You’re stressed out. You have bills, you have to deal with difficult people at work, and you have less-than-stellar health. What you don’t have is a personal assistant, a magic wand, or even enough time to sleep. Read on for realistic suggestions on how to reduce stress for common issues like money, work, health, and relationships.
You worry about money every single day. It’s not that you expect to be rich, but you need enough money to provide a decent life for yourself and your family. It seems like your bills keep increasing all the time, despite the efforts you’ve made to cut back, and every time you turn around there’s a new expense.
Between unstable economies worldwide, skyrocketing rental costs, fluctuating investments, and the price of lunch, money and financial concerns top most people’s list of stressors.
Even with the US economy on the rebound, almost 90% of Americans reported that their level of stress about money has stayed the same or worsened in the last year, according to a survey done by the American Psychological Association.
Not surprisingly, those who reported the highest levels of stress lived in lower-income households or were parents of children under the age of 18. In another poll conducted by Harris, over a quarter of adults surveyed said that they felt stressed about money almost all of the time, while over half said they only had “just enough” money to make ends meet each month.
Stress about money increases stress around other important life issues, such as work and health, since money is such a large factor in those areas.
How to Reduce Stress about Money
Much of the stress about money comes in the form of worrying about future financial issues. (Will you have enough money to retire? Will you have enough money to pay for the kids’ back-to-school clothes? Will you have enough money to pay for car repairs?) And the worry itself comes from a feeling of having little control over your financial situation.
Reducing financial stress can be accomplished by developing a plan so that you feel more in control and know that you’re working towards goals. Just the process of working out a plan can provide some peace of mind, and as you follow the plan each month, you will feel better and better about your money.
Your plan can be as small as a commitment to paying off a credit card. If you have more money available, setting aside some in savings to build an emergency fund can really help take off some of the pressure. For longer-term planning, such as retirement, it can be helpful to get advice from a financial planner (your bank can do this for free).
Cutting spending and increasing your income will also help, but only to the extent that you’re not causing even more stress. Overall, setting goals and sticking to them with a budget will provide the most benefit. Financial stress levels tend to go down with age, after people have finished paying for college or paid off their house.
You like the work you do, and for the most part, you like the people you work with. It’s not your dream job, but it pays the bills. Your boss is nice enough but she’s really pushing for better results now. You have a feeling that the company isn’t doing very well, and wonder if you should find a new job before it’s too late.
Work-related stress is a huge problem for the majority of us. A 2013 survey found that 80% of people feel that work is a major source of stress in their lives, and The American Psychological Association found that 60% of people blame work for not being able to relax.
Whether it’s a demanding boss, annoying coworkers, or a nagging feeling that you’ll never get a raise, work involves so much of our daily lives that it can easily become one of our biggest stressors.
Common work-related stressors that cause the most problems for people include:
- unrealistic deadlines and expectations
- technology overload
- lack of involvement in decision making
- lack of influence over performance targets
- lack of time
- aggressive management style
- lack of support from others
- others not pulling their weight or taking credit for others' achievements
- job insecurity
- job loss
- fear of skill redundancy
- over-demanding and inflexible work schedules
- excessive travel time
- lack of information about what is going on in the organization
- lack of adequate training or resources to do the job
- work performance closely monitored
- dull and repetitive work
- dealing with difficult customers/clients
How to Reduce Stress about Work
Since work is one of the biggest stressors in life, it’s also the most important to get under control.
The first step is to leave your work at work. If you continue to stress out about work while at home, you’ve doubled the time you spend thinking about stressful situations. Leave your work issues at work by putting them out of your mind once you step outside the office. This can be difficult at first because it requires a change in mindset, but it can provide a big reduction in stress levels. Don’t check your work email on your home computer or on your phone when you’re out with family or friends. Don’t take calls from clients in the evening or over the weekend, except in emergency cases. Most importantly, don’t try to figure out work problems or start planning the next week’s schedule during your time off. Just leave it until you’re once again at your desk.
The second step is to find ways to reduce stress while at work. Experts suggest that our reactions to situations cause more stress than the situation itself. How do you react when confronted with something negative? Like the fight-or-flight response, which drives stress, some people mentally withdraw while others become defensive and lash out. Instead of reacting either way, you can stop for a moment to assess the situation before doing anything. It might turn out that it’s not that big of a deal after all.
Becoming better at time management will provide a great deal of relief at work. Always being in a rush to finish a project before the deadline creates unnecessary stress that you can easily eliminate. Try using software that lets you schedule appointments, to-do lists, and organize notes. Prioritize your work so that you get the most important tasks done first. It can even be helpful to loosely arrange an entire week in advance.
