What do you do when the stress hits the fan? How do you cope when you feel totally stressed out?

I came up with five ways you can enjoy life more during times when you feel overwhelmed by too much stress.

Extraordinary stress happens to the very best of us. Stress is an equal-opportunity employer and does not discriminate. There is no guarantee that you will be protected against extreme stress regardless of your income level, education, spiritual development, marital status, or how often you meditate. Stress happens. Since I am fond of writing about the similarities between our finances and our health, the inevitability of some stress in our lives is analogous to the unavoidable dips in the stock market.

On a personal note, I was excited to write this because I am just now coming up for air as my husband and I are selling our home and purchasing a new one. I paid attention to the suggestions I will be making for you from my own experience. I needed to practice the distinctions I discuss below in order to remain intact during an extremely demanding and strenuous process. Apropos to this topic, I am taking a break between getting our home ready to sell and beginning to pack up. Writing is soothing for me. You will understand as you read more.

Five Ways to Stay Ahead of Stress

  1. Learn to distinguish between distress and eustress. Both forms of stress are your body and mind’s response to taxing demands. You may think of these as negative and positive respectively to make it easy. Identifying bad stress and good stress is another simple way to assess your situation. When you experience an extra load, an increase in your perception of being challenged, a doubt in your ability to get through something, or tremendous overwhelment you may be under stress.

Heads up if you recognize the states I am describing as somewhat permanent or on-going rather than isolated incidences. If so, the recommendations I will be making will be as much as life hacks as they are useful for specific circumstances.

Here are a few examples of distress.

  • When you or your spouse loses a job.
  • When you lose a loved one, or encounter a significant health challenge.
  • Financial difficulties can cause distress.

Here are a few examples of eustress.  

  • When you are buying and/or selling a home.
  • When your daughter is getting married.
  • When your business is going gangbusters.

I figured out a long time ago that getting through eustress is made easier simply by recognizing the fact that nothing bad is happening. I am deploying this effective cognitive tool to get through the house buying and selling. When you remind yourself of this, you may feel that your load is lighter.

In the case of distress, positive self-talk is just as important. When you speak to yourself with words of encouragement, this will help you feel and function better. In fact, remaining positive in your thoughts will be among the most important ways for you to ease your burden. I believe we prepare ourselves for these practices. This is why I urge you to practice these self-soothing strategies preemptively, before as well as during the times of tremendous stress. When you do this, it will be infinitely easier to call forth these practices when you need them the most.

Say things that are positive to yourself on purpose. It’s okay to talk yourself into having a brighter outlook. Since we can talk ourselves into feeling depressed or inadequate, it is logical that we can also talk ourselves into feeling empowered and optimistic. Looking on the bright side brings more light to a situation. Also, you get better at this as you practice over time.

There is another distinction that you can use to navigate your life, your health, and your body at times when you experience stress. Endogenous stress is when you have internalized stress and allowed your circumstances to get to you mentally and/or physically. Sometimes endogenous stress is the result of what we tell ourselves, what we focus on, or how we interpret a situation in our lives. For example, you may be sitting in traffic, which does not have to have a negative effect on you. But it does if you work yourself into a frenzy and allow yourself to get stressed out. Endogenous stress represents an opportunity for each of us to practice calming and centering habits such as breathing, positive self-talk, and self-soothing activities.

Exogneous stress represents events that are outside of us that are inherently difficult, demanding, or overwhelming. We can all agree that it is stressful to take care of small children or unwell parents. Even so, our practices make a difference here as well. Please take this word away from what I am writing: self-soothing. Examples I continue to refer to include yoga stretches, refreshing exercise, laughter, nutritious food, and human contact. It may not be easy to have your elderly parent come to live with you. But you can make a world of difference in your perception of the situation by how well you take care of yourself.

  1. Do things on purpose to help you feel better. The inverse of this, of course, is to avoid at all costs doing things that make you feel worse.

Here are some examples of habits that can compromise your capacity during stressful times. Doing any of these can both exacerbate stress as well as being stressors on their own. This is so even if your life is not dealing you blows.

  • Staying up too late and becoming exhausted. Sleep deprivation has many side-effects, including impairing hormone balance and disrupting the neurotransmitters from our brains. Stress hormones increase when we are exhausted and not repairing or restoring our bodies. Another side-effect of exhaustion is diminished mental clarity and decision making. It is easy to see how this would make the experience of being stressed much worse.
  • Staying isolated from people who could provide help and encouragement. Not being able to ask for help can leave you feeling alone and lonely. If you are afraid to let your friends and family know that you need comfort, love, and support, you will probably crave those even more. A really good thing to avoid in this case is assuaging your desire to feel connected with other less-pro-wellness activities. Examples of this are binging on food, television, and the Internet.
  • Not making time for refreshing movement and exercise. Moving our bodies releases essential neurotransmitters that boost our energy, outlook, and ability to remain optimistic. If you neglect your body, you are really missing out.

