Everyone feels a little stressed out sometimes, even during the “relaxing” summer months. Between parties, plans, and summer travel, it doesn’t take a lot to feel overwhelmed. Add to that the extra stressors of the last year, and we can all use a little refresher on relaxation tips.
Severe stress can adversely affect both your physical and mental health, so it’s important to seek stress relief early on to help keep stress manageable.
Stress and Mental Health
At its core, stress is simply “how the brain and body respond to any demand,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Because life is full of change and uncertainty, everyone experiences stress occasionally. This stress can help you focus on an important task, but if mismanaged, it can also impact both your physical and mental health.
Without adequate coping mechanisms, stress can lead to headaches, trouble sleeping, jaw pain, changes in appetite, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and feeling overwhelmed. On a longer-term basis, stress can lead to an increase in the level of the hormone cortisol in your brain, which can weaken your immune system and leave you more susceptible to illness.
You’re most vulnerable to the negative effects of stress when you don’t sleep or eat well, lack a supportive network, are physically ill, or experience a major life change, all of which can happen to anyone.
Stress and COVID-19
As common as stress is, it’s been especially prevalent in the last year. Researchers have found that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to chronic stress for many Americans, and a December survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression rose sharply from 11% before the pandemic began to a staggering 42%. Beyond anxiety and depression, the COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma and stress-related disorders.
The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) has further found that 36% of American adults are having difficulty sleeping, 32% have difficulty eating, 12% have seen an increase in alcohol consumption or substance use, and 12% have had worsening chronic conditions due to stress tied to the coronavirus. The KFF has raised concerns about additional poor mental health outcomes of the pandemic, including isolation and job loss.
The CDC notes that “it is natural to feel stress, anxiety, grief, and worry during the COVID-19 pandemic” and offers resources for mental health and crisis in the event you or a loved one’s stress from the pandemic extends beyond standard coping measures.
Whether you’re feeling stressed by the pandemic, world events, summer plans, or the demands of everyday life, there are some simple stress relief steps you can take to improve both your mood and your general mental health.
- Exercise – Moving your body, especially on a regular basis, can help reduce the negative impact of stress. Exercise can release endorphins, which not only improve your mood but also act as natural painkillers, and can reduce the amount of cortisol released by your body over time. Not only that, but exercise can improve the quality of sleep you get, which comes with its own benefits.
You don’t have to join an expensive gym or spend hours on your stationary bike to benefit from stress-reducing exercise. Activity as simple as walking or jogging can provide the endorphins you’re looking for while also giving your mind a break from whatever is overwhelming you.
- Rest – Stress often comes when we’re busy or have a lot to think about and do. It may seem counterintuitive when you’re caught in the throes of stress, but taking time to rest can make a big difference in how you cope. Try taking a short nap, reading a good book, sitting quietly with a soothing eye mask, or simply enjoying a cup of tea or lemonade for a few minutes.
Making a conscious effort to relax and quiet your mind can help release tension in your muscles, which helps improve blood circulation. This, in turn, helps bring more oxygen through your body and improves overall health.
- Breathe – Still struggling to fully relax? Take some deep breaths. Stress activates the “fight or flight” response, which can increase your heartbeat and breathing and constrict blood vessels. Deep breathing can counter this response to help you relax and feel more at ease.
You can try any number of deep breathing exercises, such as alternate-nostril breathing, belly breathing, pursed-lip breathing, or others. The key is to really focus on your breath, slowing it down and fully filling your lungs. This is what improves circulation and slows your heartrate, which will help calm the negative affects of stress.
- Connect – Social connection is important to your mental health (which is one of the reasons the last year has been especially stressful for so many people). Studies have found having a strong social network provides benefits such as improved ability to cope with stress, enhanced self-esteem, and even lowered cardiovascular risks, among others.
If you’re feeling stressed out, try reaching out to a friend or family member. You can talk through what’s overwhelming you, or you can simply spend time with them, whether virtually or in person. You can also meet new people by joining a gym or club or finding a local class in a hobby you’ve always found interesting.
- Laugh – Laughter can help relieve your stress response, ease tension and relax your muscles, and improve your mood. On a more extreme level, laughter has been found to help relieve stress better than simple distraction among cancer patients.
Whatever makes you laugh is worth trying. Watch your favorite sitcom, find a comedy special, listen to a funny podcast, or call up an amusing friend.
Stress is a normal part of life, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. Finding healthy ways to manage everyday stress can help minimize its impact and prevent the long-term ramifications of ongoing stress. Now more than ever, we all deserve a little relief.
National Institute of Mental Health: 5 Things You Should Know About Stress
National Alliance on Mental Illness: Managing Stress
NBC News: Back to not-so-normal: Psychologists eye pandemic stress as U.S. reopens
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, August 2020–February 2021
Psychiatry Times: Post-COVID Stress Disorder: Another Emerging Consequence of the Global Pandemic
Kaiser Family Foundation: The implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use
Healthline: 16 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress and Anxiety
University of Michigan Health: Stress Management: Relaxing Your Mind and Body
Calm Clinic: How Anxiety Can Create Circulation Problems
VeryWell Mind: 8 Deep Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety
Mayo Clinic: Social support: Tap this tool to beat stress