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Revealed! Here's How You Can Stop Stress in Its Tracks

Nine great ways to reclaim your life today.

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gif of jumbled string turning into image of hammock with palm trees, stress
Domenic Bahmann
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The minute I got into bed last night, I started to worry about a call the next day with my daughter to go over her finances. The more I ruminated about it, the more my chest tightened. Looking for a distraction, I picked up my phone and began scrolling the news. When I finally shut my eyes again — surprise, surprise — I couldn’t sleep.

So, I did the only rational thing: I began to stress about how tired I would be. Experts call this a stress cycle. I call it a typical Tuesday night.

The fact is, we are hardwired for stress. “Our bodies evolved to have a physical reaction to challenges. Stress is one way we mobilize energy to meet a threat,” explains David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University.

There is a big difference, though, between short bouts of situational stress and long-term chronic stress. Dreading a money call with a child is situational.

“Stress triggers a cascade of changes that affect every major body system,” says Cynthia A. Munro, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “Periods of temporary stress are not dangerous. Healthy individuals mount an efficient physiological response and then recover quickly when the stress is over. Prolonged periods of stress, however, negatively affect the body’s ability to mount an effective response and recover quickly.”

The potential negative effects of chronic stress include structural changes in the brain; memory disorders; behavioral, cognitive and mood disorders; a weakened immune system; and a raised heart rate, according to “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review,” a report published by the National Library of Medicine.

High blood pressure can also result from too much stress, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

There is a silver lining, though. A large-scale study led by Almeida found that daily stress tends to decrease as we get older. “You are less likely to find yourself arguing with people, you probably have fewer work stressors and you no longer have young children at home,” he observed. “We also found that as people get older, they become better at identifying the cause of stress and how to deal with it.”

Here is more advice from the experts on stress-busting skills:

Identify the source

To prevent stress from becoming chronic, you must first identify whether it is caused by a temporary situation (a visit with a troublesome relative) or an external issue that is not within your control (the state of the world).

“If you examine a problem and realize it is something you have no control over, continuing to obsess about it just leads to more stress,” says Cass Winters, a licensed social worker at the LifeBridge Senior Program, Parkview LaGrange Hospital in Indiana. “Ask yourself if there is anything that you can do related to whatever issue is bothering you. If the answer is no, let it go.”

Set healthy boundaries

“When it comes to relationships, most stressful situations stem from not having firm boundaries and a lack of communication,” Winters says. “If you know talking to one of your grown kids or a sibling gives you palpitations, set a time limit for the conversation.” Avoid stress by stating at the start of a call that you only have fifteen minutes to talk. And inform people with whom you hold clashing views on key issues that you don’t want to discuss politics during your visit.

Just say no to toxic friends

Not all relationships can or should be negotiated. “If you have a friend who constantly makes you feel bad, analyze why the person is in your life,” Winters says. “Do a pros and cons list. If the cons outweigh the pros, you should probably end the relationship because the stress is going to end up causing you more problems, from increased anxiety to depression.”

Make a move

One of the most effective things you can do to prevent stress from cascading is simply talking a walk. “Stress is a fight or flight response, so do what your body is telling you to do, get moving,” Almeida says. “Research shows that physical activity works to lessen the physical and emotional effects of stress.”

Get social

Social connections are key to mental health. “Just getting out helps with stress,” says Winters. “That might mean putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. If you experience social anxiety, try starting with a trip to the library. They have book clubs and other activities that provide social connections, that can help you build friendships and stave off loneliness.” Added bonus: Library events are usually free.

Avoid over-committing yourself

While socializing is important, adding too much to your calendar can add stress. “Activities such as volunteer work or providing regular childcare for family members can be quite stressful if too much time has been committed to them,” Munro says. “Guarding your free time by limiting such commitments to an easily manageable load can help to prevent feelings of frustration and anxiety at being unable to meet the demands.”

Care for yourself when you’re caring for others

The most stressful activity for older adults is being a caregiver,” Munro says. “Many caregivers are reluctant to ask for help because they feel guilty. It is important to remember that only by protecting your own health can you continue to be present for others. Seeking out resources in the form of social support and help with the physical acts of providing care will go a long way toward reducing the stress.”

Call in the troops

If you are still feeling stressed despite trying to make changes, it’s important to ask for help, says Lynn Bufka, associate chief for practice transformation for the American Psychological Association. “If your day-to-day roles and relationships are being impacted, seeking professional guidance is a key step to getting better.” Ask your medical or spiritual advisers to point you in the right direction.

What worked for me

Following the experts’ advice, I got moving and signed up for a Zumba class. The music and camaraderie put me in good mood, and I was too busy figuring out the steps to think about anything else. I also stopped checking social media after 9 p.m. every night, which led to better sleep. And that call with my daughter? It went fine, after all.

What do you do to alleviate stress? Let us know in the comments below.

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