5 Ways to Get a Grip on Stress

5 Ways to Get a Grip on Stress

Some days I balance everything perfectly. Work, family, dinner on the table, a perfectly dressed child without a trace of poop or unmatched socks … 

Today was not going to be one of those days.

It was a Monday in the ER – the busiest day of the week. By 9 a.m. I had already cared for a stroke patient, a woman in labor and a girl with a dislocated jaw. Operating on three hours of sleep (thanks to my daughter’s new tooth), back at home we were out of diapers and low on baby food. I was also past deadline for my article on stress (yes, the irony was not lost on me that I was stressing over an article on stress).

Sound familiar? We’ve all had those days when the routine we had planned to get everything done falls apart. Bad days break our routines – but how can we keep them from breaking us?

We know from medical research that chronically high stress levels are unhealthy –- but we also know of tried-and-true ways to combat them. Pulling from research, along with tips I’ve learned from my own patients, here are things you can do to keep your cool:

1. Squelch the stress response with the relaxation response. Okay, I promise this goes beyond “Count to 10.” If practiced regularly, these and other techniques have been shown to improve your health, quiet your mind and make it easier to you to cope in stressful situations. Here are a few to try:

  • Visualization (imagining either a relaxing setting or someone meaningful to you)
  • Deep and slow diaphragmatic breathing for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day
  • Relax your body– make a conscious effort to unclench your hands, relax your shoulders, smile. It’s no news that yoga can also get you into that zen state of mind.

2. Avoid Catastrophe Thinking. It’s hard not to spin into a worst-case scenario when you’re under stress. If you lose your job, you’ll lose your house. If you miss your child’s T-ball game, she’ll be scarred for life. But stress (blame amygdala overdrive, a region of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” response) can trigger catastrophic thinking. Instead of accepting these thoughts as reality, stop and ask yourself, "What can I do to address this situation?" Or “What’s the probability of this happening?”  Taking action -- or just getting perspective on the likelihood of the outcome -- is more useful than out-of-control stress and worry. 

3. Stick to a regular workout routine. Okay, I know I said sometimes your day’s schedule goes out the window – and that would probably include exercise. But letting it slide impacts your health, your stress level and how you respond to it. In fact, studies have shown that for many people, regular exercise can be as effective as taking an anti-depressant. For the best outcome, aim for at least 30 minutes a day.  

4. Control your narrative. I see terrible injuries and health crises in the ER. Some patients respond with immense strength and grace. How do they do it? From what I’ve observed, they see their “story” differently. They don’t view themselves as helpless victims. Instead they see certain aspects of the situation that they can control – no matter how small -- and focus on that. You can do the same. Look for what you can control or change and use it to move through what’s currently causing you stress.

5. Take an hour (or five-minute) break. Sometimes you just need to step back for a moment. Take a bathroom break if it’s all the time you have. Walk around the block (extra bonus: fresh air benefits your mental state). Have a few minutes more? Get a manicure. The mere act of removing yourself from the stressful situation can freshen your perspective.

Stress is a part of life, but it doesn’t have to drive you, and it definitely doesn’t have to impact your health and life. You’ve got places to go! And if you’ll excuse me, I have patients to see, diapers to purchase, a work project to juggle – and in the end, yes, it’ll all be okay.

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