The last few months of any year, with deadlines and holidays, often create a harried pace. The beginning of a new year can give you a chance to exhale. But even if you experience a few serene days or weeks, tight shoulders and tension are never far off.
Family stress. Work stress. Daily life stress. Self-induced stress brought on by scrolling through the news. As it turns out, stress is almost impossible to avoid. So this year, instead of waiting for your most recent stressful patch to ebb, take a different approach. Teach yourself to stay grounded and calm — regardless of what’s going on around you.
Managing stress helps you stay healthier
It’s important to manage stress, because it’s not only emotionally taxing, but it’s also bad for your health. When you are under stress, the levels of a hormone called cortisol start to rise in your blood. Over time, chronic stress that results in higher than normal levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on your metabolism, spurring weight gain (particularly around your middle), and causing dangerous inflammation inside your body. It can affect your blood sugar levels, your blood pressure and heart, and even your memory.
Three simple strategies to counter stress
To lessen the effects of stress, try three simple strategies to help you reset.
T ake a new approach. Much of life’s stress comes from how we view the various situations we encounter. For example, two people may take on the exact same task, but only one person may find it stressful. Some of this has to do with personality, but it also has to do with your inner narrative — how you frame things in your mind. Aim to change your perspective, and you can often reduce the number of stressors in your life.
B urn off tension. Physical activity can reduce cortisol levels, and help get you on a more even keel. But for many people, sticking to a daily exercise schedule is itself stressful, because they pick activities they don’t enjoy. Instead, choose to do something you love — gardening, taking nature walks, or yoga, which can slow the harmful effects of stress. Looking forward to the activity can keep you motivated, and help you destress and recharge.
G get organized. Ever spend 20 minutes looking for your car keys or trying to find a misplaced shoe? Disorganization and clutter can be stress inducing, and it’s unnecessary. Taking time to set up some systems, such as a set location for your keys, can help reduce these daily nuisances. In addition, plan ahead when it comes to other strategies that can help you manage your stress. Create a time for exercise, to plan healthy meals, and get on a regular schedule to ensure that you’re getting enough sleep. Also, if you know you’re going to be encountering a stressful period — the anniversary of a loved one’s death, an upcoming surgery, a financial challenge — think ahead of time about how you are going to manage it. Having a plan can help to reduce your level of stress, and prevent it from taking a toll on your health.
Whatever strategies you choose, be certain to take time to assess and revise your approach if it’s not working. Sometimes finding the right combination of stress busters can take time. If you are trying to reduce stress on your own and aren’t having any success, talk to your doctor. She or he might recommend a mental health specialist who can help.
Kelly Bilodeau is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later went on to become a managing editor at HCPro, a Boston-area healthcare publishing company, where she covered healthcare industry trends and topics such as patient safety, medical billing, radiology and breast imaging. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Magazine, as well as numerous healthcare trade publications.