Number one cause of stress and how to relieve it

Dear Alice,

I was wondering what the number one cause of stress is and the best way to relieve it?

— Worried Already

Dear Worried Already,

Rest assured, you're not alone—people of all ages experience stress at some point during their lives. Since people have different stressors and experience stress differently, it’s difficult to pinpoint or rank the number one cause or the single best way to treat it. But it might actually surprise you that stress can be beneficial (and in some cases, critical) in helping individuals respond and adapt to new situations in life (e.g.., when a zebra needs to escape the jaws of a hungry lion). Stress is a fact of life for humans and animals alike, so while getting rid of it completely might not necessarily be possible, no need to stress! There are certain strategies you can employ to manage it.

Sources of stress can be as minor as sitting in traffic or getting excited about a friend visiting or they can be due to bigger life events such as moving to a new place or getting married. The bottom line is that sources of stress—both good and bad, big and small—are everywhere. And while managing stress may seem impossible at times, here are a few strategies you can use on a day-to-day basis to help you cope with this ever-present response:

Time management supports self-management. Making prioritized lists of tasks you need to accomplish during the day can help you stay organized. It might help to prepare these lists before you go to bed or just after you wake up to help inform the structure of your day.

Structure your space. Try to create a calm, relaxing, and organized living environment. You can even build "quiet hours" into your schedule by intentionally minimizing distractions in the form of texts, calls, and visitors. If you live in a shared space like a residence hall, structuring your space may be particularly challenging and require you to talk with roommates or floormates to negotiate how to balance everyone’s needs.

Practice saying “No.” Saying “no” is a method of setting boundaries that may help preserve energy for other tasks you’ve prioritized. Similarly, removing yourself from overstimulating situations is another effective method of reducing stress.

Eat a balanced, varied diet. Eating a variety of foods from different food groups (e.g. fruits, vegetables, proteins, etc.) can help you get the recommended amount of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Fueling your body in this way can help keep up your energy and support it against the stress response.

Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Physical activity provides time to clear your head and take a break from the stressors you’re experiencing. Not only that, those who are regularly physically active also report more energy and improved concentration.

Get plenty of sleep so your body is better prepared to deal with daily life. While you’re asleep, the body is also working to repair and damage from the day’s stress response.

Employ basic relaxation techniques, such as yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, tai chi, mindfulness, or simply being in nature. These things can help to reduce the stress response.

Seek support. Whether it’s an academic advisor for class-related stressors or a mental health professional for other concerns, feel free to reach out for additional support if you don’t feel like you can manage it on your own.

Remember Worried Already, whichever strategies or combinations of strategies you use, it’s about what works best for you and makes you feel a bit calmer and more prepared to take on what lies ahead of you. If you’re a student, some offices or university counseling centers may even offer stress or time management courses; if not, you can check out your local community center to see what they offer. You may even consider speaking with your health care provider or seeing a mental health professional who specializes in stress management. You can also check out the Stress & Anxiety category in the Go Ask Alice! Archive for more information!

Breathe easy

Last updated Feb 24, 2023
Originally published Sep 05, 1995

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