The One Thing To Do To Improve Your Health

Although no one enjoys being stressed out, we live in a society that constantly tells us we should be "doing it all." We often view stress as a sign that we're achieving the most or living our lives to the fullest. And as a result, we often find ourselves in environments where people seem to be competing over who is the most stressed — because surely that person is achieving more than anyone else in the room.

Of course, it's great to work hard and keep yourself busy with interesting, fulfilling activities. But the mentality that you're lazy if you're not insanely stressed needs to become a thing of the past — because research shows that stress is dangerous to your physical and mental health. So if there's one thing you should learn to do to improve your health, it's this: develop a go-to coping tactic for dealing with stress.

Part of the reason stress is so dangerous is that we often don't realize how deeply it's affecting us. In fact, we often become accustomed to going about our daily life while experiencing common stress side effects like headaches, stomach problems, fatigue, and muscle pain. Unsurprisingly, stressed people are also more likely to feel anxious, depressed, irritable, and unfocused. And because taking healthy care of ourselves often isn't viewed as an important activity, we're often more likely to seek a quick fix for our stress that will have a detrimental effect on our health, like drinking, smoking, and withdrawing socially.

These self-destructive tactics might make us feel better in the moment, but they don't help us deal with our ongoing stress — which puts us at a great risk for developing serious, potentially chronic health conditions such as depression, cardiovascular diseases, and gastrointestinal problems. Stress is always going to be a part of our lives — but there are ways to reduce and manage it so we don't end up hurting our bodies and our minds. Use the three tips below to help figure out a coping tactic to pull out when stress is overwhelming you.

1. Know What Makes You Stressed

There are some common things that we all know cause stress — financial troubles, family problems, and tough work environments are among the most common. But there are also more subtle things that can cause or compound stress. For example, a 2011 study conducted at the University of Kent found that, contrary to popular belief, complaining doesn't help us calm down — in fact, venting increases stress. We're attached to our devices, but studies have linked texting and surfing the web within two hours before bed to higher rates of overall stress. And though a cocktail is often viewed as an effective stress reliever, the facts are that stress and alcohol "feed off" each other — eventually making you feel more stressed out overall.

Knowing the things that specifically stress you out or make you more stressed can help you create effective coping strategies — for example, if you know you tend to vent and then feel worse, you can try three more positive coping strategies discussed in the University of Kent study: acceptance, humor and positive reframing.

Similarly, if you know that looking at social media or mindlessly clicking around online stresses you out, you can prioritize unpluging and reading a book or watching a calming TV show before you turn in for the night. And if you know that that drink to "calm your nerves" actually makes them more frazzled, you could try to limit your alcohol intake during times of stress.

Being aware of your personal stressors and taking a step back when you need to are among the most important tools for managing stress. If certain people in your life cause unnecessary stress, try to limit your time with them. Know your limits — both personally and professionally — and say "no" when you need to. This is hard for the perfectionists and people-pleasers among us, but remember: you'll be a better friend, employee, and overall person if you're not stressed to the breaking point.

2. Take Care Of Yourself When You're Stressed

When we're really stressed, taking care of ourselves is usually the first thing to go out the window. But treating your well-being as something inessential that can be erased from your to-do list when you're overwhelmed isn't going to help you become less stressed.

The basics of self-care, like getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet, will leave you better equipped to handle stress when it inevitably comes your way. During stressful times, always give yourself breaks and use them wisely. Make time to do the things that make you happy, even if you only have the time to do them briefly — take your pet for a walk, watch a funny movie with a friend, or cook yourself a nice dinner. (Or order in, if your culinary abilities are as subpar as mine.)

3. Stay Physically Active

Only you can figure out what your own best coping tactics are. But if you're not sure where to start, or want try something that has been scientifically proven to combat stress, try exercising. Study after study has shown that physical activity is one of the top ways to combat stress. Researchers have found a link between exercise and norepinephrine, which is a neuromodulator that helps the brain cope with stress more effectively.

Many psychologists also believe that exercise conditions us to respond to stress more effectively, because it requires the body's physiological systems to communicate with each other in a fashion similar to the way they communicate when we're confronted with a stressful situation. (It doesn't seem that the "endorphins" theory holds much water, but I will continue to quote Elle Woods until the day I die.)

This doesn't mean you have to commit yourself to an intense workout seven days a week — you don't need to train for a marathon in order to fight stress (plus, it's it's important to make sure that your coping tactic involves something that you enjoy, not something that you dread). In fact, there are a wide variety of physical activities that can help you take the edge off. For some people, going for a long run is the best way to blow off steam. For others, yoga is the perfect combination of activity and meditation. Whether it's a bike ride, a long walk, pilates, or a dance class, find a physical activity you enjoy and make it part of your daily routine. Doctors recommend that we get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, but even if you can't swing that, know that just exercising at all can make a difference.

Some people like to stick to the same activities, while others prefer to mix it up. If you like companionship during a workout, find an exercise partner and take some fun classes together. The most important thing is to find an activity that's both enjoyable and therapeutic, and then commit to making time for it each day. In addition to all the inherent health benefits of physical activity, it will help you manage stress more effectively — and that's going to improve your overall health in ways that you can't even imagine.

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