Here are some examples of ways you can help yourself feel better on purpose.

  • Getting plenty of restorative sleep. Being well-rested is among your most powerful allies when it comes to functioning well, staying healthy, and maintaining a positive outlook.
  • Connecting with positive people who can support you and help out. Exchanging a warm hug with someone who cares will release oxytocin from your brain. This helps you feel good even during stressful times.
  • Moving a bit each day. This is among the most reliable ways for you to stay ahead of feeling totally stressed out. This includes something refreshing, like a walk in the woods. It can also be a strenuous bike ride in the hills. This is between you and your body.
  1. Take your body with you. In my book, Health Matters, I devote an entire chapter to this topic. As we move through life, sometimes we encounter excess stress. Your physical body can in fact support you and make things easier. For decades prior to becoming a Health Coach, I supported my clients and students as a Rolfer, Rolf Movement Educator, and yoga instructor. This was where I learned the word embodiment. It means many things; but for now, I refer to your being connected to and aware of some basic principles of living in your physical body:
  • Remembering to breathe
  • Continually releasing tension and increasing relaxation on purpose
  • Paying attention to your posture
  • Remembering to provide yourself with ample nourishment

Your autonomic nervous system has two different branches, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. When you are in a stressed state, the sympathetic branch is activated. This is where your blood vessels constrict, your heart beats more rapidly, and your breathing is shallower. You can activate the parasympathetic branch by relaxing your muscles, slowing down your breathing, and calming your mind. It should be obvious that when you do this, you effectively lead yourself to a better state.

Stress may be correlated with tension in your body. Therefore, anything you are able to do to deliberately unwind from tension will help you get through the situation intact. Here are some suggestions to increase your sense of your physical body and to remain embodied as you slay the dragons of stress.

  • Go for a walk
  • Stretch, including taking a yoga class
  • Meditate
  • Get a massage
  1. Embrace peace and harmony. When you talk about being stressed out, you will always find people who resonate with your plight. When you take a stand for living a life of peace and harmony, you become a hero in your very own story. Have you been around people who have been dealt a very difficult hand? Have you noticed how inspiring it is to observe someone remaining centered, relatively calm, and in good spirits even when managing extreme stress? You can be that person! Abraham through Esther Hicks refers to this as the point of focus. You can watch videos on line to be reminded of the value of focusing on peace and harmony. This is why I find that meditating while selling our home and purchasing a new one helps me maintain a good perspective. When we actually do the move and finalize the packing, I expect that meditating will come in very handy then as well.

I’ve mentioned breathing, stretching, and going for a walk. Try these the next time you feel like the stress is bigger than you are. One of my clients recently told me that she would be able to breathe after a particular big project was complete at work. I pointed out to her that she could breathe now.

Do you have a favorite comic whose videos you can watch? You will feel happier and calmer after a good laugh. Laughter also helps reduce tension in your body, lowers inflammation, and boosts your immune system. It is fairly common for people to come down with a cold or flu during very stressful times. The data reveals that people who feel overwhelmed by chronic stress are at risk for hypertension, anxiety, depression and obesity. You can take care of your body, which includes your immune system, preemptively and simply eliminate this risk.

As you embrace peace and harmony, you avoid intensifying stress. Instead of picking a fight with your spouse, focus on and tell her or him how grateful you are. Instead of getting tangled up in a family drama, step away from the conflict on purpose. Rather than allowing a traffic jam or running late for an appointment to take you over the edge, listen to an entertaining book on Audible or a podcast on iTunes to enjoy your time in your car. The Health Matters podcast is a great resource.

  1. Go with counter-intuitive. There might be some agreement among people who experience on-going stress. I hear this from my clients who have erroneously programmed themselves into believing that it is normal to drink too much, eat too much, not get exercise, eat crappy food, and feel exhausted during high stress times. Even as I write this, the answer jumps out to me. During high stress times, doing these things I just mentioned can be devastating to your state of mind, body, and capacity to function. It might seem to you like the most unreasonable thing in the world to, for example, sit down for a relaxing meal with a loved one. But the connection and the slowing down will reward you on many levels.

