Health & Wellness

7 ways to cope with stress

Understanding the signs of stress can be the first step to getting back on track.
Published 6 March 2018

Strengthen your resilience to stress


Whether caused by our jobs, our relationships, a forgotten appointment or an infuriatingly poorly timed parking fine, stress is an unavoidable part of life. Not only do these nuisances draw our focus away from our goals, research has found that they can actually cause us to gain weight.


How your body reacts to stress

Under stress, our bodies respond by activating the nervous system and releasing hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are essential for triggering physical changes that help us react quickly and effectively to try and meet the challenges of a stressful situation. While this ‘fight or flight’ mode was useful when we were cavemen, ready to run for the hills or wrestle a tiger, our bodies actually use very little energy dealing with modern-day stresses. Yet our bodies can’t recognise this. The hormones trick our bodies into thinking we have used kilojoules to deal with the situation and, as a result, trigger an impulse to replenish these kilojoules. Unfortunately, few of us will reach for vegies, opting instead for kilojoule-heavy comfort food, anticipating its calming effect.

In addition to this, cortisol actually encourages your body to store fat and, over time, slows the production of testosterone, our muscle-building hormone.

The less muscle mass we have, the slower our metabolism is. No wonder stress can stop your hard-earned weight-loss plan in its tracks!

Try taking half an hour a day to list your problems and create solutions – then put it all aside and try to relax.


1. Recognise the signs

Reaching for sugary foods at the first sign of stress can often happen when we fail to recognise what we’re feeling. Being able to identify warning signs that your stress level is starting to rise is a helpful skill to develop – the earlier you notice your stress, the sooner you can take action. As adrenaline and cortisol are released, there are both physical and emotional signs to look out for. Things like tensing your jaw, grinding your teeth, difficulty concentrating and feeling fatigued, short-tempered, irritable, moody or even tearful are classic signs of short-term stress. When stress is ongoing, the signs can be more serious and can include headaches, insomnia, an upset stomach, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.


2. Find a strategy that works for you

In order to overcome these effects and side-step any knocks to your willpower, focus on a stress-busting strategy that works for you. Something you can turn to when you start to feel the signs or, better yet, something that can build your body’s resilience, helping it to deal with stress before it strikes.


3. Establish a routine

Predictable daily or weekly routines can be calming and reassuring. Examples include setting times for everything from physical activity and relaxation to meals, bedtime and wake time. Spend time with the ‘right’ people, which means people you care about and who care about you, as well as people who you find uplifting rather than demanding or draining. Talk to them about how you’re feeling – don’t bottle things up.


4. Visit your problems and identify solutions

It’s 3am and you’ve woken up in a blind panic about something – yet again. Sound familiar? A Dutch study has shown that ‘compartmentalising’ can help. Try taking half an hour a day to list your problems and create solutions – then put it all aside and try to relax.


5. Practice meditation

Having regular 25-minute mindfulness meditation sessions can improve your ability to be resilient under stress, according to a study performed at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. Even if you don’t fancy a formal mindfulness practice, try making a conscious effort to ‘lose yourself’ in a relaxing activity like gardening, or planning to do things every day that you look forward to – like reading a good book.


6. Change your self-talk dialogue

Stress can cause us to say things over and over in our head, and if those things are unhelpful – ‘I can’t cope’ or ‘I’m too busy’ – they can heighten your feelings of stress and anxiety. If you notice yourself saying such things, try replacing these phrases with statements that are soothing and calming such as ‘I’m coping well, given everything I have on my plate’.


7. Know when to seek professional help

If high levels of stress continue for an extended period or are starting to interfere with your enjoyment of life, it may be time to get some professional advice. A mental-health expert can help you identify the behaviours and situations that are contributing to your stress, and suggest changes you can make to the things that are within your control to handle anxiety.