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Building a healthy routine to cope with stress

VCU Health team members detail some of the most effective strategies for managing stress and reducing it.

Image of a young man looking stressed out at home. His hands are infront of his face while he sits on a couch. Stress is a natural response that prepares us to react to an external event. There are healthy and less healthy ways we respond to stress which can dictate our overall emotional well-being. (Getty Images)

By Matthew Way, M.D.   

Around a third of adults reported last year that the stress they felt was “completely overwhelming most days,” with people from historically marginalized groups — Black men and members of the LGBTQ+ community — more likely to report feeling this way.   

Stress is a natural response that prepares us to react to an external event. While stress is ubiquitous in life, it can be problematic if this natural response goes too far. 

According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2022 report, about 75% of adults said their health has been worsened by stress, which can contribute to headaches, fatigue, emotional difficulties and can worsen essentially all medical problems. 

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, Matthew Way, M.D., from the VCU Health Department of Psychiatry shares ways you can recognize stress and how to implement some of the most effective strategies for coping with it. 

Coping with stress through a healthy lifestyle  

If we ignore foundational aspects that allow for physical and mental health, we are much more prone to the negative effects of stress.  

First and foremost, adequate quality sleep is essential for optimizing stress management and maintaining physical and mental health.  

Disruptions in sleep often suggest a developing mental and/or physical health problem. Do not ignore this. People with depressive or bipolar range disorders are wise to be extra aware of attending to sleep, especially if they work variable night shifts. Additionally, alcohol is not your friend in regard to sleep quality. 

Along with quality sleep, a healthy and balanced diet — which may vary widely depending on individual needs — is a contributing factor to building resilience in the face of stress. Regular physical activity is another key to regulating stress and has a verified positive effect on mental health. 

There are a variety of steps you can take as part of your daily routine to manage stress levels, which can include:  

  • Take regular breaks at work. Unless it’s a critical situation, try not to “skip lunch to get more work done.”  
  • Use your paid time off (PTO) and spend time away from the office. Social time with friends and family is a key component that every human desires and benefits from. If possible, taking a little time to decompress can be valuable after a long day as well. 
  • Mindfulness-based practices, such as meditation, yoga, mindful walking, running and other methods have a good evidence base for helping with stress management as well as anxiety, depression and burnout. 

It’s OK to not feel OK  

Stress provides us with adaptive energy which can be particularly useful for doing what can be done. However, it is useful to know that stress is part of the physical state that includes fight-flight-freeze. Due to this, a degree of emotional unease is often a normal response to working in stressful high-tension situations.   

Acknowledging that it is OK to feel emotional struggles or distress can be helpful, so we do not fall into the psychological trap of beating ourselves up for feeling this unease. The practice of acknowledging our feelings can also open the door to seeing a situation from different perspectives and may give us the opportunity to find a better way to respond.   

If the stress you’re experiencing continues to be difficult to live with and manage, reaching out to a mental health professional can be helpful to learn other techniques for stress reduction.