Relationship conflicts, work issues, parenting concerns — we all deal with stress. It’s a normal part of life, but if it builds up too much or for too long, it can take a toll on you. Even good stress caused by happy events, such as having a baby, buying a new home or starting a new job, can be taxing.
So it’s not unusual for people to tell me as soon as they walk in my door: I’m really stressed out and I’m having trouble with this. As we talk more, we start to see the impact that stress is having on their life: they’re developing other symptoms, such as anxiety, depression or sleep problems. They’re acting differently—avoiding going out or doing things they used to enjoy, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or not enough, or overusing alcohol or other substances. In general, they’re less happy and not their normal selves.
If you notice any of these changes, it could be a sign of stress that needs to be addressed. If these changes are interfering with your responsibilities, such as getting to work or taking care of your family, then it’s critical to get some help.
Here are five things you can do to get back to less stress and more happy:
Get a complete physical
I recommend doing this first, because sometimes mental health changes are part of a medical problem. Thyroid problems, for example, can cause depression and trouble getting out of bed (hypothyroid), or anxiety and agitation (hyperthyroid). Treating an underlying medical problem can relieve a great deal of stress. Even if there is no medical problem, talking about stress with your primary care provider is important, because mental health is part of your overall health, and it matters. Your physician can help guide you to treatment options that are right for your unique situation.
Talk to someone
In addition to your doctor, it may help to share your concerns with a friend or family member. Stress often starts to fade as soon as you know that you have support. For more therapeutic support, talking to a therapist can be very beneficial, as well. The Portland Clinic has three psychologists available to our patients; many other therapists are available throughout the Portland area. You can ask your doctor for a referral or call a therapist directly.
Take a deep breath
When you’re stressed, your breathing becomes so shallow that it’s no wonder you feel tired and foggy. For a quick stress reliever anytime, practice this breathing exercise: Sit or stand with your back straight, put your hands on your tummy and inhale slowly to the count of four, pushing your belly out like a balloon to take in a deep, cleansing breath. Then slowly exhale to the count of four. People are always surprised at the immediate boost they get from doing such a simple thing.
Get better sleep
Shortchanging sleep can contribute to many mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, mental fog—and stress. When people improve their sleep, these problems ease up, too. I can’t overestimate the importance of a good sleep routine: If you have to get up at 7 a.m., then you need to be falling asleep at 11 p.m., not just getting ready for bed at 11 p.m. Put more effort into building a routine that gets you a full eight hours of sleep. Then cool off your room, power down your electronics and stick to your routine.
Find your happy place
Take a few moments each day to find your zen. For many, spending time in nature — whether it’s walking in a forest or sitting under a tree in the backyard—is the ultimate calming influence, and a lot of research backs that up. Yoga, meditation and listening to soothing music are other healthy ways to relax, focus inward and calm frazzled nerves. Find what works for you, and don’t let a week go by without it.
Your emotional health is not separated from your physical health—they’re both contained in the same package. New studies come out every day showing the connection between the two—we feel better physically when we feel better emotionally, and vice versa. So pay attention to stress—it’s as legitimate a health issue as exercising and eating right, and managing it well is just as important to your health and happiness.