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Stress management: How to relieve stress in positive ways

Reviewed by therapist.com team

A woman meditating outside.

What Is Stress Management?

Stress is a natural human response to change or perceived threats.

In the short term, stress can motivate us to prepare for important events, such as job interviews, first dates, or project deadlines. But in the long term, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.

Stress management encompasses the techniques, tips, and tools used to deal with stress in healthy ways. This includes preventing stress where you can, learning how to handle stressful situations when they arise, and adopting a regular practice of relaxation.

Why Is Stress Management Important?

Stress management is important for both your physical and mental health. Our body’s stress response takes us into temporary overdrive, giving us the energy we need to endure change or overcome threats. Chronic stress transforms that temporary state into a permanent one, resulting in serious consequences for our mental and physical health.

How Stress Affects Your Body

Chronic stress can increase your risk for mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression. It can increase your risk for developing long-term problems with your physical health, including:

  • Insomnia 
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems
  • Diabetes
  • Immunodeficiency
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) issues
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Infertility
  • Irregular periods
  • Erectile dysfunction

Symptoms of Stress

Your body also has immediate or short-term responses to stressful situations, including:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tension headaches
  • Stomachache
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Shaking
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle pain

Emotional or mental symptoms of stress include:

  • Irritability
  • Isolation
  • Loss of control
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nervousness
  • Overwhelming worry
  • Feeling hopeless

What Causes Stress?

Causes of stress are known as stressors. Stressors are not universal in nature. What one person finds stressful, another person may find only tedious or even enjoyable.

Still, generally speaking, many people share common stressors. Work, for example, is a common stressor, even for people who enjoy their jobs. Other common stressors include:

  • Moving to a new city
  • Health problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Job loss
  • Starting a new job
  • Getting married
  • Having a child
  • Getting a pet
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Personal trauma 
  • National or global trauma (pandemics, climate change, economic downturn, natural disasters, mass shootings, etc.)

You’ll notice that although many stressors are associated with negative events, even positive and joyful occasions, like getting married, can result in stress.

Stress Management Techniques: Healthy Ways to Deal with Stress

Stress Prevention

You can never prevent stress entirely, and that’s okay. Stress is a natural response, and in the short term, it can help us accomplish our goals and overcome threats. You can, however, take steps to prevent long-term or chronic stress.

The best way to prevent stress is to practice self-care. Self-care strengthens the foundation of our physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health. It helps us create a strong baseline of health so we can better withstand times of stress.

To prevent stress from taking over your life, consider adopting these self-care practices:

  • Setting a regular sleep schedule
  • Eating healthy meals
  • Exercising regularly
  • Practicing good hygiene
  • Taking breaks from screens
  • Meditating
  • Journaling
  • Practicing mindfulness 
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Establishing healthy boundaries

How to Destress in the Moment

Of course, not all stress can be prevented. When you do find yourself in a stressful situation, it’s important to know how to handle stress in healthy ways. One common method is to follow the four A’s: avoid, alter, adapt, and accept.

1. Avoid Stress

Avoiding stress encompasses the stress prevention techniques previously discussed. It also includes more specific forms of avoidance, such as setting yourself up for success by not procrastinating.

2. Alter the Situation

In some cases, you can alter a stressful situation to eliminate the stress. For example, if you are struggling to meet a deadline, you can reach out to your supervisor and ask for more help or an extension. Maybe you can delegate a less important task to someone else to give yourself more time to meet your original deadline.

Altering your stress engages your problem-solving abilities. Instead of giving up hope, you look for ways to alter your situation so you can alleviate your stress.

3. Adapt Yourself

Some stressful situations cannot be changed. However, you can always change your response to the stress. Adapting yourself means looking for opportunities that may be hiding beneath the challenges you’re facing.

Let’s say you’re stressed because you’ve just graduated from college and can’t find a job in your chosen field. After doing everything you can to alter the situation—sending out résumés, making connections, and preparing for interviews, only to be rejected—it may be time to adapt.

Maybe you’re qualified for a job in an adjacent industry that’s easier to break into. You could apply for one of those jobs to take away the stress of not having an income. While you work in that field, you could also start taking online courses that may give you the credentials or certifications you need to be a stronger candidate for a future job opportunity.

4. Accept Reality

Many people cause themselves undue stress by focusing on what they “should” be doing: “I should be married by now” or “I should be making more money” or “I shouldn’t still be dealing with this problem.” Acceptance is an important part of reducing chronic stress. When you practice acceptance, you stop fighting against reality, which prevents you from wasting time and energy on things that are outside of your control.

Importantly, when you practice acceptance, it doesn’t mean that you approve of or agree with the situation. It just means that you acknowledge the reality of the current circumstance even if you do not like it.

If you’re in a stressful situation, try to figure out what you can change and what you may need to learn to accept. Reach out to friends and family for emotional support. Therapy can also help you accept difficult realities without relying on heightened stress levels to cope.

Relaxing Activities

Relaxation is an important way to combat the effects of stress. It can be used as both a stress prevention method and as a way to deal with stressful situations in the moment.

Chronic stress creates a buildup of tension in our bodies. With relaxation, we release that tension and allow our bodies to rest. Common relaxation techniques to help with stress include:

  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Going for a walk
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Gentle exercise, such as yoga
  • Laughing
  • Physical touch
  • Deep breathing

How to Handle Stressful Situations

Different situations require different kinds of stress management. For example, yoga may not be an option for managing stress at work, but it could be a great practice for managing stress at home. Here are a few stress management tips for common situations:

  • How to manage stress at work: Clarity can go a long way in lowering stress in the workplace. Establish clear boundaries to protect your time and energy. Prioritize clear communication with your team to prevent confusion or lack of cohesion. If your workplace is notorious for sending mixed messages and not respecting people’s boundaries, it may be time to alter the situation by looking for a healthier work environment somewhere else.
  • Stress management for students: Students are often learning stress management skills for the first time in high school and college. Stress prevention is one of the best tactics for students to master. By prioritizing healthy eating, regular sleep, and other forms of basic self-care, students can decrease or even eliminate much of their stress.
  • How to deal with stress at home: It can be discouraging to come home to a stressful environment. Stress in family relationships is common, whether between partners or parents and children or siblings. Individual, couples, or family therapy may help you learn healthier ways of coping with relational stress.

How Stress Affects Your Mental Health

Stress can be a risk factor, trigger, or symptom for many different types of mental health disorders. It’s often linked with:

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Anger 
  • Insomnia 
  • Addiction 

Professional therapy is available for people struggling with stress in addition to other mental health problems. Click here to find a therapist near you.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is Positive Stress/Good Stress?

Positive stress, also known as good stress or eustress, is your body’s stress response to positive changes in your life. This can include weddings, pregnancies, new jobs, new houses, or other happy occasions.

Change can be good, but most change is still stressful. It’s important to have self-compassion when happy events cause us to feel some stress.

Can You Ever Be Stress-Free?

Although you can prevent plenty of unnecessary stress, you cannot eliminate stress from your life entirely. Stress is a natural human response to change. What’s important is not eliminating stress, but instead developing healthy ways to respond to stress.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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