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  • Susanna Kaufman

10 Tips For Managing Stress

Updated: Jun 4


A woman appears stressed out with eyes closed put her forehead on steepled forefingers with clasped hands.

Stress. Many of us know what stress feels like and wish we had less of it. It's helpful to remember that stress responses are not necessarily things we choose, but our body's protective natural response to what our nervous system is picking up around us. For example, we don't consciously tell our bodies to release the hormone cortisol when facing challenges or threats. Still, when our body perceives a threat, it releases cortisol to protect us in what it believes is the most efficient way.


Stress is helpful in that it notifies our brain and nervous system to look out for danger around us, and to respond to danger by activating our stress response system: fight, flight, or freeze reactions. This stress response of the human body is an old evolutionary tactic that helped us survive and respond to life-threatening experiences such as wild animal attacks or natural disasters. Interestingly, this same internal alarm system activated with physical danger is also activated when we experience relational danger. The same area of the brain that activates when someone experiences pain (physical stress) is also activated when someone experiences social rejection or alienation (relational stress).


This means that modern life challenges such as work-related stress, family and relationship stress, or micro and macro-aggressions based on social minority status affect our bodies in much the same way facing a saber-tooth tiger did thousands of years ago. Modern life also has us facing screens full of social comparison and news media bombardment which can also create feelings of near-constant stress or pressure. Normal stressors ranging from being stuck in traffic to going through a divorce to losing a loved one can hit us differently when we are already coping with chronic daily stressors. This can result in feeling like we don't have the necessary resources to cope or meet the demand for change.


As a therapist, I have seen how experiencing prolonged stress can lead to considerable mental and physical challenges. If someone feels their stress is truly unmanageable I encourage them to reach out for professional therapy. Whether you seek that support or decide to cope with stress on your own, I think it is super important for ALL of us to learn practical bite-size ways to help calm our nervous systems so we can better regulate and address the stress in our lives.


10 Tips to Manage Stress in Daily Life


1. Get up and stretch, move your body

Yes, even if you think you might look a fool! Side bends, lunges, neck rolls, arms over your head. Whatever it takes to make you feel connected to your body and take your brain out of a mental spin. The infamous title of van der Kolk's book, The Body Keeps the Score (2014), says it all. Our bodies are part of how we interact with the world. You likely already know that your brain stores memories of your experiences, but our bodies store information from our experiences too. Our bodies feel and store anxiety and stress. Moving and feeling your body can help move anxiety through and remind you that you are safe in your body in the present moment. Schedule time to get up and stretch during your workday, even if it's just for 2 minutes at a time.


Incorporating joyful movement is key to turning off the mental analyzing mind of stress and getting into the more felt-sense aspect of life. Use what you know about yourself to figure out the best movement strategy for you. Maybe you are a runner, maybe you start a daily yoga practice, maybe you take dance breaks in the kitchen when cooking, maybe you've got the dog to walk, or maybe you do a round of yard work on the weekends. Whatever fits your vibe best, find some daily movement.


2. Take slow intentional deep breaths

Breathwork is one of the single easiest tools humans can access to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. You are telling your body - 'hey I get it, you're activated, but let's work on calming down.' One of my favorite breathing tactics is to simply elongate your exhales: take a long inhale, purse your lips, and then let out an even longer audible exhale picturing what you are letting go. While inhaling too quickly can initiate sympathetic activating energy (think hyperventilating), exhaling is when we are telling the body to initiate calming energy.


Box breathing is another tactic: Pick a number and stick to that number for an inhale, a pause, an exhale, and another pause. Make these breaths the kind where you feel your whole lower ribcage expanding on the inhale, and you picture your stress exiting with your exhale.


For a challenge, try ujjayi breathing, a yoga practice for calming and balancing:

  • Keep your mouth closed.

  • Constrict your throat so your breath makes a rushing noise on the inhale and exhale, almost like snoring.

  • Control your breath with your diaphragm.

  • Keep your inhalations and exhalations equal in duration. Follow your breath and stay in the moment.

It might feel like you’re not getting enough air at first, but it becomes easier with practice to follow your breathing and stay in the moment. This YouTube video gives an ujjayi how-to.


Whichever breathing tactic you choose, try it for at least 5-10 breath cycles at a time.


3. Identify and address the stressor

Identifying stressors in your life can help bring awareness to what triggers your stress levels and how you choose to respond to that stress activation. Use compassion. Set aside a few minutes to reflect on your feelings and reactions to what is going on around you and inside you by writing them down. Getting those experiences and emotions outside of you on a page helps integrate your brain’s thinking and feeling parts. You can start tending to your needs if you notice your needs. What does tending to your needs look like? Maybe it is drawing a boundary with a friend who expects more from you than you're feeling able to give, saying no to that work request that puts you over your 40 hours, speaking up if you feel ignored, or simply validating yourself for trying your best in imperfect circumstances.


