a positive distraction.
- Limit time spent with people who stress you out.
- Allow yourself plenty of time to get errands or a project done. Try setting your watch and clock ahead by 5 or 10 minutes to help you be on time.
- Turn off technology, especially before bedtime so stress can’t interfere with your sleep. Whether it’s a television, computer or your phone, less stimulation helps you keep your focus on tasks at hand and makes you less accessible to people who can add to your stress.
- Get or stay organized.
- Use a master calendar on the wall or on paper to coordinate work and family activities. Consider color-coding it for each person.
- Schedule time each day to be physically active and time to unwind and relax. Then don’t cancel it.
- Keep an on-going “to do” list, either on paper, on your phone or on your computer. (There’s even a “Sticky Notes” computer application to keep your list handy at all times on your computer desktop.) Each day prioritize which items are a “must,” which are a “should,” and then move the rest to the bottom of the list or delete them if you can.
- Limit general distractions such as your email or phone when trying to meet deadlines or when spending time with family and friends.
- Take the time to map out your errands and/or your meals for the week. A little preparation can be a time-saver in the long run, avoiding many trips to the store or inefficient trips around town.
- Learn how to say no.
- Of course, you can’t say no to everything. Sometimes your job requires that you perform certain duties within certain deadlines. So you may not be able to tell your boss no. And sometimes your spouse may make requests that you can’t refuse. But within reason, do not let yourself be convinced to accept more responsibility than you are willing and able to handle. No one knows the challenges you have better than you.
- Remember that just because you can fit something into your schedule, doesn’t mean you should. Taking on additional responsibilities requires that you give up something else that is important to you—such as much-needed relaxation time.
- Whether it’s a demand for your time, skills, energy, or money, just firmly but politely say “no” if you are not able to handle more on your plate. Sometimes it’s best to offer a simple “I’m sorry, I would love to be able to help you, but I’m not able to at this time.” End of story.
- If someone pressures you as to why, simply reply that the request does not fit into your schedule. You do not owe anyone a further explanation.
- If you have trouble being firm immediately, you can always suggest you will think about it and get back to the person after checking your schedule.
- If you would like to be involved, but can’t take on the full requested responsibility, suggest “I can’t do ___, but I could do ____.”
- Don’t waste a minute feeling guilty and move on to prioritizing your already full “to do” list!
3. Change your approach or attitude to be more positive.
Research shows a positive outlook may help your heart. But no one can be happy or positive all the time. Everyone feels sad, angry, worried, frustrated, or overwhelmed sometimes. Happy, positive people are just better able to avert anger and bounce back more quickly to a state of happiness when life temporarily gets them down.
How to Be Happier
Although happiness may be related in part to your genes, research shows there are many ways to improve your happiness, including the following:
- Accept the things you can’t change. And learn not to sweat the small stuff. Focus on the things you can change—mainly your attitude and approach to life.
- Point out the positive in every situation. Keep a gratitude journal to force yourself to find one or more things you are thankful for each day. Doing so will give you some positive perspective. Things can always be worse.
- Surround yourself with happy, positive people. Devote yourself to your relationships with family and friends. People are what make life meaningful. And the support that close friends and family offer you during stressful times is invaluable.
- Offer a helping hand. Volunteering to help people less fortunate than ourselves automatically fosters feelings of gratitude.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for help. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s okay to rely on family and friends to help you out. They likely won’t mind since it’s always good to feel needed. And you can always return the favor.
- Be physically active every day. Being active can help you stay mentally positive by releasing hormones linked with happiness (called endorphins). You may also feel better about yourself when you are more physically fit.
- Get a pet! Petting a dog or cat can lower your blood pressure. Plus, caring for pets can be an emotionally rewarding and physically active experience.
- Savor life’s pleasures and wonders. Keep long-term goals in mind, but try to live in the moment and not worry excessively about the future.
How to Manage Anger
Everybody gets angry sometimes. But anger increases your heart disease risk. So, if you can’t avoid getting angry in the first place, the next best thing is dealing with it as calmly, directly and quickly as you can. Try these steps:
- Hold your tongue. Count to 10 to keep your angry words from rushing out before you’ve thought them through.
- Walk away if you need to. Give yourself some time to let your anger subside and gain perspective of the situation. It may keep you from saying or doing things you will regret. Plus the activity will help you relieve tension.
- Voice your feelings. When you have calmed down enough, it will make you feel better if you address the problem with the person involved, rather than let it fester. If it helps, consider writing down your thoughts in a letter, which you can give to the person. Or you can just use the written letter to gather your thoughts, throw it away, and then talk to the person directly. Make sure you start your sentences with “I feel…” rather than “You made me…,” which may cause the person listening to be defensive.
- Figure out a solution. Don’t dwell on what made you angry, but rather focus on what you and the person involved can do to prevent it from happening again.
- Offer forgiveness and say you’re sorry. Research shows forgiveness may help your heart. The theory is if you’re holding onto grudges, resentment and anger, you may be creating your own stress. So, forgiveness may literally help heal your heart. And don’t forget to forgive yourself!
- Let it go, laugh more, and try not to repeat! The best way to deal with anger is not to get angry in the first place.
4. Learn new ways to relax and relieve stress.
Everybody experiences stress in different ways. So, it makes sense that there are many different ways to relax and relieve stress. Some ways of dealing with stress are very unhealthy and result in a cycle of stress that is difficult to break. A better way to prevent being overwhelmed by stress is to regularly schedule relaxing “me time” for yourself every day.
It can be 10 minutes or one hour; it’s up to you. And you can do the same activity every day or switch it up for variety, depending on how stressed you feel. Do whatever works for you. But the point is to pay attention to your stress level and try to do something regularly to relieve it. To get you started, here are 25 healthy ways to deal with stress:
It never hurts to seek help to manage your stress. Stress can be very overwhelming for the healthiest person. But other medical problems, such as clinical depression, or a general lack of energy relating to heart failure or having had heart surgery, can make it more difficult or even impossible to see your own way out of stressful situations. Counseling from a licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist may help you work through the process of identifying and managing stress in your life.
Keep in mind, some medical conditions such as anxiety disorders or depression may require medications to help minimize stress. Your doctor will be able to determine if medications are necessary for you.
You may also be interested in taking a stress management class offered through a community college, cardiac rehab program or hospital. They often last 10 to 12 weeks and teach you a variety of stress management techniques.