No matter who you are, some days will test your limits. For many of us, those days are far too frequent. Finding healthy ways to cope with stress is critically important to living in a world that is increasingly designed to spike our cortisol levels.
And we have to learn how to do it without using alcohol, comfort food, or any other unhealthy shortcuts.
But how? Where do you even start?
First, let’s unpack the types of stress we experience and how they impact our daily lives. Then, we’ll examine healthy coping strategies for stress to help you change your relationship with stress and feel better overall.
- Acute vs. Chronic Stress
- Not All Stress Is Bad
- Why You Need A Plan To Cope With Stress
- Healthy Ways To Cope With Stress
- Handling Your Stress From Here On Out
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
Acute stress is a short-term response to a specific event or situation, like getting stuck in traffic, giving a presentation, or receiving unexpected news.
Stress can be a double-edged sword – it can sharpen your senses and boost your productivity, or it can slash your well-being to pieces if you let it run wild.
Part of learning how to cope with stress involves understanding when to lean into it and when to use it as a signal to slow down and recharge.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a long-term response to ongoing situations or circumstances, like work deadlines, financial problems, or relationship issues. These are the types of problems that never seem to let up.
This type of stress can be much more harmful than acute stress, as it wears you down over time.
Not All Stress Is Bad
It’s important to note that stress can play a positive role in our lives (which might sound like a crazy statement to anyone who is chronically stressed, but stick with me.)
In her book, “The Upside of Stress,” Kelly McGonigal argues that stress is not always harmful and can actually have positive effects if we change our mindset and approach towards it.
She emphasizes that stress can be a catalyst for growth, learning, and resilience if we see it as an opportunity to rise to a challenge rather than a threat to our well-being.
This book is incredible for anyone interested in understanding stress and changing their relationship with it.
She writes, “How you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to your ability to find meaning in life. The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather rethink and even embrace it.”
Does it mean we should allow ourselves to walk around in a frenzied, frazzled state?
Not at all.
But we can learn how to channel it more effectively and convert that energy into something useful.
But first, let’s talk about what it looks like when you’re not doing this and allowing stress to run roughshod over your life.
Why You Need A Plan To Cope With Stress
If you don’t get a handle on your stress, it will get a handle on you.
This is especially true for people with a history of alcohol abuse and/or emotional eating.
The tips I will provide you are all ways you can redirect energy you otherwise do not know what to do with. These strategies will also improve your ability to handle stress in the long term.
Understanding Cortisol And What It Does To Your Body
Let’s talk about what’s happening inside your body when you feel stressed. When something stressful happens to you, it triggers the “fight or flight” response.
Your body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. “Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.”
Source: Mayo Clinic
Once the perceived threat has passed (say, the lion has decided you aren’t worth its time), your body returns to normal. The problem comes when the perceived threat lingers.
When we’re overwhelmed, our body is flooded with cortisol, and our serotonin stores (happy chemicals) begin to deplete.
Our bodies don’t like that and desperately want to return to a balanced internal state.
Alcohol and Cortisol
It’s understandable why intense anxiety and overwhelm would have us grasping for the quickest fix to make these feelings go away. (Hellooooo, happy hour!)
Your brain either desperately needs a dopamine boost or a way to opt out of the situation entirely. This is why stuffing your face with cookies feels good. Sugar and alcohol both spike dopamine levels in the brain.
If you do not have healthy coping mechanisms for stress, you will be more inclined to use alcohol to handle a very chaotic internal world.
The problem is it doesn’t work.
Unsurprisingly, chronic drinking actually increases cortisol levels in your body. It’s why you can wake up the next day gripped by anxiety and find yourself, over time, becoming more emotionally reactive to things that would not normally be a big deal.
What Happens When Your Cortisol Levels Are Too High
Chronic stress can be detrimental to your emotional and physical well-being. According to The Mayo Clinic, overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones increases your risk of serious health problems, including:
- Digestive Problems
- Heart Disease
- Sleep Problems
- Weight Gain (especially around the middle)
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Higher Blood Pressure
- Lowered immunity
- Increased inflammation in the body
- Decreased bone density
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Suppressed thyroid function
Additional Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/cortisol-and-stress-how-to-stay-healthy-3145080
Because your health depends on it, I’m going to provide you with a list of things you can do to handle all that energy and maintain lower cortisol levels, none of which involve eating your weight in pizza, chain-smoking, or finishing off a bottle of Jack.
Want to learn more about stress and the body? Check out this book: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.
Healthy Ways To Cope With Stress
In the moment when stress and anger strike, you have to find a way to expel that energy to bring your cortisol levels back down. It is extremely difficult to deal with your problems constructively with that amount of emotional energy surging through your body.
Because you are NOT going to use wine or french fries to do this, you need healthier options to cope with stress. In fact, you need to shift the way you think about stress entirely.
1. Change your mindset about stress.
We hear all the time about the terrible effects of stress on health. I just listed a bunch of scary health problems related to elevated cortisol levels.
Remember that early quote from McGonigal’s book, “The Upside of Stress.” How you think about it actually changes the way stress affects you.
