Understanding stress and effective management

Stress is a daily part of life, for better or for worse. We all face challenges in our daily lives from figuring out how we get to our favorite coffee shop to completing daily tasks and maintaining our home. 

How we manage our stress levels can impact our relationships, the quality of our work, our physical health, and even our relationship with ourselves in a negative or positive way – on one hand, it can make us feel like there is no hope to work through the challenges we are currently facing; on the other, it can make us feel empowered and in control of our life.

What Is Stress?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, stress can be defined as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation; strain, pressure.”  

It is important to note that stress in and of itself is not a bad thing. There’s a concept “eustress.” Eustress is the “good” stress as it motivates us to do well. We can be motivated by exploring a city while on vacation, being given a work project, figuring out which birthday party to go to, or even building something whether it’s a Lego creation or an entertainment center. The body may not consistently tell the difference between “good” or “bad” stress, but our mind can as it depends on how we feel about it. 

Take exploring a city as an example. Some may welcome the challenge of learning the various neighborhoods, figuring out where the best place to grab a slice of pizza is located, and how to get there. Others may look at it as a daunting challenge that they may never complete and when they think about it, it causes a panic attack. In the case of the latter it’s okay that they don’t like exploring, but they ideally should learn how to manage their stress and anxiety to go to their favorite pizza spot.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

There are some clues to notice that you may not be managing your stress effectively. Some of these clues are:

  • Noticing worsening allergies
  • Worsening of one’s health conditions, such as blood glucose levels being unusually high and MS flare ups
  • Muscle tension (commonly noticed in the back and neck)
  • Increased frequency of stomach aches
  • Getting sick more often than usual
  • Increase in the frequency and intensity of headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Increased irritability and bouts of anger
  • Crying spells
  • Increased conflict with colleagues, friends, and/or family
  • Over- or under-eating
  • Increase in symptoms of anxiety and/or depression

If you notice any of these symptoms, please check with your primary care doctor to ensure that there are no underlying physical conditions that may be aggravating your stress levels as sometimes it is as simple as correcting a physical condition that gets us back on track.

 For example, the thyroid is often considered to be the “mother of all mental health problems” as it can mimic a variety of mental health conditions, mainly anxiety and depression. In this example, getting on the appropriate medication to get the thyroid to function normally will lead to the person starting to experience some relief from their stress.

What Stress Does to the Mind and Body: Physical Health Impacts of Chronic Stress

Stress can do a multitude of things on the body and the mind. As noted above, chronic stress can make it more difficult for a person to manage their body. For example if a diabetic is feeling more stressed out than usual, this might be reflected with higher blood sugar levels. This in turn may trigger feelings of anxiety which in turn generates higher blood sugar levels. 

Renoir, Hasebe, and Gray in Sec Neuropharmacology (2013) reported that there is a connection with depression and increased chances of developing heart conditions and type II diabetes. They also report that studies have shown that chronic stress can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

This may lead to negative thinking styles such as awfulizing (thinking everything is horrible; a lot of therapists like to call this “catastrophizing”), all-or-nothing thinking (it is one way or the other), and heaven’s fallacy (thinking you deserve or earned something by being “good”). This in turn can create a circular loop keeping you stuck in which the more you think about the stressor, the more you stress out which then in turn makes you feel more stressed. This in turn may aggravate our mental health as it might generate more feelings of anxiety or depression, which in turn makes it more difficult to manage our symptoms. 

This makes it difficult for us to navigate our lives more effectively. And then the cycle resumes with us feeling stuck and experiencing additional stress.

Common Causes of Stress

There are multiple causes of stress. Some common causes of stress are:

  • Being unhappy with your job
  • Feeling like you have too many responsibilities
  • Lack of appropriate rest
  • Financial challenges
  • Car problems
  • Poor time management skills
  • Working or living in unsafe conditions
  • Having to give a presentation
  • Having to take a test
  • Experiences of discrimination and/or harassment at home, work, or school
  • Death of a loved one
  • Moving to a new home
  • Starting a new relationship or getting married
  • Taking care of loved ones, especially if they’re elderly
  • Worrying about things that may or may not occur

Identifying Everyday Triggers of Stress

Stress is a part of everyday life. What triggers stress in one person may not phase another person. Some common triggers of everyday stress are:

  • Seeing a bill or talking to your partner about financial struggles
  • Hearing an emergency siren
  • Hearing your child cry, especially if it occurs multiple times throughout the day
  • Seeing how your child is struggling in school and/or their own mental health challenges
  • Watching/listening to the news
  • Experiencing traffic
  • Running late to an appointment or work
  • Experiencing chronic pain
  • Relational challenges such as arguments

Work-Related Stressors and How to Navigate Them

Work stress deserves its own special section as we spend, on average, 90,000 hours of our lives working. Stressors can range from micromanaging supervisors to a rough work environment with seemingly unattainable expectations, difficult colleagues, and challenging co-workers. 