4. Hit the digital pause button

This means turning off all screens. Let's say for even five minutes. It sounds so easy, but we all know how hard it is. Current digital news media and social media platforms have figured out how to keep us hooked by shocking us or telling us we need to be somehow different than we are. While it is important to know what is happening in the world, it's also important to realize that each 'hit' can trigger the body's stress response (not to mention interfering with our dopamine levels). Trust when your gut tells you ‘I’ve got the gist’ and take a digital break. Shutting off all screens and putting your phone in airplane mode for five minutes (or a whole evening) can feel liberating. A total digital break can help you reset, rest your eyes, make you feel more present and focused for those around you, and remind you what stillness and space is like.


5. Connect with a loved one

Talk to a friend or family member. Allow your brain’s dopamine response system to be triggered by relational connection (rather than that Instagram like). Having your stress witnessed and heard by a loved one can help process that stress through so it does not feel so activating. Find ways to connect with your people, your community, your pets, or the environment. Connection fosters the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. For an added bonus, hug a friend or family member–pets included! In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2019), the Nagoski sisters mention that a 20-second hug can release oxytocin and help ease your stress response.


5. Take a walk in nature

Walking provides a perspective shift and an opportunity to reset the mind. And how cool is it to think about walking as a natural way to relieve stress via alternating bilateral stimulation? Alternating bilateral stimulation is an aspect of EMDR therapy that refers to back-and-forth stimuli to help reprocess traumatic material. If possible, find a park or natural area to walk to so you can also be reminded that we are just one part of this thing we call Life On Earth. For people who cannot walk, take a few minutes outside, tap your knees back and forth, or do the butterfly hug and take notice of the natural world around you.


6. Drink a glass of water and eat healthy (enough)

Staying hydrated can reduce stress. Drinking a glass of water provides an interruption from the stressful thing on a practical level. And beyond that, drinking water helps stabilize levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and supports your brain.


Balanced nutrition has been shown to improve stress markers and physical recovery from stress. However, this is one that we can start beating ourselves up with - especially if chronic stress keeps us stuck in the hamster wheel of keeping up with tasks. So, do the best you can to eat a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Finding one day a week when you can plan for snacks and meals for the week ahead can greatly reduce the day-to-day stress of 'what am I going to eat today?'


7. Hum to yourself

Or laugh out loud or sing your favorite song! Using your vocal cords is self-soothing, and activates your vagus nerve, which decreases stress. You are creating a resonance within yourself. Trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem references humming as a healing strategy and body practice in his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (2017).


Another vocal exercise is Peter Levine's Voo Breath. The Voo Breath stimulates the vagus nerve which plays a key role in our feeling of safety. People report feeling more alive, present, energized, and soothed after utilizing the Voo Breath.


8. Show yourself compassion

Maybe your shoulders are tight, or your head or hands need some attention - so give them a little massage. Massaging yourself is also showing yourself compassion, a meaningful way to acknowledge the pressure of the moment and allow yourself to feel your wish to care for yourself.  Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, “Having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness.” Compassion is at its simplest: the wish for suffering to be relieved.


"Having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness." – Dr. Kristin Neff

9. Relaxation techniques

Breathing is mentioned above, as well as turning your attention to how you feel in the moment. These are ways to relax and initiate the parasympathetic nervous system. Other ways to prime this calming aspect of our bodies are: meditation, prayer, and body scan exercises. These are all ways to shift focus away from mental anxiety, come back to the present moment, and ease tension.


The key to mindfulness and meditation practices is attention. Focusing your attention on the current moment. When your attention wanders, notice that gently and bring it back to the present. The practice is in the coming back, not the success rate of staying there... it is natural that our minds wander to what we are worried about, or what is coming up next, or when we messed up in the past. But the point is to accept that fact and continually remind ourselves (without judgment) to return to the present.


There are many apps out there (Calm, Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, Insight Timer) that offer guided vocal meditations or calming music. You can also simply sit quietly.


10. Sleep

Our brains and bodies need this time to shut off and reboot. A regular sleep schedule promotes a healthy circadian rhythm which can help your body cope with daily stressors. Aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Create a calm, safe, distraction-free sleep environment.


As much as stress sucks, it's also a part of our human experience. Hopefully, there's a helpful tip above that can help. If your stress feels unmanageable, reach out for professional therapy.



Resources

Menakem, R. (2017.) My grandmother's hands. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press


Nagoski, E. & Nagoski, A. (2019.) Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. New York, NY: Ballantine


Ruiz, M. (1997). The four agreements. San Rafael, CA: Hay House


Ten Percent Happier. (2024). How to regulate your nervous system for stress, anxiety, and trauma with Peter Levine. Ten Percent Happier Podcast with Dan Harris. https://www.tenpercent.com/tph/podcast-episode/peter-levine



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