Updated 01 September 2014

Cope with stress and boost your health

Life is full of stress even in good times. But there are ways to manage your stress so it doesn't get the better of you.


Life is full of stress even in good times. But there are ways to manage your stress so it doesn't get the better of you.

"Stress is a constant. But though a situation may be beyond your control, how you respond to it isn't," says Kathy HoganBruen, a clinical psychologist and senior director of prevention for the National Mental Health Association.

HoganBruen says physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand, and the steps that promote one also promote the other.

"Just generally taking care of yourself is a key," she says. "Start with exercise and healthy eating, and getting enough sleep.

"Aerobic exercise has been found to reduce stress and depression," HoganBruen adds. "And when we eat better, we feel better. A lot of people's self-esteem is related to their body image, so when you're looking better, it helps a lot of people feel better."

Other aids to stress reduction include:

  • Meditation. "It can help a lot of people," HoganBruen says.
  • Spirituality. "There is evidence to suggest that faith can be helpful," she says. "We do find that people with an active faith life report fewer mental health problems."
  • Relaxation. "Lie down with candles and soft music," HoganBruen says. "Or get a massage. It's hard to be stressed when you're getting a massage."

The most common sources of stress are work, relationships and money, experts say. But distant events are increasingly heightening the stress in our lives.

Eric Dlugokinski, a psychologist in Oklahoma City, says that modern mass communication has greatly expanded the list of things we worry about.

"We're now impacted by things that go on at the other end of the world," he says. "The world is our place of residence." Events both near and far can stir our emotions. But we shouldn't be frightened by our emotions, even angry ones, Dlugokinski says.

Four-step approach
"Feelings are automatic. You don't have a choice," he says. "What we do with them is what matters, not that we have them." Dlugokinski, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, advocates a four-step approach to dealing with stressful emotions:

  • Try to put a word - or several words - to the emotion you're feeling. Just describe the feeling as best you can and you'll feel better.
  • Pause. Take a deep breath. Count to 20. Give yourself a chance to think before you react automatically.
  • Think of ways to express the feeling that don't hurt yourself or other people. "I'm irritated because I feel I was treated unfairly," for example.
  • Act. Do something that makes sense to you right now. It may not make sense next week, and it may not make sense for someone else. But if it makes sense for you, right now, then do it.

"People who learn to cope more effectively with their emotions can reduce the impact of what they're feeling," Dlugokinski says. "People with unresolved feelings experience a toxic effect.

"They go to alcohol, they go to drugs. They become depressed, they become phobic, they become mentally distraught," he adds.

Men and women – different reactions
And when it comes to dealing with stress, men and women can learn from each other, says Amy Flowers, a psychologist in Macon, Ga.

"Men and women tend to deal with stress in different ways," Flowers says. "Men may tend to do something more physical: run, go to the gym, go to a ballgame, have sex. Women tend to talk to their friends more when they're stressed. Women are more likely to use their support system," she notes.

"I think the most successful people are the ones who have a variety of options," Flowers adds. "It's nice to have a support system, but it's nice to have other outlets, too."

"When you have only one particular coping style, that can get you in trouble when you can't use it or it doesn't work," she says

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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