What to Do When Stress is Overwhelming

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Stress is a feeling that many people experience day to day when their lives don’t go as easy as they would like. It’s not uncommon for people to have moments where they feel unsure of how things are going in their lives or how to get things done, and as a result, people often feel discomfort. Not having control over what is happening in our lives can be overwhelming, and many people struggle with how to cope with these feelings without resorting to using unhealthy coping skills to manage them. Often, when people are feeling stressed, they exhibit the following symptoms: fatigue, lack of motivation, excessive fears or worrying, irritability or being short-tempered, and avoiding or putting off the things that need to get done. As a result, people who are experiencing stress often put themselves in situations to experience more stress, because their ways of coping are actually compounding the problem!

While most people have experienced stress and know what it feels like, many people do not understand the purpose of stress from an evolutionary perspective. Stress is one of our main feelings or emotions that has been used throughout evolution to help a person notice a problem and work to fix it to improve their quality of life. The feeling of stress comes from the place in our brains designed to protect us and keep us safe; when our brains sense a threat to our lives, it sends hormones that researchers aptly named “stress hormones” through our bloodstreams to cause several physiological things to happen to let us know we need to change something in our lives. Rapid heart rate, breathing struggles, body tension, racing thoughts, feelings of worry and sadness, etc. are all signs that we’re feeling uncomfortable.

These stress clues are actually a good thing and helpful for us because they help us to notice that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Although our natural inclination may be to shut down, avoid, shy away from negative feelings, or cope with them by engaging in dangerous or problematic behaviors (overeating, drinking/smoking, drug use, or other risky behaviors), acknowledging and accepting them are a much better way to handle them in order to conquer them. Here are some tips for how to manage stress when it feels overwhelming:

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Stay in the Present

Researchers continue to find amazing connections between stress reduction and mindfulness techniques. Studies show that the more focused your mind and body are on the here-and-now, the calmer and more relaxed you will be. Taking moments throughout the day to remind yourself of how you feel inside your body at that particular moment can help distract from the racing thoughts that come with stress and anxiety and can help your brain decrease the number of stress hormones being secreted into your bloodstream, ultimately calming you down.

Pay Attention to What Your Body is Telling You

Noticing how your body is feeling is an important step to managing stress. You may not recognize it all the time, but when you are feeling stressed, your body will cope by tensing up in lots of areas, particularly the neck and shoulder areas and the hips. Knowing this can help you to be more aware when your body is feeling tighter than usual and could be a clue that you need to find ways to loosen your body to loosen your mind.

Ways to do this include progressive muscle relaxation, or the tightening and relaxing of muscles to help release tension, or things like yoga and massage have also proven to be natural stress relievers.

Grounding

Most people don’t notice what their thoughts are doing when they are stressed, but this is the first place to look if you’re feeling overwhelmed! Our thoughts are powerful and affect how we feel, and our feelings ultimately affect how we behave, so getting a handle on our thoughts can often help us feel and present better in the world. Most people who are stressed are future-focused, meaning they are spending time worrying about what could happen. Your thoughts can send your brain away from your body and can take you on a journey of exaggerated and improbable thoughts that only increase your stress. That’s when grounding techniques can be super helpful. Being able to distract your stressful thoughts to things that you see, feel, taste, or smell inside the room you are in, in the time you are in it, can help to “ground” you and help you to gain control of your thoughts. Once you have separated from your anxious thoughts, you have the chance to challenge them and change them if they are not serving you.

Exercise

While exercise can be overwhelming to find time for in a stressful week, research continues to prove time and again that exercise helps to decrease feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression and is super helpful for increasing energy and motivation. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that help regulate your stress levels, sleep cycle, and many other things that are necessary for having a healthy life. In addition to all of this, exercise is a great distraction from those anxious thoughts!

Healthy Eating

More and more research is being done about the connection between diet and our mental health, and the connection is closer than many may expect! Studies are showing that there is a major connection between the gut and the mind, and when your body is getting the nutrients it needs from the food you are eating, your focus, mental clarity, energy, motivation, and (you guessed it) stress levels can all be improved. It is important to check with a doctor to determine if your body is producing the right nutrients needed to sustain a healthy life, and to determine what nutrients will be important for you to get from your diet. There are many ways people use nutrition and changing their diet to help them improve their anxiety and stress and talking with nutrition professionals can help you make that determination.

Positive Social Support

Having deep, close relationships with others can be a great stress reducer. When you have someone who you can trust to talk to or vent to, it can help you feel less alone, less hopeless, and less distressed. The opposite can be the case if your life is full of people who let you down, keep you away from positive coping skills, or cause more stress than peace in your life. Prioritizing healthy relationships is a wonderful and necessary way to manage stress.

Therapy

When all is said and done, you could be doing all of these things and still feel an overwhelming amount of stress. If your life is so stressful that you feel like you cannot burden your friends and family with your thoughts and feelings, or if you just need a neutral, supportive person to talk to, therapy is a wonderful option. Therapists are trained in stress-relieving techniques and can help teach you fun and interesting ways to relieve stress. They are also able to provide a non-judgmental place to release negative thoughts and feelings without social repercussions. Therapy has been seen time and again to be a key factor in reducing stress for many people and is a worthwhile option to consider if you are feeling extremely overwhelmed with things going on in your life.

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events