What to do (and not do) when you’re stressed

By Laura Thomas

We’ve all been there: cramming before an exam or project deadline, the visceral strain of financial struggles, the downward spiral of a relationship slipping through our fingers, saying “yes” to too many engagements and feeling overwhelmed halfway through.

There are many different things that can trigger stress. It’s a natural, biological response. Stress is “the body’s method of reacting to a challenge.” (1) Physiologically, stress is the body’s way of preparing itself for survival, to do what we must to escape danger and thrive in an unpredictable world.

This is easy enough to understand if we were being chased by a bear and needed all our internal resources to stay alive. It even makes sense when faced with a brief period of starvation, the body conserving resources to stay alive before more nourishment is available.

But how do we make sense of stress in the work place, or in relationships, or in our minds? More prudently, what do we do when stress does strike, and it doesn’t go away?

Identifying the Signs of Stress

Before we implement ways of healthily coping with stress, we need to identify the signs. Stress has a way of sneaking up on us, like a frog in a pot of slowly boiling water, until, before we know it, we’re cooked. Sometimes the people around us are astute enough to notice when we’re stressed and share their concern. This isn’t always the case, and ultimately, it’s up to us to be the ones tuned into our bodies, minds, and emotions, and work to catch stress early before we’re incapacitated by it.

Here are some common signs of stress:

Feeling Fatigued

Our stress response in intimately connected to our nervous system, which has a cascading effect throughout our bodies. If engaged for long periods of time, our overactive nervous systems deplete various resources in our brains and bodies. This can lead to fatigue, that bone-deep feeling of exhaustion, which is a common symptom with stress.

You might lack the energy to do the things you once found easy or enjoyable. You’re tired, and all you want to do is sleep.

Irregular sleep

Even though all you want to do is sleep, the irony is sleep might be evasive. Chronic insomnia is a common symptom of stress, as is sleeping too much. Each body is different, and will express stress differently, particularly as it relates to sleep. Either way, your normal sleep cycle is thrown off.

Impaired mental function

When we’re stressed, we have trouble making decisions, thinking critically, staying focused, and recalling information. We’re left feeling absent-minded and foggy. With that can also be a lack of motivation and a lack of caring about things that were once important.

Volatile moods

Erratic mood swings, irritability, increased fighting with loved ones are also common symptoms of stress. It’s hard enough to think straight – even to stay awake – and our emotions lash out in response, often creating more negativity and anxiety, projecting problems and conflict where they previously didn’t exist.

Body aches and GI discomfort

Our minds and bodies are intricately linked. Stress is just as much a physical experience as it is a mental one. We might get migraines or body aches, we might have back-to-back illnesses because our immune systems are compromised, or we might digest food improperly, or experience a shift in hunger signals. What maybe could have been explained away as allergies, or other typical discomforts, becomes the norm. We’re not even sure what “normal” feels like anymore.

These are some signs and symptoms of stress. Everyone experiences it differently, and everyone has a different stress threshold. Once we’ve realized we’re stressed, there are a number of things we can do to help alleviate our stress, and a number of things we should avoid because they’ll only exacerbate our stress. Some may be surprising, and others are intuitive. Find the solutions that work for you and being your process of journeying back to a stable, stress-free way of being.

What Not to Do When Stressed

Do not overly ruminate

When we’re stressed, or something is bothering us, what’s a common response? Call up a friend and bond over complaining.

Our friends – the amazing support they are – are there for us; they’re on our team. They’ll get behind us, actively listening to how stressful things are right now, confirming that it sucks and just needs to change.

It’s what any good friend would do! The problem is, by overly ruminating on a particularly situation or feeling, we continue to feed it, fueling its presence in our lives. It keeps the negativity going even longer, and makes it harder to return to a state of positivity. (2)

Instead of collective ruminating, share the experience with your friend once, then make a plan together for how you can improve it. Your friend can be helpful, and it’s better to include them in your experience than isolate yourself, but be mindful of how much the two of you are continuing to roll in the mud.

Do not give yourself a “get out of jail free” card

There are a number of things we all turn to when we’re stressed. Namely, alcohol, saturated fats and sweets, and caffeine. We subconsciously look for mood-changing substances, including food, in an attempt to self-soothe.

It’s fairly intuitive that alcohol will only worsen the situation, but it takes discipline to resist the temptation. Part of us wants to numb our feelings, but in actuality, alcohol only increases our anxiety. It also decreases quality of sleep, something we’re in desperate need of when we’re stressed, and our negative experience is only prolonged by a hangover the next morning.

Similarly, the types of foods we crave when we’re stressed – saturated fats and sugar – are deceptively harmful. When the body is in stress-mode, it takes longer to digest saturated fats, keeping them in our systems longer. This makes us more susceptible to weight gain and systemic inflammation. Just what we need to worry about when we’re feeling stressed! (3)

Caffeine is another stimulus that exacerbates stress symptoms. When we drink caffeine, it blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. The extra adenosine floating around activates neural activity preparing our bodies for increased activity, including the release of adrenaline.