Our mindsets about stress, she argues, are heavily connected with our worldview and belief systems. No, I don’t mean it in a religious sense (although that can certainly inform it). But how you see the world.
Are you someone who is terrified about aging, or do you embrace it? Do you believe people can be trusted?
How you think about stress is one of those mindsets that can impact everything from your physiology and your biochemistry from moment to moment, how you perceive others and how they perceive you, and even whether you achieve goals,
It is powerful!
What is a healthy mindset about stress?
McGonigal cites studies in her book on athletes that show if you demonstrate how stress and adrenaline can actually be helpful by supplying your body with energy to meet the challenge, they have healthier responses to stress and perform better.
She repeated this study on her Psychology 101 students. In previous semesters, they received a lecture on the dangers of stress before exams. This, maybe unsurprisingly, had the opposite effect than what was intended.
It turns out that when you make people afraid of the negative health impacts of stress, it just makes them more stressed.
And because stress is unavoidable, that’s not a reasonable solution.
But when she took over this same class and instead gave a presentation on the benefits of stress and how it can be used to improve performance, she noticed something remarkable. Her students performed better on their exams.
Think about it.
Has there ever been a situation where you were stressed and running on adrenaline, yet somehow (miraculously) managed to get things done better than you had hoped?
Let stress fuel you into action. You’ll notice you become more emotionally resilient and able to take on difficult challenges.
For more from McGonigal check out this brief video:
2. Start cleaning.
This is actually incredibly common in sobriety. A lot of newly sober people will joke about having spotless homes in the early days. I think there are several reasons for this. Keep in mind that the cleaning up will work for anyone, not just people struggling with alcohol addiction.
Okay, so why clean?
First, it’s a perfect activity when you do not want to think about anything.
Any time you do an activity that allows you to check out of your thoughts and maintain a singular focus, you’re engaging in mindfulness which is a special treat for a frazzled brain.
If I’m particularly worked up, my cleaning may become frantic, and that’s perfectly fine.
These are good moments to try to clean some stubborn grout. Without fail, I feel better when I’m ready to stop and rejoin reality. I’ve exerted energy and given my brain a timeout which opens up space to handle the problem in a more clear-headed manner.
Research suggests that cleaning has mental health benefits as well.
It’s been shown to:
- Reduce cortisol levels
- Help you focus
- Improve mood
- Provide a sense of clarity and control
Even if you normally hate cleaning, you may feel differently when it becomes a useful way to channel your energy into something productive that has the added benefit of helping to clear your head.
3. Work out.
Lift heavy things. Grunt. Scream. Drop them on the floor. Hop on the treadmill or stationary bike. Whatever calls your name, get after it.
However, there is a slight word of caution. Too much high-intensity training can actually spike your cortisol levels, so be mindful about how you train.
Whenever I use the gym as a way to manage anxiety, I feel instantly better. My internal world is back in balance, and I can better tackle whatever’s happening in my external world.
I’ve heard stories of people in early sobriety who get the urge to run out of nowhere. These people often don’t even own a pair of running shoes. They just know that their body needs to move immediately.
So they go.
They put on whatever shoes are close enough and they run until their brain says, “Okay, I feel better now.” If you have the urge to run or do some push-ups or jumping jacks, do it. Your body is telling you something.
Eventually, using exercise to cope with stress will become a habit. Not only will you become a calmer, more balanced person, but you’ll also look good in a bathing suit.
Where’s the downside?
4. Hit things.
There was a time when kickboxing was my go-to outlet for getting out my aggression.
Sobriety is hard because you have to figure out what to do with all those emotions you’ve been numbing for however long. Sometimes it feels like ALL of those feelings are flooding your brain at once.
People who suffer from chronic stress are in a similar position where they’ve got a lot of pent-up “stuff” that needs to be dealt with.
So deal with it.
Some days you’re just pissed off and need something to do with it. If it interests you, take a boxing or kickboxing class. Try a martial arts class. You have so many options!
Experiment until you find something that works and make it a priority.
Don’t let anger live in your body. It will eat you alive. (See effects of elevated cortisol levels above for a reminder.)
Taking just ten minutes a day to practice some form of mindfulness can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, and improve cardiovascular health.
It’s also a helpful tool to help calm you at the moment. Meditation can help you maintain and lower cortisol levels in the long term.
With sustained practice, you’ll find yourself less emotionally reactive and better able to cope with stress in your life. The old you will melt away to reveal a more blissful, chilled-out version of yourself.
The style of meditation does not matter. Choose something you’re comfortable with and commit to practicing it for a minimum of 10 minutes per day.
Give it a shot!
5. Watch something to take your mind off of things.
This isn’t useful for “punch the wall” kind of bad days, but it’s good for the moments that make you want to cry and wallow. It’s a way to hit the reset button.
If I’m having a particularly off day when I’m feeling worked up and can’t figure out why I’ll watch a comedy special or an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Just one episode.
Netflix can easily turn into an unhealthy avoidance tool. Don’t binge five hours of programming. Take an hour, get your mind right, and then tackle whatever’s going on.