Another important way to reduce stress at work is to become a better communicator. This might include speaking to your supervisor if you’re worried about something. Or, it could be helpful to develop closer relationships with your coworkers so that you have someone to talk to at work.
The next adjustment will probably be a big shift in your mental pattern: realize that your job isn’t as important as you might think. For the most part, the biggest worry people have about work is that they’ll lose their job. All of the little stressors that happen at work lead back to that one big worry: I’ll lose this job and then I won’t have enough money to pay the bills and I’ll end up homeless (or your own variation.) Will that worst case scenario actually happen? If you lose a client, will you really be fired? And even if you were fired, what would actually happen? Couldn’t you find another job? Yes, it would be a big problem for a while, but you would get it sorted out.
In the meantime, make sure to relax while at work. You probably don’t have to meditate at your desk, but you can check in with yourself from time to time. If you notice that your shoulders have become tense, for example, physically relax your muscles and take some deep breaths. It can be very helpful to set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to take a quick break. Take a couple minutes to stand up, stretch, and look away from the computer.
It’s the end of the work day. You’re worn out from a day of meetings and there’s no way you’re going to the gym tonight. You don’t feel like cooking, and decide to get fast food on the way home. You know that all of this is bad for your health, and when it really adds up you probably won’t be able to afford going to the doctor, anyway. You wonder what will happen to you later in life.
Stress over health is closely related to money. In one survey, money concerns kept some people from taking care of their health. 12% of those surveyed said they skipped a doctor’s visit because of lack of money, and almost triple that number stated that their finances directly prevented them from having a healthy lifestyle.
Other data suggests that stress related to money detracts from overall health because people try to cope with unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or overeating. This can become a self-perpetuating cycle, in which a person’s stress over money leads them to cope with unhealthy habits, which increases poor health, which in turn increases stress.
Stress itself is a major cause of health problems. Stress not only makes a person feel terrible, but it can also worsen other health conditions that already exist. Stress is a built-in physiological response to a perceived threat. A person’s body responds physically to emotional stress — blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and pulse rises. The bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Chronically elevated stress levels can lead to health problems over time.
How to Reduce Stress about Health
This is one situation in which the best way to reduce stress is to directly improve the condition. Reducing stress about health is really about being healthier overall. You won’t be stressed out about your health if there’s nothing to be stressed out about.
Exercise in particular is a great way to reduce health-related stress because it contributes to better health and also reduces the stress itself. It increases endorphins and helps to keep you in a more positive frame of mind.
The great news about exercise is that it doesn’t have to be in the form of running or working out at the gym. Simply walking for 30 minutes per day provides health benefits and doesn’t cost anything. Try to find something you enjoy doing, like playing a sport or even just playing outside with your kids. Family activities like Frisbee at the park, or casually throwing a football, are fun and free. If you want to get more serious, consider bike riding, martial arts, or joining a sports league.
Exercise is the best way to increase physical fitness and reduce physical stress like muscle tension. But, of course, healthy eating is the other component to good health. Like exercise, healthy eating does not have to be expensive or complicated. No matter what kind of diet you prefer, it’s best to reduce consumption of fast foods and obvious junk foods like cookies and soda. Get more fruits and vegetables, and eat good fats like nuts and avocados. Limit consumption of simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour, along with alcohol.
If you’re genuinely worried that you have an illness or other health concern, go to the doctor. First, verify what, and how much, your insurance will cover, so that you don’t have to worry about how much it will cost. It will be a huge relief to find out whether you actually have a problem or not. Even if you do have a problem, you’ll be in a position to get it taken care of.
4. Family Responsibilities
You love your family and wish you could spend more time with them. That doesn’t make it any less irritating when the kids want completely different dinners and you haven’t gotten to the grocery store in time. Work was exhausting, you didn’t get the raise you were hoping for, and all you want is to sit down with a glass of wine.
Along with love and long-lasting relationships, being in a family also means conflict, arguments, and disagreements. Family stress affects everyone from children to teenagers to parents and grandparents.
Family life is busy, especially with school-aged children who have school functions, sports, homework, and a large list of expenses. Working while raising children is often challenging with little time in the day available. Parents often feel that they don’t have enough support or money, especially if raising children as a single parent. In a study by the American Psychological Association, 47% of people reported that family responsibility is a major reason for stress in their lives, and 77% said that being a parent was stressing them out.
