Managing Stress: Tips and Techniques

What Is Stress?

Stress is the physiological and psychological response of the body to some sort of threat to safety, self-esteem, or well-being. Stressors can be physical (e.g., illness), social (e.g., a relationship breakup, criticism by a parent), circumstantial (e.g., failing an exam, moving), or psychological (e.g., low self-esteem). Often, changes such as starting a new quarter or new job can bring on stress.

We are all under stress every day. A certain amount of stress helps us all to function better, keep ourselves safe from threatening things, and to get things done. Too much stress, however, can lead to feeling physically ill, having difficulty concentrating, and being fatigued and overwhelmed. Everyone responds to stress in different ways. What might be stressful for one person may be neutral or pleasant to another.

What are the Symptoms of Stress?

Everyone reacts differently to stress. However, there are some common reactions to and symptoms of stress:

  • Avoidance or fear of people, places, or certain tasks
  • Burnout
  • Cold extremities
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty falling asleep, waking early
  • Engaging in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., drinking too much, overeating)
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Feeling hot or flushed
  • Inability to concentrate, poor focus, mind "going blank"
  • Increased heart rate
  • Lack of interest, boredom
  • Motivation problems, procrastination
  • Muscle tension, soreness, stiffness, trembling
  • Stomach troubles, digestive distress
  • Worry, negative or self-critical thoughts

Note that some of these symptoms may also be caused by conditions other than stress, such as a medical condition or mental health issue. In addition, stress can lead to more serious problems, including depression, anxiety, hypertension, and other illnesses. If symptoms persist or stress becomes too much for you to manage on your own, it is important to see a qualified healthcare provider.

Questions to Ask Yourself About Stress

  • What are the primary sources of stress in my life?
  • Are these things I can change or modify, or do I need to learn better ways to cope with them?
  • What are the signs and symptoms in my body that let me know I’m stressed?
  • What have I done that worked in the past to manage stress?
  • What can I do to integrate more self-care and relaxation into my daily routine?

An Expert Perspective

Stanford professor and expert on stress Dr. Robert Sapolsky identified four important components of reducing stress in his research:

  1. Predictive information, such as a sign that the stress is going to be increasing (e.g., knowing a test date). This gives us an opportunity to prepare for stress and allows for more control over our reaction.
  2. An outlet for dealing with stress (e.g., exercise, relaxation). It's important to try new ways of managing stress and pay attention to which ones work the best for you and in what situations.
  3. A positive outlook, or the belief that life is going to get better rather than worse. Some people have a more naturally optimistic perspective than others, but you can work on becoming more positive through challenging negative views and practicing gratitude for things that are good in your life and in yourself.
  4. Connection with others. Social support from others is an important part of keeping down our stress levels.

Ways to Manage Stress

Be active in reducing stress. Small shifts in your thinking and behaviors can make a big difference.

  • Avoid stress-producing situations when possible (e.g., avoid or minimize time with people who always stress you out).
  • Cut back on tasks that aren't as important or necessary; learn to say no when others ask you to do things that add to your stress.
  • Organize your time to avoid letting important things go to the last minute or having to rush. Instead of making a simple to-do list, make a grid that divides tasks into "most important" and "least important" and according to when they must be finished, then start with the most important and most immediate tasks first.
  • Engage in exercise for 30 minutes or more 3 to 5 times a week; research consistently shows that regular exercise reduces stress. Start small if you aren't currently exercising much and build up the frequency, length, and intensity of exercise. Be sure to consult with a doctor before trying a new exercise routine if you have health conditions that may be impacted by exercise. Do things that are fun and consider inviting a friend to exercise with you to keep your motivation up.
  • Examine your typical ways of thinking—do they make you more or less stressed? Are there other ways to think that are less stress-inducing? For example, if you always assume the worst, can you find evidence that the worst is not true or not likely to happen? If you are self-critical, can you work on being more kind to yourself?
  • Engage in activities that you enjoy and that give you an outlet for thinking about other things besides your stress.
  • Increase your social connections. Spending time with people and having empathetic people to talk to can be helpful. Need more social connection? Consider volunteer work, joining a club, reaching out to old friends you've lost touch with, or doing something nice for people you know. Be patient, it can take time to build social connections.
  • Take good care of your body: Eat well, get enough sleep, and avoid alcohol and other drugs.
  • Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualizing relaxing places (see below), or try activities like yoga or martial arts that involve focus and breathing.

Find your own optimal stress-relievers. Is it changing your thoughts? A physical activity? A social occasion? A relaxation technique? Time with a dog or cat? Look for healthy ways to help you feel less stressed and do them! Chronic stress can have long-term effects on health and well-being, so if your symptoms are prolonged or severe, it is important to get professional support.

A Few Simple Relaxation Exercises

  1. Try a deep breathing exercise. Lie or sit in a comfortable position with your muscles relaxed and take a few slow breaths. Focus on breathing deeply, expanding your abdomen rather than your upper chest. Work toward breathing in to a slow count to five: 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5.  Exhale slowly. Practice this technique for 5 to 10 minutes daily or at least a few times a week so it will be easier to use when you feel stressed. If it's hard to practice this on your own, try one of the recorded breathing exercises on the self-help page or search for other podcasts or videos that appeal to you.
  2. Use progressive muscle relaxation. Stress can make your body feel tense. Using this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes regularly can help reduce and release physical tension. Sit or lie quietly and focus on tensing and then releasing all of the muscles in your body, one region at a time. Breathe slowly and deeply while you do the exercise. Begin with the muscles in your feet, tensing and releasing them as you breathe in and out slowly and deeply. Then tense and release your calves, then thighs. Slowly work your way up the body, tensing and relaxing all of the major muscle groups until your whole body feels at ease. If it's hard to practice this on your own, try one of the recorded exercises on the self-help page or search for other podcasts or videos that appeal to you.
  3. Do a "peaceful place" visualization. The mind is a powerful tool. You can use your imagination to transport yourself to a calm and peaceful place—perhaps an actual place where you feel calm (e.g., your bedroom, a favorite beach) or a place you imagine in your mind (e.g., a place you've always wanted to visit or a fantasy location that doesn't really exist). Take a moment to breathe slowly and deeply while allowing your mind to let go of thoughts and worries. Visualize yourself in your peaceful place: Focus on every sense, including sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that you would experience in that place, such as the breeze or the sun on your skin or the sound of soft music. Allow your body to relax further and your mind to become more calm as you continue to breathe deeply and immerse your mind in the details of your peaceful place. Recognize that you can go to that peaceful place in your mind and feel more relaxed any time you choose. If it's hard to practice this on your own, search for other podcasts or videos that appeal to you.

Like any new technique you try, it can take some trial and error to find what works best for you. Relaxation exercises work best when you practice them regularly, even when you're not stressed, so that when you are stressed, the exercises are familiar and already a part of your routine. However, you can still get a benefit from trying them when you are already stressed.