Some tips to navigate work stress are:

  • Identify what you can and cannot control with your work. For example, you cannot control how your colleagues and customers may respond to your work, but you can control how your respond to them.
  • Identify what you can and cannot change in your work environment. If it something that you cannot work through, then create an exit plan to find a new job that better fits you.
  • Make your communication clear to remove ambiguity. Empathize with what your boss/colleagues are looking for by reflecting it back to them
  • Being clear with what you need, especially if this is a work accommodation (by law, employers have to attempt to provide accommodations to workers so they can effectively complete their job).
  • Set clear boundaries and enforce them. For example, if you’re told to do something immediately and it is the end of the workday, you can say that it’ll be the first thing you’ll take care of when you arrive at work the next day.
  • Find healthy outlets for yourself throughout the workday. This might being able to go for a quick walk on a break, listening to music, or talking to your colleagues.

There’s a multitude of creators on social media that provide great advice for navigating work. Two creators that I like are Amy (on TikTok as HackyourHR) and The Corporate Clapback (on TikTok as awellmadewoman).

Proven Strategies for Managing Stress

There are several ways to manage your stress levels. Certain strategies are healthier than others. As noted above, taking care of your physical health is paramount. Be sure to consult with your doctor about what you may need to do to take care of your physical health. Also, be sure to look at the relaxation habits that you engage in after work. 

For example, there’s nothing wrong with having a glass of wine after a long day of work. The question to ask yourself is does it help you and does your relationship with the wine (or whatever you do when you get home) negatively impact your relationships with your friends, family, and ultimately yourself? In other words, does it help you live a rich and meaningful life or does it block you? 

Furthermore, there’s no shame in practicing self-care. You cannot help others if you yourself feel like you’re falling apart. This is why whenever you go flying, one of the first things the stewards always say is “in case the cabin depressurizes, be sure to put your gas mask on yourself first before helping others.”  This is especially true for parents as they may not be able to support their children as much as they need due to their own feelings of exhaustion.

Types of Rest

One of the newer concepts that has been discussed in the past couple of years is ensuring that you’re getting the right amount and type of rest and there are 7 different types of rest. They are: 

  1. Physical rest (this can be exercise, getting an appropriate amount of sleep, or physically slowing down)
  2. Mental rest (this is giving our brains a chance to relax and not be constantly working and problem solving)
  3. Sensory rest (this is taking a break from things that stimulate us and focus on our senses such as going to a park)
  4. Emotional rest (processing our emotions and doing things that help us feel at peace)
  5. Social rest (engaging with friends and family that help us feel enriched and supported)
  6. Creative rest (allowing ourselves to just exist and not forcing ourselves to problem solve)
  7. Spiritual rest (this can be worship, prayer, or just getting outside of ourselves and volunteering). 

Listen to what your body and mind are telling you what type you need.

Spoon Theory and Managing Your Time

Spoon theory is a concept developed by disability advocates to explain to their friends and family why they can only do so many things each day and how draining that task might be for a person to complete. Advocates usually say we have 10 spoons each day. Feeding yourself breakfast is 3 spoons, going to school or work is 4 spoons and then getting dinner is a spoon or two. That leaves only a spoon to get ready for bed. The amount needed to do those tasks might change day by day which is why a person may get more tasks completed one day and then struggle the next day.

So how does spoon theory relate to stress management? It relates to it as it can be a way to help you understand how your own energy and willpower to do things may vary day by day. Some of those challenges might be daily occurrences such as caring for a loved one. Spoon theory asks for your to decide what is important to you to complete each day so you can take care of yourself better, as well as encouraging you to be compassionate to yourself. It’s okay that you didn’t get to deep clean everything in your house on Saturday, you didn’t get to build the tv stand, or you didn’t have the energy to go hang out with friends because your job overworked you this week. Thus, spoon theory encourages us to engage in the type of rest we need to recharge our energy levels.

Mindfulness and Stress Reduction Techniques

There are multiple ways to reduce stress. One common way for people to manage their stress is to engage in activities that they enjoy that help slow down and enjoy the present moment. This could be taking a bath, getting a message, or getting a haircut. Those are all examples of self-care activities. 

Another activity that can help is called grounding. Grounding is a technique in which we get neutral information going through our brains. The most popular version of grounding is naming things in your environment based on the 5 senses. We don’t judge our thoughts about it or place value upon what we see. It is what it is. One variation of this is naming all of your favorite artists or albums in alphabetical order. Another is to count something that is around you. That could be bird calls, a particular car type that goes by, or ceiling tiles. I worked with a client years ago who shared that grounding based on her senses overstimulated her. She found naming her favorite albums to be more helpful to her when she started to feel overwhelmed. The reason I told that story is to normalize the process of figuring out which version of that technique works for you.

