10 Healthy Ways to Handle Excess Stress

From exercise to meditation, here are 10 ways to manage unchecked stress.

Updated on October 12, 2023

Stressed out male office employee
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We all experience stress from time to time. Common sources of anxiety include money, school, work, relationships, or major changes like marriages, divorces, and deaths.

"Stress can absolutely be normal," says Samuel Wedes, MD, a psychiatrist in Livonia, Michigan. "For a lot of people, it can be a motivator to help them work harder or succeed further with their goals," he adds. In some situations, your body's stress response can even be lifesaving.

Other times, it can wreak mental and physical havoc, causing head and body aches, fatigue, restlessness, irritability, and even depression. In some cases, stress has been linked to an increased likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, according to Dr. Wedes.

Don't let your worries go unchecked. Get a handle on stress with these science-backed and expert-approved tricks.

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Move more

Don’t underestimate movement, which can help reduce stress levels. Not only does physical activity shift your focus away from your stressors, it also tells your body to release feel-good chemicals, known as endorphins.

Most adults should aim to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Strive for 30 minutes each day—on most days. If you don’t have the time or stamina for a lengthier workout, do what you can. Even small bouts of movement can be beneficial for your body and mind over time.

It’s important to be consistent, so pencil physical activity into your daily schedule. Choose an activity you love, like walking, biking, or swimming, and enlist the help of a friend to keep you on track.

Before you start an exercise regimen, speak with your healthcare provider about any health concerns.

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Take a time out

We can’t always change our surroundings, but we can often escape them—at least temporarily. How? Give yourself a timeout. Try clearing your mind by taking a walk, reading a book, stretching, or taking a few deep breaths.

Engaging your senses—sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch—might also help relieve tension. It takes just a few minutes and can be done almost anywhere, like the car, at your desk, or at home.

To get started, try:

  • Looking at a family photo
  • Lighting a scented candle
  • Sipping a cup of hot tea or eating a piece of your favorite candy
  • Listening to soothing music or your favorite song
  • Wrapping yourself in a warm blanket or giving yourself a quick hand massage

Some senses might be more helpful to you than others, and with practice, you can figure out which sensory activities work best for you.

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Invest in a planner or journal

Emotions can be overwhelming. For many of us, it can be tough and confusing to talk about them. Writing in a journal can be a healthy outlet to express your feelings and ease stress. If you're not sure what's stressing you out, journaling can also help you identify the cause. Then you can begin working toward a solution.

Keep your notebook and pen in a convenient place, so you won’t forget, and make time to write an entry every day. Write freely—without scrutinizing your thoughts or feelings—and don’t worry about spelling mistakes. Once you write down your worries, list potential resolutions:

  • If money is stressing you out, make time to create a budget.
  • If you're worried about your workload, schedule a meeting to discuss priorities with your boss.
  • If you're struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one, gather names and phone numbers of therapists in your area and make calls the next day.

If a busy schedule stresses you out, you can even include your daily to-dos along with your journal entry.

Your smartphone can also help you pinpoint what's stressing you out. Download the Sharecare app, available for iOS and Android, to track your stress levels. You can record a 30-second conversation or monologue and the app will analyze your stress levels based on your voice.

waking man reaching for his phone
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Set a sleep schedule

Sleep helps restore the body. It replenishes energy levels, gives your heart and vascular system a break and keeps your brain sharp. The connection between sleep and stress is two-fold: Too little sleep can raise stress levels and excess stress can make falling and staying asleep a challenge.

Most adults should strive for 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but the reality is that few actually log those hours.

There are a number of tricks you can try to get more shut-eye. Switch off electronics before bedtime, avoid caffeine at night, and make your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Creating a sleep schedule can also help improve your sleep (and stress). Try going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same hour each morning, even on weekends.

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Get into yoga

Research suggests yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety. It's not surprising since the practice involves stress-relieving techniques, like movement, meditation, and deep breathing.

You don't have to join a gym or invest in expensive classes to get the benefits. Many studios offer a free class for first-timers. Speak with the instructor before class about any limitations or concerns. Free online classes are also available and can be done in the comfort of your own home. Community organizations might also offer group classes.