The trouble is, stress has already created a big release of adrenaline. A bit of adrenaline during our day can be helpful, but too much can have lasting damaging effects on our physical and emotional health. (4)

Although this might not be the time to completely curb the caffeine addiction, try not to increase the habit beyond what’s normal. If you do decide to reduce your caffeine intake, know that there might be a few days of discomfort as you endure withdraw, but these symptoms will pass.

Do not make big life decisions

We already know stress impairs our ability to make decisions. Not only is it because our higher functioning brain centers aren’t working well, but also because we have a skewed perception, and we only see the upside of things.

It sounds counterintuitive. After all, we’re feeling negative emotions and volatile mood swings. Why on earth would we see only the upside of a situation?

Think about it this way: earlier, we talked about the negative influences alcohol can have on a body that is already stressed. When we’re stressed, we might not remember that, or give much weight to it. We’re more focused on the positive influence of alcohol – that it will numb us to our current state of being. We lack the ability to see natural consequences.

This is a horrible time to make big life decisions, or to form new habits, like drinking another cup of coffee in the morning. As best you can, hold steady when feeling stressed and stick to the routines you once made in a more stable mindset. You’ll thank yourself later.

Do not allow yourself to veg

Wallowing, isolating, and vegging help nothing. It only encourages more stress, as does continuing to push too hard. There’s a balancing point we have to find between doing and not doing. This is not the time to sit on the couch and watch Netflix marathons all weekend. This is also not the time to take on more responsibilities and try to keep up the typical pace.

Then what is it the time to do? Let’s have a look at what you should do when stressed.

What To Do When Stressed

Show off your moves

Walk, bike, do yoga, go to the gym, dance around your house, anything that gets your body moving. This will flood your brain with happy neurochemicals and help change the “stuck” feeling stress can induce. If smile in the process, bonus points! (5)

Put down the phone, pick up a book

Technology is great, but let’s get real: it exacerbates stress. Turn off the phone and computer and pick up a book, preferably of the happy, fantasy variety. It’s okay to transport yourself away for a bit and engage with a story that will sweep you into another world.

A word of caution: be careful what information you consume while stressed. If you read the news, it’s likely going to cause more stress and feelings of helplessness. You’re in control of what information you cross, so focus on choosing positive things. It’s not being irresponsible to filter your incoming stimulus; it’s skillful.

Give some love

Gratitude practice is a great way to alleviate stress. In the morning, sit down for a mediation session and spend the entire time focusing on gratitude. You can list what you’re grateful for, or just revel in the feeling of gratitude as it resides in your heart. You can also keep a gratitude journal and write down three things from each day you’re grateful for. Make sure they’re different each day. Signing up for our COMPASS membership will help you not only do this, but also make it a routine. This has shown to dramatically relieve stress for members and empowered them to have greater focus and clarity of intent. If you’re reading this before October 1st there’s still time for you to become an early-bird member and receive exclusive offers. Just go here now.

Another way to give some love is to be of service. You can volunteer, be there for a friend in need, or dog sit and get some furry cuddles in the process. The power of giving is a ridiculously potent beast. It can significantly influence stress’s pull on your life and ease you back to feeling like yourself. (6)

Good smells, good food, good sleep

Add lavender oil to a bath and enjoy its stress-reducing capabilities. Make yourself a warm soup with broth made from scratch, nourishing you back to life. Take naps or play a yoga nidra recording before bed to help you relax. Even the little things – a lit candle, chamomile tea, plugging in your diffuser with delicious oils – can have the biggest impact.

Let the sunshine (on your skin)

As soon as you wake up, get outside and let the sun’s rays fall on your body. This will help with your circadian rhythm, which, in turn, will support a proper sleep cycle and influence your energy levels during the day. The sun is a natural serotonin-booster, which is a neurochemical related to mood. It’s a free, easy, all-natural resource at our disposal, and it can help alleviate stress. (7)

Stress is a natural part of life, and it’s likely something we’ll continue to confront. But with an informed mindset, and the will to make different choices going forward, we can always be one step ahead of stress, making decisions that support a stress-free existence. We don’t have to give in to the belief that this is how it will be for the rest of our lives, from one stress to the next. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing stress-free living as something you’ll achieve in the future when something else happens. It is entirely in your control, in this moment and every moment.

Start right now. Use these resources as your tools, and choose different behaviors going forward so you don’t become prey to the same stresses over and over. Take care of yourself, know when you’re inching towards a downward spiral, and if you do fall down, pick yourself back up again. Stress isn’t in charge. You are. And now you’ve got all the tools you need to make sure stress is just a passing visitor and not a tenant in your house.


Care to make stress-free a daily routine? Get COMPASS and start your intentional stress-free journey today!


Laura is a writer, performer, mindfulness instructor, yoga teacher, entrepreneur, and some days, a fairy princess. After the tragic loss of her older brother in 2011, Laura decided the one guideline she’d use to orient the rest of her life was this: Life is short. Only do things that make the world a more compassionate place.
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