In the modern world, all of us are familiar with stress in some form or another. And unfortunately, many of us are under a lot of stress, a lot of the time.
The bad news is that chronic stress can have some very harmful effects and take a major toll on physical and mental health. Stress can lead to immune, digestive, psychological, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive problems. When left unchecked, chronic stress can contribute to serious health conditions like heart disease, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more.1
The good news is that we can learn to better manage stress and protect ourselves from its harmful effects. With a stress management plan, you can build up a toolbox of strategies and habits you can rely on to learn to adapt, adjust, and become more resilient to stress over time.
Stress management techniques really work
You might wonder, can I really do anything to help my stress levels? Do stress management tools really do anything? The answer is yes!
Research has shown that there are a variety of stress management techniques that work well in helping us to better respond to stressful situations and to protect ourselves from the negative effects of stress.
Here are just a few of the most effective stress-relieving tools that can make a big difference:
- Mindfulness-based techniques
- Focusing on the breath
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided imagery
- Tai chi
- Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy2 3 4
Why you need a plan
As with creating any type of change in our lives, it takes intention, commitment, and a focused effort to build new patterns and habits related to stress. This is where a stress management plan comes in.
If we try to make a change without a plan, we will be less likely to turn to proven stress-relieving techniques and habits on a regular basis in a way that will really make a difference.
We may fumble around and try a few things with no real focused effort and no real direction—and it likely won’t end up being sustainable. We can quickly feel lost, uncertain, overwhelmed, and demotivated when we don’t have a plan to guide us and keep us on track.
With a stress management plan, you can help yourself to bring a true intention to the changes you want to make, and to work step by step towards your goals.
Creating your stress management plan
Part 1: Build awareness
The first step to take is to get to know your triggers and patterns surrounding stress. Start to observe yourself carefully, becoming more aware of your relationship with stress.
Consider keeping a journal or taking notes as you observe yourself over the course of a couple of days or weeks. Here are some things to pay attention to:
- What events, circumstances, situations, tasks, responsibilities, people, etc. tend to trigger stress for you? When do you feel the most stressed, and what do you notice is going on in those times?
- When you do notice you are feeling stressed, what happens? What physical sensations do you notice in your body (such as tense shoulders, headaches, or knots in your stomach)? What thoughts fill your mind? What emotions do you experience?
- How do you respond when you are feeling stressed? How do you behave, and what do you choose to do when you are under stress? It can be helpful to assess your coping reactions to notice what tends to help and what doesn’t.
As you begin to build awareness about your relationship with stress, you can begin to identify where your stress might be coming from, what cues you can look for to alert you that you might be stressed, and what might need to be changed in how you respond to and cope with stress.
Part 2: Identify what you can change, and what you can’t
When it comes to stress, it is important to differentiate between those factors that you have control over and those that you don’t. This is important because it helps you to direct your energy and efforts towards the things you can actually change, rather than running into the same wall over and over again and wasting your time trying to change something that you simply won’t be able to.
For example, maybe you find that you get stressed every time you have to attend a certain mandatory Monday morning team meeting. No matter how much you spend time wishing and thinking how nice it would be if you could just skip the meeting and never go again—it’s mandatory. That’s something you cannot change. But the way you prepare for the meeting, the way you communicate with your colleagues, the way you support yourself afterwards with stress-relief tools, and the way you think about the meeting are all within your control.
Getting clear on what you can change and what you can’t will empower you to cope with challenges in a more productive way. It can help you to begin to come up with practical, meaningful steps to improve the situation, and work towards a plan that can better serve you and help you to feel better over time.
Part 3: Reduce the stressors that you can
Once you have identified areas of stress in your life, an important step to take is to assess whether any stressors, or part of them, can perhaps be removed, avoided, or shifted in order to prevent the stress response in the first place.
Identify what steps you might be able to take to address a problem, set boundaries, avoid certain triggers, and so on.
For example, consider the following:
- Can you let go of certain responsibilities?
- Can you avoid certain places, people, or things that trigger your stress?
- Can you decline invites so that you have more time on your hands?
- Can you say no to certain requests or asks so that you don’t take on too much?
- Can you choose not to engage in certain activities or behaviors?
- Can you set more realistic goals and expectations for yourself?
- Can you set boundaries with people in your life to avoid relationship stressors?
- Can you break up tasks into more reasonable chunks?
- Can you seek professional help from a therapist or coach, for example, to better understand what you may be able to do differently?2
Part 4: Create a toolbox of stress management strategies and self-care activities that you can lean on
If the stressor can’t be removed or changed, consider what you can do to adjust your own response and support yourself more effectively in managing the stress.
When we are under acute stress, there are several tips and tricks that can help us to change how we engage with our stressors and help our nervous systems to calm down. Here are some ideas to try:
- Breathing exercises
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Mindful pauses
- Brief exercise
- Taking a 5-minute time out
- Doing a body scan
- Reaching out to a loved one
- Listening to a podcast or audiobook to redirect our attention
- Listening to music
- Stretching or mindful movement
- Using humor
- Reframing thoughts & shifting perspective
Start to experiment with different techniques, and see which ones work best for you that can be a part of your stress management plan.