Get the most out of your yoga session by:

  • Wearing clothes that let you move freely
  • Asking questions if you're unsure about a pose
  • Stopping if you feel pain or fatigue
  • Keeping an open mind

Yoga is safe for most people, but pregnant people and those with certain conditions, including osteoporosis, hypertension, glaucoma, or herniated disks should speak with a healthcare provider before getting started. If yoga isn't for you, don't stress over it—try another relaxing activity, like tai chi.

young woman with neck pain
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Try progressive muscle relaxation

This stress-busting technique is simple and can be done almost anywhere. “It can help people center themselves and take the focus away from the stress,” Wedes says.

Start by squeezing and releasing the muscles in your feet and toes, before working your way through each muscle group in your body. “Alternatively tense and relax each of the muscle groups of the body,” he notes.

Keep in mind that this technique, like meditation, might not work right away. The more frequently you practice, the better your relaxation skills will be. Wedes encourages his patients to practice progressive muscle relaxation even when they’re not particularly anxious.

Young woman meditating
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You don’t have to be a regular at the yoga studio to utilize meditation and other relaxation techniques. There are simple ways to get started on your own, and plenty of free online tutorials and phone apps to help you along the way.

There are different types of meditation. These include:

  • Mindfulness meditation involves awareness and acceptance. Sit quietly and comfortably and let thoughts, emotions, and sensations pass without judgement.
  • Mantra meditation is the repetition of soothing words or phrases, like “peace,” “love,” or “awareness.”
  • Guided meditation involves visualizing yourself in a relaxing environment, like a beach or cottage. Sounds, sights, and smells can help with visualization.

Even the individual elements of meditation, like deep breathing, sitting comfortably in a quiet space, and thinking about something you’re grateful for, can help ease stress. Remember: There’s no “right” way to practice meditation.

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Volunteer in your community

Volunteering can help improve mental health and ease feelings of stress, according to a study published in BMC Public Health. Researchers are still learning about what makes giving back beneficial, but there are some theories. Volunteering is one way to connect with others and create a support network, which has been linked to lower levels of stress.

Get started by:

  • Spending time at a local animal shelter. Playing with cats and dogs can elevate serotonin and dopamine, hormones that help you relax.
  • Donating canned goods to a local food pantry
  • Giving blood at a local drive
  • Serving meals at a soup kitchen once a month
  • Coaching a youth sports team
Young woman texting on couch
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Learn to say "no"

It never feels good to disappoint the people closest to you, but sometimes taking care of your mental well-being is more important than adding another commitment to your schedule. Mitigating stress may be as simple as saying "no," and it's not as selfish as it might sound.

When considering whether or not you can take on another responsibility, keep these questions in mind:

  • Will saying "yes" prevent me from doing activities I enjoy or trying new things?
  • Will saying "yes" take my attention away from more important commitments?
  • Will saying "no" be better for my stress levels?

If your answer to any of these is a resounding "yes," politely, but assertively, decline the offer. You may need to refuse more than once but try your best to be brief and honest. Never feel obligated to donate your time simply because someone else is giving theirs. They may have fewer obligations or might be better able to juggle more tasks.

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Meet with a friend

Simple companionship can be quite powerful. "It's so important to be able to talk to people and vent when you're having stress," Wedes says.

Friends can help you manage stress, encourage healthy habits, and can even help you live longer. Those closest to you might also notice subtle changes in your behavior, like fatigue, jitters and irritability, which could be signs of unhealthy stress. When you're feeling overwhelmed, making plans with a friend may not seem like a priority, so instead plan to see your pal or schedule a phone chat at the same time each week. Scheduling these get-togethers helps give them primacy.

As helpful as coffee talk can be, there's no substitution for professional help. If these techniques don't work for you and you find that stress is interfering with daily activities, talk to your healthcare provider or licensed therapist.

"There are lots of professional resources out there, like psychotherapies aimed at reducing stress, as well as medications (if necessary) that can help people deal with stress more effectively," Wedes says.

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