12-Step Stress Management Plan

Learn how to keep chronic stress from harming your health.

Updated on March 5, 2024

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It's hard to get through life these days without experiencing some amount of stress. The issue is how we respond to it. If you let unfinished tasks hang over your head or you constantly feel your life is spinning out of control, it can actually harm your health. That's why it's important to learn how to manage the stressful elements in your life—whether it's the tough boss or the rebellious teenager—and how to tone down your body's physical response to them. Here’s a plan to avoid letting your worries burden you and potentially lead to more serious health issues.

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Identify the Source of Your Stress

You can't tackle stress unless you know where it's really coming from. Daily annoyances are easy targets, but are they really what's bothering you? Snapping at your kids or yelling at the driver in the next lane who won't let you merge, for example, may be a reaction not to those things but to something else going on in your life. That might be problems at work or issues with your finances. The first step to managing stress is pinpointing the true source.

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Focus on the Moment

With so much going on around you, it's easy to get distracted. The trouble is you tend to miss critical details when you’re distracted, which can make you stressed and uneasy. Being mindful can help you focus on handling the tasks at hand. Mindfulness means really tuning in to the present moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. 

Spend some time every day noticing the things most people tend to ignore, such as breathing, bodily sensations, and emotions. You just need a few minutes each day. This won't happen overnight, but with practice, you'll notice a difference.

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Make a To-Do List

Writing down a to-do list takes just a minute and saves you more time than that. Creating a clear and realistic plan for what you want to accomplish helps you get through your day without getting stuck in unimportant details that eat up your time. The benefit is less stress and more time to enjoy that cup of coffee you just poured.

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Don't Just React, Work on a Resolution

Every emotion has an "urge to act" that goes with it. When we feel afraid or anxious, we avoid things. When we're angry, we're tempted to lash out or yell. Unfortunately, neither of these behaviors actually solves the problem. Instead, take a different approach and you may just feel better. Worried about something? Tackle it instead of ignoring it. Angry at someone? Don't lash out, trying being empathetic. That means trying to understand what the other person is going through. In all likelihood, they are just as stressed out as you are—or maybe even moreso.

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Release Muscle Tension

As everyday stress builds up, your muscles tend to tighten up, which can add to your distraction and stress. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves flexing and relaxing your muscles to help relieve some of the physical stress that builds up in them. Starting at the bottom of your body, tense the muscles of your feet and then relax them. Work through the different muscle groups of your body one at a time—your legs, stomach, back, neck, arms, face, and head. And try to breathe deeply the whole time.

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Exercise Away Stress

Getting your heart pumping and body sweating is a great way to avoid sweaty palms and a racing heart when you're under pressure. Yep, exercise is one of life's greatest stress relievers. Not only can it help you stay calm when you feel anxiety coming on, it can also boost your energy and improve your mood. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment or a gym membership to exercise. Start by walking up and down the stairs or around the block. Or work on staying flexible and stretched with this do-anywhere workout plan.

mature woman sitting on a mat at home doing meditation
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Meditate and Breathe Deeply

Meditation not only helps reduce stress by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, it can also help you focus, learn, and remember. Try it by sitting in a quiet, comfortable place, closing your eyes and relaxing your muscles. Breathe through your nose and, as you exhale, notice the feeling of the breath going out. Breathe in again, and focus again on your exhalation. Try this for 5 minutes at a time, and as you develop more patience, try for 10 minutes or longer. When you're done, sit quietly and keep your eyes closed for a few minutes. Open your eyes and sit quietly for another few minutes before getting up. If you need a hand, try starting this simple meditation practice to help focus your mind and body.

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Schedule a Worry Period

Do you enjoy worrying? It sounds strange, but some people's minds actually seek out stuff to wrestle with. If that's you, it's ok, just try to limit the amount of time you spend on worries. Start by devoting only two periods a day to it.

Give your worries your full attention for 15 to 20 minutes. Really dive into them and think them through. Then stop. When they rise up again, tell yourself that you'll address them during your next worry period. Now you're in control over when worries can worry you. 

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Take a Step Back

Sometimes problems swell into things that get out of control or look worse than they really are. And sometimes you just don't give yourself enough credit. You may actually be dealing with your daily stresses just fine, but in your head, things feel frantic. Take a step back. Try to see yourself through someone else's eyes. (It could be anyone, such as a friend, your partner, or the mail carrier you see every morning.) You might see that you're actually doing better than you think.

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