Stress sucks. We’re increasingly under a lot of pressure to achieve… well, everything, and that can add up. Sure, stress can be a good thing, but it can also be addictive and wreak havoc on your health.
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So what are the ways to reduce stress? And are there right and wrong ways to relax? We asked experts across the board about the common mistakes people often make while pursuing stress relief and what you should actually do instead.
1. Don’t let complaining (or complainers) be your go-to…
One of our knee-jerk reactions to stress is finding someone we can talk it out with. While this can seem therapeutic, venting doesn’t always help. “Don’t spend time with a person (or group of people) who continuously complain or quickly jump into pity-parties,” says Kara Fasone, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP.
… look for quality support instead.
Talk about it—but be selective. You don’t want to turn to someone who might fan the flames of your frustration, which can lead to you feeling more stressed than you were when you spoke to them in the first place.
“When scary or stressful things happen, we often turn to others for support,” Fasone says. “While this can be an incredibly effective solution to ease feelings of stress, it can also backfire. The people you choose to turn to make a big difference. You may have heard of emotional contagion—it simply means we’re susceptible to the moods that permeate the social circles we spend our time in. This works with positive emotions as well as negative emotions.”
So seek out trustworthy friends who make you feel supported but also lead you to see the bright side—and benefit from that positive emotional contagion.
2. It’s easy to avoid whatever is stressing you out…
We’ve all avoided things that we know cause us stress. But it’s important to remember that avoidance doesn’t actually do anything about your stress—it just puts it off.
“People commonly believe that avoiding the stressor will give them relief, and while true in the moment, the underlying stressor typically remains or increases,” says Julie Gurner, Psy.D., a doctor of clinical psychology.
Whether you’re avoiding someone at work who pushes your buttons or not finishing a project with a looming due date, you can end up spending more of your emotional resources monitoring and avoiding the thing that’s stressing you out—instead of dealing with it.
… but it’s better to just rip off the Band-Aid.
Gurner recommends preparing yourself internally and coming up with strategies to handle whatever is stressing you out when it (inevitably) comes up.
Got a co-worker you tend to avoid? Instead of spending all of your time and effort steering clear of them, Gurner recommends interacting with them and just being brief and polite. The more you learn to deal with them, the easier doing so gets over time—which reduces the amount of stress in your life in the long run.
3. You’ll probably fail if you try to change everything at once…
Sometimes stress can create a tendency toward inertia—as in, you’re so stressed out, you don’t get anything done—but other times, it can throw you into a complete overhaul. According to Audrey Holst, owner of Fortitude & Flow, this ends up making things worse instead of better.
“When people want to destress and relax, they often choose to do all the things at once,” Holst explains. “They throw out clothes, start trying to meditate, begin practicing yoga, and change their diet. This can be overwhelming and puts another thing on the list to be stressed about.”
… so make small, incremental changes instead.
You don’t have to follow every stress-relief tip out there to find relief (although we understand the urge). Instead, focus on something small that you can build upon over time.
“Things like setting a mindfulness alarm on your phone to take a few breaths every hour or two or starting a yoga practice twice a week are achievable,” Holst says. “Once the changes become a comfortable part of your routine, then you can slowly make more changes.”
4. It’s never a good idea to overdo it at the gym…
Just like you shouldn’t do too much at once, make sure you’re not getting too much of a good thing as well.
“Working out is a great stress reliever, and you might think that being religious about your workout routine will make you calm overall, but being too crazy about making sure you get your workout in will leave you more stressed than necessary,” says Lyuda Bouzinova, an ACE certified personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and co-founder of Mission Lean, “Aim for realistic goals and you’ll be better off in the long run.”
… so listen to your body.
You can absolutely get too much exercise, which can lead to feeling tired or even getting injured. Be mindful with your movements and know your limits. If your normal workout isn’t helping you relax, try incorporating yoga into your routine to help reduce stress.
Try practicing good sleep hygiene by improving your bedtime habits too. While stress can make it hard to sleep, studies suggest that not getting enough sleep can lead to more stress—which is a vicious cycle to break.