With or without children, marriage is a large stressor. Partners in life and marriage have always experienced stress and hardships that affect their relationship. Common marriage stressors include money, conflict over parenting methods, health issues, intimacy problems, infidelity, and employment. Money is frequently one of the largest contributors to marital stress. Married couples argue and worry about how to spend money, who’s doing the spending, and who should be working or staying at home.
Extended family can be just as stressful as immediate family. Many people feel guilty because they don’t enjoy visiting relatives, and it’s very common to not get along well with the in-laws.
How to Reduce Family Stress
There are many ways to reduce family-related stress, depending on the relationship. The following are some tips for reducing stress about marriage, parenting, and relatives.
- Realize that you only have control over your own behavior. Try being the best partner that you can be. Lead by example.
- If you’re in it for the long haul, don’t sweat the small stuff. Before you react to something, take a moment to think about it. Choose your battles.
- Live within your means. Money is one of the biggest causes of stress in a marriage.
- Be honest and open. Lying leads to stress in many ways, but keeping your feelings bottled up does, too.
- Take some time for yourself every week to play sports or go out with your friends.
- Take care of yourself because you’re no good to anyone else when you’re stressed out. Make sure that you get a decent amount of sleep and eat as well as you can.
- Realize that you’re not perfect and you will make some mistakes. Everyone does.
- Listen to your children. All they really want is to be acknowledged for who they are, even when, or perhaps especially when, they’re throwing a fit.
- Set reasonable rules and a schedule for things like meal times, bath time, bedtime, computer usage, video game time, and family events. Structure helps everyone. Plan ahead and use a calendar.
- If you’re having a difficult time with something, talk to people whose advice you trust like your parents or close friends.
- If you have nothing in common with your relatives, try thinking of them like random people off the street. You probably wouldn’t get as upset about an offhand comment from a stranger.
- If you’re worried about answering questions about your work or personal life, prepare some answers in advance.
- Try steering the conversation away from yourself by asking about others. They will feel important and you don’t have to offer up any information for them to criticize.
- Go ahead and excuse yourself to take a break if you feel that you need to. You can say that you need to return a call, help out in the kitchen, go out for some fresh air, or even go to the bathroom.
You left the house on time, but you’re stuck in traffic anyway. Cars are creeping along and sometimes at a standstill. The guy in the next lane is trying to cram his car into the small amount of space in front of you, as if he’s more important than everyone else. Your boss has little sympathy for people being late, even when it’s nobody’s fault. You have a sick feeling in your stomach, wondering what’s going to happen whenever you manage to get there.
Everyone recognizes that traffic is a source of stress. Not only can it make you late, but other drivers can be inconsiderate or unaware, and as a driver you’re in a constant state of worry about the well-being of your car.
The biggest worry about traffic is that it will cause us to be late for work or an appointment. Congested roads make a driver feel powerless when there’s nothing they can do to get there faster, and being late for work could result in a reprimand, loss of pay for the day, or even being fired. And after work, everyone just wants to get home but has to deal with the traffic again.
Studies of traffic stressors revealed that the following are the most common sources of traffic stress:
- Being stuck in traffic or stop-and-go driving
- Feeling powerless to do anything
- Perceived over-regulation involving traffic signs, road work, and speed restrictions
- Impatient or aggressive driving by others
- Unpredictable events resulting in increased danger
- Worry about other drivers not paying enough attention
- Lack of signaling
- Being pressured to drive faster by vehicles following
- Being forced to brake hard
- Inconsiderate parking
But it’s not just these everyday traffic stressors that cause problems. A study led by Susan Charles, a professor of psychology and social behavior, found that the accumulated effect of seemingly small irritations, like sitting in traffic, can have an impact on mental health later in life – up to ten years later.
How to Reduce Stress about Traffic
The best way to reduce stress in traffic is to simply relax. If you know you’ve got a long commute, bring an audio book or a podcast to listen to. Accept the fact that you’ll be in the car for a while.
If you’re in a sudden traffic jam and worried about making it to work or an appointment on time, there are two important things that will help lower your stress: 1. Accept the fact that you’re going to be delayed and stop fighting it, and 2. Call ahead and let them know that you’re in an unusual traffic situation and may be late. Anyone on the other end will appreciate the notification.
Don’t make things worse by switching lanes unnecessarily, honking, or being rude towards other drivers (even if you think they deserve it!)
It feels like all of the technology at work is against you. The printer doesn’t work half the time, the computer is a giant mystery, and you don’t know how to use most of the apps on your phone. How can people expect you to know how to use this stuff when it was just invented yesterday? And now the success of your job depends on it.
