Stress is something that most of us experience at some point in our lives, to the point where many have come to accept and expect it as a normal part of modern life.

While it is indeed a natural response from our bodies to a perceived threat – the so-called “fight-or-flight” response – the long-term health effects of a perpetual state of stress are pretty sobering. Cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal problems, blood sugar imbalances and poor immunity are just a few of the woes that can result from high levels of cortisol, AKA the stress hormone.

But there is good news: studies have repeatedly shown that our reactions to situations have a greater impact on our wellbeing than the situations themselves. [1]

So although it’s easy to think that you can’t help feeling stressed because of factors that are out of your control (that boss, that piece of work, that friend) the truth is, we have more say in our emotional health than we may realise.

That’s not to say it’s easy, by any means. But there are certain things we can do to help ourselves – and that is an incredibly empowering thought.

Get to the root of the problem

It’s easy to blame our stress on a blanket term like ‘work’, but what specifically is it that’s keeping us up at night? Is it a particular boss or colleague, a certain aspect of the role we’re not comfortable with, the hours, the pay? Or is it really work at all, and not an underlying issue that needs to be dealt with? It’s hard to know how to deal with something without knowing exactly what it is, so by getting to the heart of what’s stressing us and bringing it out into the daylight, it’s easier to create a targeted solution.

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Focus on the positives

Mindset is everything. By focusing on all the wonderful things or people in our lives, there is less room for dwelling on stressful situations. That doesn’t make them go away, but it does put them in perspective. Some people like keeping gratitude journals, others like to make a habit of thanking those around them, or simply taking a few minutes a day to be appreciative. A positive mind approaches stressful situations with a ‘can-do’ attitude, and a belief in one’s own abilities.

Plan, plan, plan!

The best way to get on top of stress is to have a highly organised daily schedule. Make a list every night of goals for the following day, allotting a realistic amount of time to achieve everything that has to be done. Then rest easy knowing that there’s a plan of action in place – rather than waking up in a panic not knowing what to do first or how on earth to get it all done.

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Make physical health a priority

No one can do anything to their best ability without giving their body the rest, nutrients and activity it needs. Regular exercise lowers cortisol, releases endorphins, boosts energy levels, encourages better sleep and clears the mind, all of which will reduce stress. Equally, getting enough sleep and eating a diet high in fruit, vegetables and whole grains will ensure a steady supply of energy and feel-good hormones. It can feel hard to justify getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night, or spending time making healthy meals and exercising when there are a hundred and one things to do, but the reality is that it’s not the number of hours in a day that count: it’s how they’re used. A well-rested, fit, healthy body will be far more productive and less stressed than an exhausted and nutrient deficient one.

Say no to quick fixes

In the same vein, avoid things like alcohol, cigarettes, sugary or processed foods and caffeine. While these can provide a temporary release from stress, and are therefore a tempting way to relax, they actually increase the negative impact stress has on the body, creating a vicious cycle. Stick to natural, whole foods and healthy snacks – these can also be delicious, without the negative effects.

Get social

Don’t suffer in silence. Remember that stress is something most people experience, and that talking to friends and loved ones is a powerful way of bringing problems down to size and receiving reassurance. Even if you don’t want to discuss your stress, being sociable on a regular basis and staying plugged into a support network is hugely beneficial for emotional wellbeing.

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Put things into perspective

How much will this really matter in a year or ten years time? Even if it’s something really important like exam results, remember to keep it in perspective. Life is so much more than what we’re experiencing now; the sum of our worth as individuals is not defined by this one moment, or even by our failures. When we’re really stressed, we tend to adopt a very narrow field of vision and get wrapped up in ourselves. Get outside into the fresh air and look at the world around you; do something to help someone else; anything that gets you out of your own mind. The world is about more than just us, and we are about more than what we’re facing right now. If we fully grasp that, it’s hard to get too stressed about anything much.

[1] Alia Joy. Crum, Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response, Master’s thesis, 2012; Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Random House, 2006).