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How to Manage Stress for Better Mental Health

There’s no way around it: we all experience stress.

It’s not all bad. During times when we need to protect ourselves, the body’s stress response can help keep us safe. But when stress is frequent and intense, it can strain your body and make it impossible to function. Finding effective ways to deal is crucial to living well.

If you’re feeling stressed, you can experience a myriad of symptoms, including headaches, jaw pain, mood swings, changes in appetite, trouble sleeping or concentrating, and feel overwhelmed. When experiencing long-term stress, your brain is exposed to increased levels of a hormone called cortisol. This exposure weakens your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick.

If you’re living with a mental health condition, stress can also contribute to worsening symptoms. Examples: in schizophrenia, it can encourage hallucinations and delusions; in bipolar disorder, it can trigger episodes of both mania and depression.

Here are some suggestions for how you can reduce stress in your life:

  • Accept your needs. Recognize what your triggers are. What situations make you feel physically and mentally agitated? Once you know this, you can avoid them when it’s reasonable to, and to cope when you can’t.
  • Manage your time. Prioritizing your activities can help you use your time well. Making a day-to-day schedule helps ensure you don’t feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks and deadlines.
  • Practice relaxation. Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are good ways to calm yourself. Taking a break to refocus can have benefits beyond the immediate moment.
  • Exercise daily. Schedule time to walk outside, bike, dance, or practice yoga. Whatever you do, make sure it’s fun. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health.
  • Set aside time for yourself. Schedule something that makes you feel good. It might be reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, taking a bath, or walking your dog around the neighborhood.
  • Eat well. Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.
  • Get enough sleep. Symptoms of some mental health conditions, like mania in bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep. (Learn more about getting good sleep for better mental health.)
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. They don’t actually reduce stress: in fact, they often worsen it. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, educate yourself and get help.
  • Spend time in nature. Studies show that time in nature reduces stress. (Learn more about the mental health benefits of nature.)
  • Find support. Whether it’s with friends, family, a therapist, faith leader or a support group, opening up and talking about what you’re feeling and thinking can help. If you live with a mental health condition or have a family member with a mental health condition, consider attending a free support group provided by your local NAMI California affiliate. (Note: during the pandemic, support groups are not being held in person and many affiliates are offering virtual support with calls or video-conferencing options. If you have a friend from a support group, consider reaching out to get and offer support by phone. If you are experiencing a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.)
  • Keep up or seek therapy. If the steps you’ve taken aren’t working, it may be time to share with your mental health professional. He or she can help you pinpoint specific events that trigger you and help you create an action plan to change them.

Additional resources:

Graphic outlining stress-busters: balanced nutrition, mindfulness practice, physical activity, quality sleep, supportive relationships, mental health care.

California Surgeon General’s Stress Relief Playbook

CDC’s Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)’s 5 Things You Should Know About Mental Health

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