A study conducted by the University of Cambridge found that over 30% of people feel overwhelmed by technology, and because of that they feel less satisfied with their overall lives. Those who felt that they were in control over their communications technology reported feeling more satisfied with their lives.
Recent claims have said that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking sites can cause depression. People tend to post the most interesting parts of their lives, like vacation photos or a new home, while leaving out the bad parts of their lives. As an onlooker, it can make a person feel that their life is not as good in comparison. Worse, some people experience cyber bullying, cyber stalking, and online shaming, and others have even lost jobs over incidents on social media.
In addition to social technology, people have problems with technology in the workplace, which leads to more stress in an already stressful environment. In a survey conducted by Goldsmith’s University of London, 31% of people reported workplace stress due to a printer not working, 31% reported stress over their phone battery dying, and 26% reported stress about automated customer service lines. These common technology issues have added new stressors to people’s lives.
How to Reduce Stress about Technology
Much of the stress caused by technology can be attributed to feeling like we have to be constantly available. That combined with always being online or on your phone can quickly lead to feeling overwhelmed. The most direct solution to this is to just get away sometimes. You can set aside one day a week, or one hour per day, in which you turn everything off. If that’s not possible, change your mindset — you don’t have to answer every text and email immediately. You don’t even have to pay attention to anyone on Facebook.
For those who are struggling with the adoption of new technologies, there are a few important things that can be done:
- Don’t fight it. There will always be new software, new gadgets, and new ways of doing things.
- The best way to become less stressed about technology is to learn how to use it. But you don’t have to learn it all in one day, so take it easy.
- If you’re struggling to learn a specific device or software, find a tutorial online. You can find beginner tutorials for just about anything, and they’re usually enough to get you pointed in the right direction.
- Ask for help before you get angry. If something just doesn’t make sense to you, ask someone who’s good with technology to show you what to do.
7. The News
It seems like there’s a new disaster every day. Every time you watch the news, there’s either a mass shooting, a bombing, a giant earthquake, or a missing airplane. You feel like the world is falling apart.
Most people would agree that the news tends to show many more negative stories than positive ones. The general assumption is that media outlets are trying to get the highest ratings, so they focus on the stories that get the biggest emotional reactions.
Researchers at McGill University in Canada performed a study to test that theory, with interesting results. In this study, participants were tested on the types of news that they were most interested in reading. The stories that were read the most were, in fact, those with a negative tone, such as corruption, crime, or setbacks. People who were more interested in politics and current affairs were even more likely to choose bad news stories. However, when asked, these same participants said that they would prefer to read good news.
Psychologists have a term for this: negativity bias. The theory says that we have evolved to react quickly to potential threats, and bad news could be something urgent that we need to react to. So, even if we prefer good news, we see bad news as something that should be paid attention to, just in case something needs to be done.
Not surprisingly, reading or viewing negative news stories on a regular basis is a contributor to stress. In a survey conducted by the Harvard School of Health, 25% said that they experienced a “great deal” of stress in the previous month, and that one of the biggest contributors to their everyday stress was the news.
After that study, researchers found that news stories that cover traumatic events in a sensational way, like the Boston Marathon bombings, produce emotional responses associated with stress. They even found that being exposed to repeated images of the Boston Marathon bombing on the news was more stressful than being at the event itself. Watching this kind of repeated news coverage induced symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
How to Reduce Stress about News
If the news is a constant source of stress in your life, the most complete solution is to stop watching and reading the news. That suggestion might sound extreme, and you might worry that you’ll miss something important. But the majority of what’s reported on the news has no direct bearing on your life, and if something truly important happens, somebody will tell you about it.
A more modest approach is to reduce your consumption of the news. If you read about the news all day while at work, don’t watch the news when you get home. If you usually watch two hours of news per night, try reducing that to one hour, and later to one half-hour broadcast. As the study above suggested, the greatest stress comes from watching repeated images of negative events. You can reduce this stressor by turning off the news once you’ve heard all of the latest stories once.
Overall, realize that the news is over-reporting negative events and under-reporting positive events. The world is not accurately represented by the media.
8. Dating and Relationships
After yet another date that clearly didn’t go very well, you feel that you’re destined to be alone forever. Making friends is hard enough, so how are you supposed to find a lifelong partner? Meanwhile, dating makes you feel like everything you say and do is being judged, and you know that even when in a relationship, you always worry about how it’s going.