6. Find your flow.
Hear me out. Flow is the state of being where you are so singularly focused and engaged in a task that you lose time.
It’s also called being in “the zone.”
Reading and writing are my go-to activities when I need to do something with my brain.
You need to find yours.
Some people take up hobbies like painting or knitting to get into the state of flow. Hobbies are our way of engaging in activities we enjoy so much that they enable us to forget about everything else for a moment.
Getting lost in a creative activity is a form of mindfulness.
It’s been shown to have many of the same benefits, including:
- Increased positive emotions
- Lessened depression symptoms
- Reduced stress levels
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved immune function
Finding something you can get lost in, where you use your hands and creativity to create something. Anything. Take a stained glass-making class. Learn how to make soap or candles. Take up woodworking. There are so many things out there to explore.
If you’re not sure what to do, think back to your old hobbies from your youth. What did you like to do before adulthood got in the way? If you used to love playing guitar, give it another go.
Keep an open mind.
There’s an entire community of dudes on Twitter who have taken up knitting. Do whatever you want.
7. Go outside.
I used to live in a desert region where the average temp from May-October is a stifling 45C (about 113F) with a heat index of “I don’t even want to think about it.”
So if you live in a challenging climate, I totally get how this might be an issue.
However, most of you do not, so this is a great time to get out there!
Taking walks in nature is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and depression and improve overall mental health and physical well-being. It’s called ecotherapy.
A 2016 study out of the UK showed that individuals who participated in a 10-12 week nature intervention program called “A Dose Of Nature” reported a 69% increase in self-reported well-being.
Participants engaged in a variety of activities depending on the environment they lived in. Some went for walks, some did more meditative activities in nature, while others worked on conservation and woodland maintenance.
Of the 64 participants in the study, all of which had been formally diagnosed with mild to severe depression and/or anxiety, four decided to continue the study, and two were able to reduce their medications. Members of the study ended up creating self-organized support groups to further the work.
It’s incredibly promising!
There’s a reason people say, “I need to get some air,” when they’re feeling frazzled. It’s actually restorative.
Ironically, I used to say this as an excuse to chain-smoke myself silly, but I digress.
8. Get enough sleep.
Getting a solid 7-9 hours of sleep is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress in your life, sleep is especially important.
Sleep disruptions and deprivation will cause your cortisol levels to spike, so you may feel like you are especially sensitive on days after you didn’t get a good night’s rest.
Increased cortisol levels can interfere with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. This can lead to a vicious cycle where lack of sleep increases stress levels, which in turn makes it even harder to sleep.
Getting enough quality sleep, on the other hand, can help your body regulate cortisol levels and reduce overall stress levels.
When you sleep, your body has a chance to repair and rejuvenate itself, which can help you feel more rested and less stressed during the day. Additionally, sleep helps your brain consolidate memories and process emotions, which can make it easier for you to deal with stressors in a healthy way.
Click the post below to get more information about good sleep hygiene.
9. Focus on your diet.
Food and mood go hand in hand. Did you know 90% of our serotonin receptors are in the gut?
Sadly, the Western diet is overly reliant on processed and refined foods, which wreak havoc on our gut health.
The simplest thing you can do to start healing your tummy is to eat whole foods and avoid processed foods known to cause inflammation. In addition to eating whole foods, you can try taking a high-quality probiotic.
A recent study has suggested deficiencies in key nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin D can cause depressive symptoms.
In the same study, participants who strictly adhered to the Mediterranean Diet showed a 30% reduced risk of developing depression. The most common recommendations for dietary intervention to treat depression and anxiety? Fruit, vegetables, fiber, and fish.
A fabulous diet alone will not cure a mental illness, but it CAN improve symptoms and aid in a long-term recovery and treatment plan. If you want a lifestyle designed to help you better cope with stress, you need to clean up your diet.
10. Avoid your avoidable stress.
It’s amazing how addicted to the drama of everyday life we can be. If you, like millions of people, catch yourself constantly checking social media, you’re intentionally exposing yourself to several stressors.
These things are designed to keep you stressed and wanting more.
If you feel like your world is spinning out of control, delete social media apps from your phone and allow yourself to exist solely in the real world for a while.
Beyond your digital world, you need to avoid engaging with people who contribute to your stress.
I realize this isn’t always possible, but to the greatest extent, you can (even if temporarily) put some distance between yourself and the people in your life who raise your blood pressure.
Life is full of unavoidable stress. We don’t need to opt into extra stress when we can choose something else.
Handling Your Stress From Here On Out
Chances are you’ve fallen into some pretty terrible habits when it comes to stress management. Whether it’s drinking to “relax” and quiet the stress party in your brain, smoking, or eating to feel better, your job from now on is to change how you cope with stress.
It’s not easy, and some of these things will take a while to produce results.
Here’s what I can promise you.
They will all work. If you consistently stick with them, you’ll catch yourself a few weeks or months from now thinking, “Oh wow. This usually would set me off, but I could care less now.”
It is one of the most liberating things you can do for yourself.
You got this.