Here is an example of what putting these tools into practice might look like in your stress management plan:
You are at work, and you’ve just gotten out of a meeting where you were assigned a big new project with a deadline that feels completely overwhelming. You start thinking about how you’ll never get it done on time, your heart begins to race, you have a pit in your stomach, and you are filled with worry and anxiety. These signs of stress in your body and mind alert you that it’s time to pull out your toolbox of stress management tools. So, you choose to pop in your headphones, turn on some relaxing music, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. After a minute, you open up your journal and write out your thoughts and feelings. You also write out a few positive affirmations, reminding yourself of the bigger picture, of how you’ve done difficult tasks before, and of how you can ask for support from your colleagues to help you complete the project. Then, you take one more deep breath, open up your computer, and get back to work.
Part 5: Build up your stress resilience by taking care of yourself on a daily basis
Stress relief isn’t just about what we do in the moment. It’s also about taking care of ourselves regularly so that we are better prepared to cope with stressful situations and recover from them faster as well.2
Research shows that including these habits into your regular routines can help to reduce the effects of stress and help you to manage stress better:
- Regular exercise and staying active
- Eating well and focusing on healthy nutrition
- Staying connected and seeking out social support
- Making time and space for rest
- Having fun and engaging in enjoyable activities
- Practicing gratitude
- Limiting alcohol
- Quitting smoking
- Getting support from a therapist or other mental health professional2 5 6 7
So, make sure to ask yourself: what helps you to feel more replenished, energized, and ready to take on challenges with greater ease?
Whether that is cooking nourishing meals, spending time with your loved ones, hitting a yoga class after work, or making time for your hobbies, consider what you might need to incorporate into your daily or weekly routines.
Part 6. Set goals and make a specific plan
Now that you’ve identified some changes you can make, some tools you can try, and some new habits you can incorporate into your routine, set some realistic and specific goals.
What do you want to commit to doing on a daily basis, a weekly basis, a monthly basis? What will you do after a stressful situation pops up? What, specifically, will that look like? What tools, resources, or support do you need to make it happen?
Get as specific as you can about what, when, where, and how you will implement your plan in order to reach your goals.
Then, find a place to write your own commitments and plans down. You might even talk about them with family and friends who can keep you accountable, or set reminders in your calendar.
- I will meditate 3 times per week in the evenings.
- I will commit to doing some brief stretches at my desk while listening to calming music whenever I notice my shoulders getting tense.
- I will take a walk to get a coffee immediately after every Monday team meeting so that I can take a breather and allow myself to de-stress.
- If I find myself short-tempered when I get home at the end of the day, I’ll ask my partner if they can listen while I vent some of my worries and frustrations, and then we will watch a funny video together.
- I will research therapists in my area this week and have consultations with possible providers by the end of the month.
- If I feel overwhelmed by the time 3:00 p.m. hits, I will take a 5-minute break to myself. I’ll turn on my favorite comedy podcast, put on some shoes, and take a short walk around the block.
Part 7. Experiment, monitor, and reevaluate your plan
Putting a plan in place is just the first step. Giving it a try, seeing how it works, and then making adjustments over time is where the real growth happens.
To help track your progress and assess how your plan is working for you, try out techniques such as:
- Creating a self-management checklist – This can help you keep track of what tools you’ve been using and which you haven’t.
- Checking in on your stress levels – Along with rating your stress levels on a regular basis, you can also take note of what your stress management plan looked like that day, so you can gather data and start to make some links between what you’ve tried and how you feel.
- Keeping a journal – A journal can be a great space to reflect on your experiences as well as record them to look back on later.
- Setting reminders or alerts – If you find that you forget to check in and evaluate your plan, make appointments on your calendar or set reminders on your phone to alert you to take some time to check in.
Your plan should be considered a work in progress that can change with time. It should adjust and adapt to you. So, make sure to continue to explore, evaluate, and try new things as needed.
Creating your unique stress management plan
A stress management plan helps you to first identify stress-relieving tools and habits that might work for you, and then to put those into action on a regular basis. This is an ongoing process that involves building awareness, trying new things, experimenting, and reassessing over time.
Your stress management plan should be unique for you. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. We all handle stress differently, so we need a unique set of tools and strategies to rely on.
Find what works for you, and commit to doing it. And then enjoy the benefits of having learned to better manage your stress. You deserve it!
About Chelsea Clark
Chelsea Clark is a writer and certified health and wellness coach who is passionate about supporting others along their own health journeys. She enjoys helping people make positive, lasting changes so that they can live the happiest, healthiest life possible.
1. “I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet” National Institute of Mental Health. Nimh.nih.gov.
2. “Stress: 10 Ways to Ease Stress.” Cleveland Clinic. My.Clevelandclinic.org.
3. “Mind and Body Approaches for Stress and Anxiety: What the Science Says.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.” Nccih.nih.gov.
4. “Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress.” Harvard Health Publishing. Health.Harvard.edu.
5. “How to Relieve Stress: A 6-Step Plan to Feeling Good.” The Johns Hopkins University. Hopkinsmedicine.org.
6. “Journaling for Mental Health.” University of Rochester Medical Center. Urmc.Rochester.edu.
7. Kyeong, S., J. Kim, D.J. Kim, et al. (2017). “Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling.” Scientific Reports 7, no. 1 (2017): 5058.