Everyone is stressed at times by personal relationships, even when relationships are basically good. Couples argue, parents and children fight, and conflict among friends or co-workers can create stress. Once out of school, trying to meet new people and develop friendships can be difficult, especially while busy with work or family.
Millennials (usually defined as those born between 1982 – 2012, roughly) reported the highest amount of relationship stress in a 2013 Harris Poll, with 59% saying that the relationships in their lives were the main reason for high stress levels.
Dating is a large source of stress because it brings feelings of being judged, worry that you’ll never find a partner, or worry that you’ll lose the relationship that you have. It’s easy to tie up your sense of worth with your relationship status. Rejection is a huge blow to self-esteem, and a string of short-lived relationships can make a person feel like they’ll never get it right. Worrying too much in a relationship can even cause problems where there were none to begin with.
The American Psychological Association reports that 58% of Americans have relationship-related stress due to drama within friendships, death of a spouse, or loneliness from the lack of a romantic relationship. Divorce rates are between 40-50% in the United States, which is a huge source of stress that affects not only the relationship but also finances, the living situation, and children.
How to Reduce Relationship Stress
Problems in relationships arise when you want the relationship to be something it isn’t. Whether you want your partner to be more committed, you want your children to be more obedient, or you want your friends to be available more often, the source of the stress is in wishing something was different.
If you’re in an abusive relationship of any kind, you should leave. But if you’re in a regular relationship, a transformative way to reduce stress is to accept the relationship for what it is. It may not be what you want right now, but resisting the reality of the relationship is the cause of the tension.
Depending on the situation, you can look for ways to appreciate aspects of the relationship, or you can decide to look for a way to move on. In long term relationships like marriage or parent-child, the greatest source of relief from stress will be to accept people how they are.
9. Sleep and Time
You’re lying awake in bed at night, eyes wide open, starting at the ceiling. You can’t stop thinking about everything you have to get done tomorrow. You keep checking the clock, and every time you do, there’s less time left to sleep before you have to get up.
Sometimes even after running around all day, trying to balance work and home life, not everything gets done. This can be due to overburdening yourself, unrealistic expectations, or simply poor time management. It can be tempting to sacrifice sleep for more time, but it’s a vicious cycle — lack of time can lead to lack of sleep, which increases stress, which can then lead to poorer sleep, which leads to increased stress.
According to WebMD, a good night's sleep helps people tackle the day's stress more easily. When tired, people become less patient and more easily agitated, which can increase stress. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and getting it should be a priority.
How to Reduce Stress about Sleep and Time
The best method for reducing your stress about lack of sleep and time is to manage your time more effectively so that you have more time available for sleep. This helps in two ways. First, you will experience less worry about your lack of time because there’s less to worry about in that regard. Secondly, you will have more available time to sleep, helping you to take better advantage of the time that you do have.
To better manage your time, start by making a prioritized list of things to do each day. If you have an organized list of things to check off, you should be able to avoid procrastinating or being distracted, which means that your tasks will take less time. (An added benefit is that checking off done tasks actually releases dopamine in the brain, making you feel good about yourself.)
Sometimes you might feel that there’s just no way to re-order your schedule. If that’s the case, it will be helpful to consider whether you can cut something out. For most people, sacrificing sleep will cause them to be tired, aggravated, and more prone to making mistakes. Starting by making sleep a priority might just leave you refreshed enough that you can think of a better way to handle your daily tasks.
Once you’ve got your schedule figured out, make sure to go to bed on time. It’s easy to stay up too late watching TV or looking at Facebook. If you don’t usually make it to bed on time, try creating a routine. One example is to turn off the TV immediately after your last show, and then start making bed preparations. This will create a habit and routine of going to bed at the same time every night.
Stop using tablets, phones, and laptops that emit bright light a couple hours before going to bed. The glow from electronics can make it harder to fall asleep because the light from these devices prevents the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. In addition, keeping your brain stimulated by responding to games or emails means that your body and mind need more time to relax before you will fall asleep. This is yet another reason to stop responding to work emails in the evening. Not only will it hinder your sleep, but it can set a precedent in which people expect your responses late at night, while you remain stressed out about work. At the very least, don’t bring the phone with you and stare at its bright light while in bed.
Stress is a built-in part of life, and that's not going to change. Identify the area of your life that causes the most stress for you, and try implementing the strategies outlined here. A little bit of improvement might go a long way. Once you've made progress in one area, move on to another, and soon you'll be reducing stress in many areas of your life.
Has any particular stress-reduction strategy worked for you? Let us know in the comments!