Posted: November 2023
(5 Minute Read)
In today's hectic, fast-paced world, it can be challenging to "find your Zen" and harness that inner peace we're all searching for. The good news is that proven, research-backed strategies do exist, and there are effective techniques for managing stress and attaining the work-life balance essential for our well-being.
"Stress management gives you a range of tools to reset and to recalibrate ... it can help your mind and body adapt (resilience). Without it, your body might always be on high alert. Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems," notes the Mayo Clinic. Things like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, regular physical activity, effective time management, healthy lifestyle choices and social support are a balm for stress.
Let's take a look at each of these strategies and explore how they can help us find our calm.
While mindfulness meditation has been around for a long time, it's recently become one of the most popular techniques for managing stress. So, just what is meditation, exactly?
"Meditation can be defined in many ways. But a simple way to think of it is training your attention to achieve a mental state of calm concentration and positive emotions," says the American Psychological Association (APA).
The two main aspects of mindfulness meditation are attention and acceptance. The attention piece is about focusing solely on the present moment and noticing your breath, thoughts and any physical sensations. The acceptance piece is about observing whatever feelings you're having without judgment. The goal is to notice them, then let them go.
It doesn't matter whether you're able to devote five or 25 minutes a day to meditation; any amount of time has shown to be beneficial. Grab a comfortable cushion and find a quiet spot and give it a try! And if you'd rather have a bit more guidance, apps like Headspace and Calm have narrated meditations you can stream for a quick daily session.
Fewer things ease the mind and body more than a long, deep breath. "Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body," according to Kaiser Permanente. "This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body."
Breathing exercises are one of the best and simplest techniques for managing stress and reducing tension. There are a variety of exercises you can try. A popular one is 4-7-8 breathing, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, which he describes as "a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system."
You can practice it anywhere, anytime! Just follow these simple steps:
While often talked about separately, mental and physical health are closely linked. Moving your body regularly is one of the key techniques for managing stress and helping to maintain that elusive work-life balance we're all seeking.
"Physical activity can be an effective treatment for mental health problems," says Ben Singh, lead author of a recent large study on how exercise can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, and research fellow at the University of South Australia. He thinks it works in many ways: by releasing endorphins ("feel-good" chemicals that boost our mood), improving sleep, lowering stress, bolstering self-esteem and confidence, and helping us feel purposeful and as if we've accomplished something.
Singh suggests finding an activity you truly enjoy because you'll be more likely to stick with it. Many people enjoy running, biking, swimming, dancing, yoga and hiking. Or, you could try a group exercise class or find a workout buddy. Work from home? Try this fitness ball as an alternative to your regular office chair that helps increase core strength, stability and balance.
Work-life balance is tricky to achieve, but learning how to manage your time can help. While it can seem like there's never enough time in the day, there are ways to use your time well that can bring your stress levels down and reduce overwhelm. Learning to set boundaries and say "no," organizing a realistic schedule, and creating a prioritized to-do list are all ways you can use your time better, according to Sutter Health.
"Learning how to say 'no' is incredibly important in our lives. Doing so helps us maintain healthy boundaries and relationships with others and ourselves and also allows us to be more thoughtful and committed to the things we say 'yes' to," writes Psych Central.
Remember that "no" is a complete sentence, and you don't owe anyone a lengthy explanation. Offering a kind but firm "no, thank you, I won't be able to" response is perfectly fine and protects your time and energy.
Plan your week before it starts, suggests Sutter Health, and set realistic goals for what you'd like to accomplish. They also suggest creating a prioritized to-do list at the beginning of each day and categorizing items using a color-coding system: red for "do this right away," orange for "do this next" and yellow for "do this last." Or, grab some colored Post-it Notes and come up with your own categorization system.
While it's tempting to reach for sugary, high-calorie treats on days when you're in a rush and overwhelmed, these aren't habits that support healthy stress levels in the long term.
"A balanced diet can support a healthy immune system and the repair of damaged cells. It provides the extra energy needed to cope with stressful events," notes the Harvard School of Public Health. Reach for mood-boosting foods like fatty fish, dark chocolate, fermented foods (like yogurt or kombucha), bananas, oats, berries, nuts and seeds, and beans and lentils, suggests Healthline.com.
And while caffeine and alcohol are generally okay in moderation, it's important to make sure you're not relying on them as stress management tools. "Going heavy on caffeine can also increase alcohol use ... many people will have a drink or two to dull the effects of caffeine to help them go to sleep," notes an article in Discover Magazine.
Good sleep hygiene is also one of the essential techniques for managing stress. Aim for seven to nine hours per night, suggests the Harvard School of Public Health. And a tip for falling asleep more easily: Ditch your phone or other screens at least 30 minutes before bed. Studies have shown devices can interfere with sound sleep by suppressing the production of melatonin, a natural hormone your body releases that helps you feel tired and ready to hit the pillow.
One of the most overlooked stress management techniques is learning to lean on others. It can be hard to ask for help — but remember, no one has to go it alone. Not surprisingly, a 2022 study found that having social support creates resilience in stressful times.
"Experts say that almost all of us benefit from social and emotional support," notes the APA. "And though it may seem counterintuitive, having strong social support can actually make you more able to cope with problems on your own, by improving your self-esteem and sense of autonomy."
Seek out family and friends who encourage and see the best in you. Carving out time for a weekly FaceTime, walk or coffee date can give you the boost you need to face life's inevitable stressors. Mental health professionals can also help during stressful times. Their role is to help you find strategies for managing stress and coping with life's challenges. Check out the APA's Psychologist Locator Service to find a psychologist near you, or visit MentalHealth.gov, which offers resources in English and Spanish.
Life can feel hard sometimes, but thankfully, there are many techniques for managing stress and getting closer to that elusive work-life balance we're all seeking. Whether it's a morning meditation, yoga, setting a boundary, grabbing a healthy snack or phoning a friend, find your happiness and keep stress at bay.
Written by: Jaime Budzienski
These articles are intended for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in these articles. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.