So what if it is common for people to throw their practices out the window at times of stress? All the more reason why you can pay attention to your pattern and take a different path. As you take my suggestion to heart, and practice pre-emptively, you will be much more inclined to adhere to continuing your wellness practices regardless of what is happening around you.

I urge you to watch a brilliant video on this topic to learn how you can use stress to get stronger, healthier, and even happier. Dr. Kelly McGonigal reveals how you can make stress your friend. The data supports the fact that when people have a positive attitude toward their stress, they are able to thrive.

Here are a few counter-intuitive things you can do when you are right smack dab in the middle of a stressful time in your life.

  • Make time for relaxing, nourishing meals. Stay even more diligent to eat whole and nutritious foods. If you feel urges for junk food, recognize this as your body trying to quell stress and put forth effort to select a healthier option. This is another area in which you can expect to improve with practice and perseverance. Stuffing yourself or eating copious amounts of sugar and simple carbohydrates—like sweets and junk food—will trigger an excess of cortisol. This is part of the mechanism that can lead to illness, including diabetes and obesity, which are both correlated with excess stress. This is why I am steering you in a different direction.

Also, stay hydrated. Dehydration will zap your energy and will mask as craving more food. Continue to satisfy your thirst with quality water. Using meal time to breathe and relax will even support your digestion and will positively impact your food choices. If you take one thing away from this, it might be that the worst time to eat is when you are totally stressed out. This is when self-soothing practices that are in line with your desires to be healthy will reward you fairly quickly and over time.

  • Reach out for help. You may even be able to help someone else. The connection with others will boost brain chemicals and hormones that will further fortify you. These, in turn, help your body steer clear of the negative consequences of stress. You can learn to thrive without compromising your health.

A dear family member of mine is currently dealing with two severe blows, one in the family arena and one in the financial arena. She is tempted to curl up in a ball, but she knows that isolating herself will not bring her the relief that she craves. It is counter-intuitive, but she is reaching out to friends whom she trusts against her own desire to shut down.

  • Do things that are fun and relaxing. When my dad was in the hospital, we gathered to play card games to keep ourselves in an upbeat frame of mind. It never helps to walk around glumly, thinking the worst of your situation. What helps is to try to actually feel good even when it seems that the situation is sticking it to you.

Please do not think that I am suggesting that you bury any emotions, because I don’t believe in that. In fact, naming your emotions is self-empowering. Learn to put your finger on what you are experiencing. Doing this, however, does not preclude choosing to play a game of cards or throw a ball for your dog because of a desire to lift your spirits and brighten your outlook.

  • Get off the grid. Other than urgent appointments and communications, setting your electronic devices down while you take a walk, have a meal, or are in a conversation can do wonders for soothing your nervous system and helping you feel calmer. If you feel attached to or anxious without your devices, this may be a sign that you need a break from them.

I have learned in my own life and in working with others that it is tempting to step into a stressful situation like putting on a garment of clothing. When there is no separation between ourselves and the events of our lives, it is easy to feel stuck. The suggestions I have made here are designed to help you create a buffer between you and what is happening around you. You don’t have to become your stress and you don’t have to be overcome by it. On the contrary, with practice and intention, you can get better at getting through challenges in one piece. For example, let’s say a loved one is in the hospital. When you are visualizing a positive outcome and reminding yourself that you will land on your feet you will feel and function better.

Your mind, your body, your thoughts, your muscles, your nervous system, your immune system, your heart, your respiration and all the rest of your parts are impacted by how well you take care of yourself. Be that hero. Inspire others by how well you take excellent care of yourself, even when doing so is counter-intuitive or requires extra intention on your part. Discover for yourself how incredibly worthwhile it is to live a life of peace and harmony. It’s okay to work at this during times when stress seems to dominate over tranquility. It makes the times when life feels easy and effortless all the sweeter.

Rosie Bank is Board Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and the founder of Health Matters Coaching. She is the author of the book, Health Matters and is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Rosie is an international speaker, blogger, and the founder of Health Matters podcast. She is certified as a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant through the American Fitness Professional Association and as a Nutrition Advisor through Sanoviv Medical Institute. Rosie’s partner in nutrition since 1999 is USANA Health Sciences. To learn how Rosie can help you maximize your health and achieve your goals, schedule here. Join our online community at Facebook to keep up on ways to stay healthy.

“Rosie understands all the different components of weight loss. She is trustworthy and consistently follows through. She offers a unique blend of expertise and humbleness.”

Liz Lyster, MD