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Self-care tools for managing stress

Because most people have some stress in their lives, everyone needs some basic stress-management tools. It may not be possible to avoid stress, but it is possible to give yourself the best opportunity to cope with it.

Dr. Batya Grundland, a family physician with the Family Practice Health Centre at Women’s College Hospital, often sees patients who are experiencing stress.

“It’s rare that people come in just because they’re stressed. They’ll often come in for something else and then through the discussion it comes out that they’re undergoing a lot of stress,” Dr. Grundland says. “Work pressures, family pressures, health issues either in themselves or family members, financial pressures. It’s usually a combination.”

Some signs that you may be experiencing an unhealthy amount of stress include things like trouble sleeping or general fatigue. But stress can also have physical manifestations, such as heart palpitations, chest pain or upset stomach.

Dr. Grundland’s initial advice to stressed-out patients is usually about taking care of themselves: eating, sleeping and exercising.

“The first thing we generally talk about is issues around self care,” she says. “Taking care of your physical self so you can deal with the emotional stuff that’s going on.”

You are what you eat

It may sound basic, but it’s important to try to eat well when you’re under pressure.

“The issue is making a relatively balanced diet so that you’re getting the necessary nutrients to cope with what you need to cope with,” Dr. Grundland says. That means eating lots of fruits and vegetables, staying well hydrated by drinking plenty of water, and minimizing junk food.

“When people are under stress, they may end up doing more emotional eating, more quick eating. Time is often an issue, so they may not be able to cook or prepare a lot of foods,” Dr. Grundland says. But reaching for takeout, candy and snack foods with no nutritional value isn’t helpful, even if it satisfies a momentary craving.

“In the moment it feels really good, but in the long term it can make it harder to cope with how you’re feeling,” Dr. Grundland says. “It makes you feel physically less able and well.”

Stay active

Finding time for exercise can be challenging when you’re feeling stressed, but it’s in your best interest to stay active.

“Exercise is often the first thing to go when you’re stressed, but is actually extraordinarily helpful,” Dr. Grundland says. “Exercise is a huge help in terms of coping with stress. There are lots of studies to support it.”

Try to find a way to incorporate exercise – ideally cardiovascular exercise – back into your life. It doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate: it can be as simple as going for a brisk 20-minute walk.

“Exercise is therapeutic,” Dr. Grundland says. “It reduces stress levels, improves sleep, and has a global effect on people’s well-being, and their ability to then problem-solve and cope with what they have to cope with.”

Quality sleep

It’s one of life’s cruel quirks that when people are most in need of rest – when they’re under stress – they’re less likely to sleep well. A common symptom of stress is sleep disturbances, such as having trouble falling asleep, being unable to stay asleep, or waking up too early.

Dr. Grundland notes that there are aspects of this situation that we can control, and aspects we can’t control.

“Most of us can relate to feeling stressed, and waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about all those things,” she says. “That’s the part that’s hard to control.”

What can be controlled is making sure the hours of sleep we do get are quality sleep. Exercising during the day helps your body get better quality sleep. Avoid alcohol, especially before bed. Avoid caffeine late in the day. Pay attention to basic sleep hygiene, like reserving the bedroom for sleeping and trying to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

“All of these things foster better quality sleep, so those hours of sleep that you do get will be better sleep.”

What to avoid

Sometimes things that might seem to give you a momentary boost are actually counterproductive. Even drinking extra coffee to try to power through the day may actually increase your anxiety.

Things like alcohol or smoking might seem to offer comfort, but any perceived benefits will be brief.

“Those things work in the very, very short term, but later that day or early the next morning you get a rebound stress effect,” Dr. Grundland explains. “The reason is, physiologically, in the moment it does reduce your stress. So as you’re having that glass of wine it reduces your stress. The problem is, for most people there’s a rebound stress. And it’s obviously not fully dealing with the issue.”

Instead of leaning on things that will eventually rebound, try to use the self-care tools that are proven to help manage stress.

“When you feel like you want to go for that cigarette, when you want to go for that glass of wine, go for a 20-minute walk instead,” Dr. Grundland says.


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: April 23, 2014

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