It’s time for a reality check. Here’s a fact: Americans need to learn how to manage stress better. In fact, your current stress levels are probably killing you slowly. Or, at least, they’re making you sick.

Ever heard of adrenal fatigue or HPA-axis dysfunction? If you’re like many Americans, especially if you’re a woman, your current stress levels are pointing you straight toward the condition. 

Or you already have it.

You might think that the world of never-ending to-do lists, exhaustion and overwhelmed feelings are normal. 

They’re not.

Chronic stress is hard to beat in today’s society. Especially once cortisol levels are involved. Let’s not even talk about the middle of the night wake ups that creep in. Or brain fog. Or panic.

Yes, those are common symptoms of chronic fatigue.

You CAN break the cycle of chronic stress

Start small. You may not even realize there are simple lifestyle changes you can make that will significantly reduce your stress levels. Or maybe you have tried a half a dozen things on your journey to find balance again and none of them seem to stick. Start with small, incremental lifestyle changes—small changes that you can sustain.

Online teleconferences with a professional to help you deal with stress

That doesn’t mean you should go it alone. The reason why I’m a health coach is because sometimes everybody needs a cheerleader and a guide. Let a knowledgeable coach help you identify which changes to start with first.

In the meantime…

6 steps to manage your stress better

1. Learn about your body’s stress response.

You can’t deal with what you don’t understand. If stress is killing Americans, as we now know it is, that should tell you it’s not “all in your head.”

Stress starts in your head.

Actually, it does start in your head. Your literal, physical head.

Over here, we’ve got a great explanation of HPA-axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) and how it works together to create your stress response. It’s worth a read.

2. Recognize your stress symptoms.

A stress journal can help you develop more awareness.

Become a student of yourself. Keep a stress journal where you record your activities and your emotional and physical feelings. You may notice that certain activities correlate with some pretty negative feelings. Maybe you hadn’t identified those activities as stressful before you kept a journal, but now you’re seeing the trend. Here are some stress symptoms to make yourself aware of.

Emotional symptoms of stress:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Moodiness and inexplicable mood swings
  • A short fuse and generally feeling crabby
  • Inability to relax and slow down
  • Avoiding friends and loved ones
  • Persistent negative feelings, about yourself, life in general, or other people

Physical symptoms of stress:

  • Stomachache or other gastrointestinal upset
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Low energy
  • Nervousness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Sweaty hands
  • Frequent colds

Chances are you won’t experience all of these, or even very many. Everybody responds to stress differently, and the key is to figure out which symptoms demonstrate you are stressed.

When you know them, you’ll be able to talk yourself through the stressful moment. Self-talk is a great way of stepping out of stress’s cortisol cascade (see below).

3. Identify your personal stress triggers.

Identify your stress triggers.

Again a stress journal is a great place to start identifying the places (and people) that make you stressed. Maybe you love your new job and didn’t even realize how stressed you get when trying to make a good impression on your new boss. Or how about when you go to the party at your in-laws’ house?

Your unique stress triggers will be different than anybody else’s. The key here is to identify them so you can respond with wisdom.

4. Learn how to manage your thoughts, moods, and energy.

Learn how to manage stress better in traffic.

You’re not powerless. Not everybody responds to stressful events the same way, but how you respond to those events has a profound impact on your health. 

Carolyn Aldwin is the Director for Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University. In an NPR “Morning Edition” on the effects of stress, she discusses a fascinating piece of research, 

“People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn’t find daily life very stressful.”

That same “Morning Edition” discussed the difference between the person who stresses out when stuck in traffic during the morning commute and the person who sits back and figures it’s a chance to enjoy a little extra music.

Since you can’t change the situation, allowing your body to escalate into a stress response is not useful when sitting in traffic. It does, in fact, make more sense to be like the second person and simply enjoy what comes your way. However, that doesn’t make it easy.

The key here is: it takes practice and intentionality to learn to relax.

Start with your inner self-talk. Ask yourself, “Can I change the situation?” If the answer is yes, feel free to proceed. If the answer is no, ask yourself, “Is there a positive to this situation I’m forgetting? Is there a way I can enjoy this, even though I wouldn’t have chosen it?”

You’ll need more strategies as you work through how to control your moods. Meditation, self-talk, and exercise can all play a role. 

Changing your self-talk and learning to control your moods is not easy, though. It’s always best to work with a professional as you begin to deconstruct your stress levels.

5. Learn stress management techniques.

There’s a lot to be said for slow breathing, meditation, or going for a jog. However, don’t be discouraged if you’ve tried all of the above and only found yourself stressing more over your inability to destress! It happens.

You’ve got to find what helps you, and you are not anybody else. Again, a functional medicine professional can help you work through stress management techniques.

If you want a few techniques to start your journey, here are a few you might try.

Learn stress management techniques.

Simple stress management techniques to try:

  • Deep breaths, especially when facing things you can’t change
  • Exercise regularly
    • Cardiovascular exercise like running or bicycling allow you to burn off excess energy
    • Yoga, Tai Chi, and other calming exercises allow you to center yourself
  • Positive self-talk
    • Ask yourself if there’s a positive in the middle of a stressful situation
    • List the things you’re grateful for
  • Say no
    • Remind yourself you are not obligated to everyone.

6. Create long-term systemic change.

Self-awareness and practice are the first steps to manage stress better. However, as you keep your stress journal and practice calming techniques, you will likely become aware of a need to change your lifestyle.

The good news is, you can change. You may not be able to change every detail of your life, and there will be stressors that will stay with you, but you can reduce stress in other ways.

For example, you can reduce your activities, turn the TV off earlier, and prioritize sleep. You can eat balanced meals and give more time to the relationships that matter in your life. All of these will help your body manage stress better.

But if this is as hard for you as it is for most people, don’t go at it alone. Get help and let yourself live your best life.