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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : I’m pretty stressed. Any helpful tips?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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October 31, 2011
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A:

Any psychiatrist might answer your question with a question. Because any truly useful tips should flow from understanding where your stress comes from. For example, dealing with a conflict at home is different from managing an overload at work. Or handling stress that seems to come from nowhere, without any pressure you can identify.

What is stress? It is an automatic physical response to anything that requires you to adjust to change. Every time you feel threatened, your body triggers stress hormones. These hormone surges make you ready to fight the threat or run from it. Your heart pounds. Your muscles tense. You breathe more deeply and quickly. And you begin to sweat.

This response evolved in the days when we were mostly hunters and gatherers. Unfortunately, it is not well suited to modern life. Today’s dangers are more psychological than physical. Yet your body may still go into hyperdrive. It feels uncomfortable. And over time, if your stress response gets stuck in the “on” position, it can be bad for your health.

Some stress is good. It can keep you engaged and motivated. You make progress in life by learning to deal with challenging situations. And that can help you feel more satisfied or happy. But most of us want to keep stress in a manageable range.

So here are some tips to lower stress:

  • Do one thing at a time. If you have a long to-do list or lots of competing demands, take a step back and pick one thing to do. Multitasking simply does not work. And don’t “stress” too much about which item to do first.
  • Meditate. Practice mindfulness or relaxation techniques to help ease stress. It may help you reflect on worthwhile solutions to problems. There is good evidence that this approach helps with anxiety and depression too.
  • Find a creative outlet. Trying creative projects can add meaning to your life. Like meditation, creativity focuses your attention in positive ways. It may even give you a short vacation from your sources of stress.
  • Get involved in social activities. People who stay engaged with friends, family and community are at lower risk for stress-related problems, including depression and heart disease.
  • Develop a routine for handling stress. All of the good things you do will be more helpful if you do them regularly. If you develop some new routines, you can reduce your body’s response to stress.

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