One good way to manage stress is to practice progressive body scans. Doing this can be helpful as it can help identify where you hold stress in your body.  There are multiple scripts that can be followed that are appropriate for children and adults and can easily be found online. The version I teach is to start on one side of the body, starting with a hand and focusing on each individual part of the body before relaxing it as you move up to your shoulders, and then down to your feet before ending with relaxation of the parts of the head. Doing a progressive body scan will take a decent amount of time to do it well, especially when compared to grounding which can take a few minutes.

One of the most popular activities is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a skill that helps us stay in the here and now. There are several apps available to help practice mindfulness and there are several ways to practice this skill. One way to do this is the next time you have some downtime, like the next time you eat a meal, slow yourself down and notice how it feels to eat: what the food smells like and how it looks, the weight of the food on your utensil or how it feels to hold it, how the muscles move to get the food into your mouth, the texture of the food and how it tastes, how it feels to be in your mouth, and what it feels like to swallow it. Again, we’re not placing value or judgment upon it. We’re just focusing on what is physically occurring. When we notice that we’re getting distracted, we gently bring our focus back to the food in front of us. You can go through the same process the next time you get your favorite drink, or listen to your favorite song, or go somewhere. When you first start practicing mindfulness, keep the duration short, like a minute, as you want to set yourself up for success. If you set the duration too long, then that can lead to negative thoughts which in turn discourages you from using the skill.

The Role of Exercise and Healthy Lifestyle Choices

There is a reason why every good therapist recommends some sort of physical activity and it has been affectionately parodied on social media: it works in helping us feel good. Physical activity releases dopamine, which is our brain’s feel-good neurochemical. Going outside and seeing the sun helps regulate our body’s natural biorhythm as well as producing vitamin D. The website Healthline reports that sunlight also helps produce serotonin. Serotonin is one of the neurochemicals that helps with mood regulation, sleep, and pain management. Dr. Ratini on WebMD reported that physical activity can also help with managing chronic pain. 

Food can also play a role in how we feel as well. The goal of this is not to shame you for your food choices and to create an unhealthy relationship with food by encouraging you to be on the treadmill for an hour just for eating an Oreo: it is to encourage you to examine your eating habits and to encourage you to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need to be healthy. 

Both of these components can play a big role in how we feel, as well as it minimizing health conditions. For example, there’s new research that shows that a whole food plant-based diet can greatly help with diabetes management. By keeping one’s blood glucose levels under control, that can positively impact the person’s wellbeing as they feel that they’re more in control and reduce feelings of anxiety, which then helps keep their blood glucose levels in a healthy range.

If diet and exercise are something you want to work on, especially if you want to adopt a particular eating style, I encourage you to find a qualified professional in that type to help you meet your goals as they know what to do to incorporate that into your everyday diet as well as how to maintain it long term.

Seeking Professional Support for Stress Management

There is no shame in seeking out professional support to help you manage your stress more effectively. Therapy can be beneficial as it provides a safe space to problem solve, practice skills, and provide space to process the challenges that you’re working through. Therapists can also provide feedback to encourage and refine skills. 

Signs that it might be time to seek additional support are when you are:

  • Feeling stuck in one’s life
  • Feeling overly anxious or experiencing symptoms of depression
  • Struggling to connect with friends, family, and colleagues
  • Having multiple arguments with friends and family
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Struggling with adapting with a new life change, such as having a child or the loss of a loved one

Thriveworks: Your Partner in Stress Management

Thriveworks has 2,000+ mental health providers across the US — if you’re struggling with stress, consider meeting with one of our therapists who specializes in stress management. You can choose to meet with them in person or online, and they’ll create a personalized treatment plan around your unique needs.

Stress doesn’t have to rule your life. Take back control. We’re here to help.

Table of contents

What Is Stress?

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

What Stress Does to the Mind and Body: Physical Health Impacts of Chronic Stress

Common Causes of Stress

Proven Strategies for Managing Stress

Seeking Professional Support for Stress Management

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Evan Csir, LPC

Evan Csir is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 9 years of experience. He is passionate about working with people, especially autistic individuals and is experienced in helping clients with depression, anxiety, and ADHD issues.

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Head of Content at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Renoir, T., Hasebe, K., & Gray, L. (2013, November 30). Mind and body: How the health of the body impacts on Neuropsychiatry. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2013.00158/full

  • WebMD. (n.d.). How exercise can help back and Joint Pain. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/features/exercise-relief

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on 04/18/2019 

    Author: Taylor Bennett

  • Authors: Evan Csir, LPC & Taylor Bennett

    Updates: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding additional information regarding reasons why people feel stressed, the importance of being informed about stress, and how to manage it properly.

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