5. Getting online if you’re already on the internet all the time isn’t really a break…
Picking up your phone, checking Facebook, reading Buzzfeed—taking a break from our screens while still using our screens doesn’t really work.
“Most of us do it: We get stressed and want a break, so we stay sitting at our computer and open up a web browser and check out the news or a social media site. The problem, for starters, is that we stay in the same position, staring at the same screen, failing to move our bodies or connect with other people,” says Scott Crabtree, chief happiness officer at Happy Brain Science. “Often the news we get online is bad, stressful news—whether it’s coming from Washington or our friends’ lives, news is often bad news.”
… so take an *actual* break, pumpkin.
You don’t have to go all-out on your break, but you do need to change it up. Whether that’s taking a walk around the block, driving to a coffee shop, or simply stopping by someone else’s desk, Crabtree suggests being proactive with your break and using it to, ya know, actually take a break. You only need a few minutes to relax, so be sure you’re making the most of it with things that actually work.
6. Skipping town prematurely can add more stress than it’s worth…
Taking a vacation might sound like the ultimate relaxation technique, but make sure you’re not running away from stress that will still be there when you get home. Plus, the stress around vacations can be difficult on its own!
“Planning, paying for, and clearing a schedule for trips can cause a lot of frustration and anxiety. Sometimes it’s hard to relax until you’re finally back home and back to the routine that made you want the vacation to begin with,” says Kate Romero, a life coach in Studio City, California. “Ironically, a sense of familiarity that the grind provides you is sometimes more comforting than leaving it.”
… but you should always take some time for yourself.
Sometimes we just need a vacation, and that’s totally OK. Just be mindful about whether or not you need an actual vacation or just some quality time with yourself.
That might involve a resort in Mexico, or it might mean a weekend alone without anything on your calendar.
7. You know that overdoing it on the alcohol won’t really make you feel good…
Before you pour yourself a glass of wine, make sure you’re not using alcohol to numb stress instead of dealing with it.
“Drinking as a coping mechanism is a poor solution. It limits your ability to be aware and present with your deeper desires and needs that could be taken care of in a healthy and soothing way,” says Karolina Rzadkowolska, a sober life coach and founder of Euphoric Alcohol-Free. “Whatever situation is causing the stress will still be there in the morning, unhandled—and exacerbated with a hangover.”
… and it’s ultimately better to find out what’s really bothering you.
It might not sound like fun, but taking some time off drinking might be exactly what you need. Instead of avoiding or temporarily reducing stress with alcohol, be proactive about reducing over the long term. While having a drink or two might work as a temporary fix, it doesn’t actually change anything (or prevent your stressors from recurring).
As much as it sucks, think about what’s actually bothering you and focus on finding a healthy solution.
8. It’s no good to binge-eat for the sake of binge-eating…
A cupcake might be exactly what you need, but six cupcakes? That’d probably overkill.
“Some people try to reduce their stress by ‘treating themselves’ with that dessert they want or buying something expensive. This is fine every now and then, but any more than that can be a problem,” says Tara McShane Pandarinath, LCSW.
… but definitely treat yo’self (mindfully).
There’s nothing wrong with having a treat, as long as you’re considering what will actually make you feel better. If the cupcake will, then go for it. If a walk outside will better clear your head, try that instead.
Treats don’t have to be fancy to be indulgent. It could be a yoga class at a new studio, turning off your cell phone (gasp!), or cooking a nice meal. Find what feels good, what suits your individual needs in that moment, and go from there.
As with most things in life, your intention matters more than you might think. There’s a fine line between self-care and self-sabotage, and—while some of these activities might be exactly what you need—others could be causing more harm than good.
Remember, you’re the judge here. Every individual is different, and it’s important to be mindful of what will actually help you feel better. Try to be intentional about what you’re doing to reduce stress in your life because the last thing you needs is to accidentally make it worse for yourself.
Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs, and Pluto is still a planet in her heart. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.