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Protect your physical and mental health: 5 ways to manage stress

Feeling stressed lately? You’re not alone. Many people feel overworked, over-committed or like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Too much stress takes a toll on both your physical and mental health. Especially if you’re a parent or a caregiver, like many women are.

How stress can affect you

How stress can affect you

Stress can affect people differently. Too much stress in your life could show up as:

  • Anxiety (including panic attacks)

  • Headaches

  • Muscle tension 

  • Upset stomach

  • High blood pressure

  • Depression

  • Rapid heartbeat 

  • Drug or alcohol misuse

  • Sleep problems 

  • Lack of appetite or eating too much

  • Lowered immunity (you get sick more often)

Stress can also be contagious. If you’re a parent or a caregiver, your stress can affect your family and those you’re caring for. 

5 ways to take control

The good news is that self-care for stress reduction is free. These five habits can help you bounce back during difficult times. And as a bonus, they can improve your sense of well-being and protect your long-term health. 

1. Exercise

1. Exercise

You’ve definitely heard this one before: Exercise is one of the best ways to beat stress. It boosts the feel-good chemicals in our brains. It soothes anxious minds. It can help you “reset” if your day is off to a rocky start. Kristen Hancock, a family nurse practitioner in Minnesota who has been working with Medicaid patients for more than a decade, says that since the pandemic began, “a lot of people have had to give up regularly scheduled activities.” That includes exercise. And it can be hard to get back to your pre-pandemic workout habits. But you can do it. Try starting small. Even short bursts — 10 or 20 minutes’ worth — can help.

2. Nutrition 


Food is fuel, but it’s also a source of comfort. It has real ties to mental health. In times of stress, many people turn to high-calorie treats to cope. Sure, short-term sugar highs might boost your mood for a minute. But they’ll leave you tired and cranky later. And can lead to long-term health issues. Keep the effects of stress at bay by keeping your diet in balance. The key, again, is to start small if you need to. Eat less sugar and junk food. Try adding in a few more fruits and vegetables. Tired of the same old carrots and apples? Switch them up for more interesting options like kiwis and kale. And don’t forget the protein. Protein helps you stay full longer. Which means you won’t be tempted to snack as much. 


3. Relaxation

3. Relaxation

Hancock encourages everyone: “Find time to relax, recharge, journal and practice gratitude. There’s good evidence for reducing depression by just saying aloud or writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of the day.” If a panic attack sets in, try a mindfulness exercise. Her suggestion? Walk into a different room and name 5 things you see. It could be a lamp, a table, a mirror, anything. Then name five things you physically feel. Like the clothes on your body and your hair on your neck. Do this for all five senses. Hancock says this exercise can be calming and grounding.


4. Sleep


We’ve all heard on the news that Americans don’t get enough sleep. Stress can make sleep problems like this worse (and vice versa). Lack of sleep can leave you crabby and unable to focus. But it causes serious long-term problems, too. If you need a new way to doze off, Hancock recommends a muscle relaxation exercise. Moving up or down your body, tense a group of muscles as you breathe in. Then relax them as you breathe out. You should feel the benefits right away. If you often have trouble staying asleep or don’t feel rested when you wake up, talk to your doctor. This could be a sign of a sleep disorder. 


5. Reach out to others and be kind to yourself

5. Reach out to others and be kind to yourself

Hancock’s advice for the quickest stress-busting self-care? Stay in touch with others and go easy on yourself. Because positive relationships — including the one you have with yourself — have many health benefits. Lowering stress is one. So go ahead and lean on your support network. It might surprise you how much better you feel after sharing your feelings with even just one friend. Hancock also has a special message for parents and caregivers: “Be kind to yourself! Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Be mindful of what you have accomplished. So even if you only cleaned off the coffee table but didn’t make the bed or get to the laundry, give yourself some grace. You’re doing the best you can!”


  • Start a gratitude journal

  • Try meditation

  • Do deep breathing exercises

  • Take a break from the news — or focus only on good news 

  • Avoid talking about politics

Some stress is normal. But if you feel overwhelmed, you can keep it in check with these tips and tools. Your body and mind will be better prepared for the tough times. And your overall health and well-being will get a nice boost, too. 


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