Anyone Can Beat Stress: Five Keys to Stress Reduction

Anyone Can Beat Stress: Five Keys to Stress Reduction

By Ronda Collier

We know that stress makes us crazy, hurts our health, and can get in the way of successful relationships—yet somehow, we wind up letting stress run the show.

But stress is not the boss. You are. The trick is discovering how to reduce stress even when life is throwing you sticks and stones—even when you wind up owing taxes.

Stress Is Not What Happens; It’s How You Respond

It helps to know that stress is not caused by what happens to you. Stress is caused by how you respond to what happens. You can’t control all the circumstances of your life, but you can control how you choose to respond to those circumstances.

Figure 1: Our thoughts, emotions, and external experiences are tightly coupled to our heart rhythm, respiration, blood pressure and nervous system.  Source: SweetWater Health, LLC, 2011

When something happens that we perceive as threatening, we get stressed. (Something happening need not be external. We can also be stressed by our own negative thoughts or fears.) When we are threatened, heart rate and breathing increase, blood rushes out of the brain and organs and into the muscles as the body slams into “fight or flight” mode to deal with the danger. This is an ancient survival mechanism that allowed the human race to evolve from massacring mammoths to picking up steak at the local supermarket. But in today’s developed world, we no longer have to fight or flee to deal with things like taxes, crayon scribbles on the living room wall, or a call from your boss.

1. You can choose to respond differently to things that cause you stress.

Stress Kills

Making the effort to overcome unnecessary stress is worth it. Clinical studies have shown time and again that stress is a major cause of a range of diseases from cardiovascular disease to depression to substance abuse. About 50% of Americans say that stress negatively impacts their personal and professional lives.[1] Stress causes 54% of Americans to fight with people close to them.[2] Workplace stress in the United States costs more than $300 billion each year in health care, missed work, employee turnover, legal costs, workers’ compensation, and insurance.[3]

Workers who report they are stressed incur health care costs 46% higher than other employees.[4] Seven out of 10 deaths each year among Americans are from chronic diseases such as heart disease—in which stress is a contributing factor.[5]

The statistics are endless. There can be little doubt that stress is a leading health issue and costs the economy many billions of dollars every year.

2. It is well worth the effort to achieve mastery over stress.

You Can Control Only What You Know

Many people are stressed and unaware of it because it feels like “same old, same old.”    Being unaware of stress is not the same as being unstressed. Most of us, during the press of the day’s work and obligations, may not be aware when stress is particularly high—but stress does its damage whether you are aware of it or not. Learning how to control stress starts with being aware of stressors (things that make you stressed) and being able to recognize when your stress is high.

3. Begin managing stress by becoming aware of your stressors and recognizing when stress is high.

Stress Can Be Monitored and Controlled

About 25 years of clinical research have shown that one of the most reliable indicators of stress is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the variation in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next.

When we think of our heart rate, we generally think of a number between 60 and 90 beats per minute. This number represents the range for the average heart rate. In fact, your heart rate changes from beat to beat. When you inhale your heart rate speeds up and when you exhale it slows down. So rather than referring to a fixed pulse of, say, 60, the heart rate will actually vary between, say, 55 and 65. HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring irregularity in the heart rate. A quarter-century of clinical research has shown that when HRV levels are high, a person experiences low levels of stress and greater resiliency. When HRV levels are low, this is an indication of greater stress and lower resiliency (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.    The higher the HRV, the greater your resilience and the lower your stress.  Source: SweetWater Health, LLC

The heart continually oscillates between acceleration and deceleration in a tug-of-war within the autonomic nervous system. One branch of the nervous system speeds the heart up and the other branch slows it down. It is this tug-of-war between the two branches that create the heart’s rhythms.

Our thoughts, emotions, and experiences of the external world are tightly connected to the functioning of our nervous system, heart rhythm and breathing (see Figure 2). The more flexible we are, the more capable we are of dealing with life’s inevitable stressors. This flexibility is reflected in our nervous system and can be measured, using HRV as an indicator.

4. When you can observe your HRV levels, you can control them. When you control your HRV, you control stress.

You Can Control Stress by Controlling HRV

You don’t have to go to a clinic or a hospital to monitor your HRV. HRV can be monitored using a heart rate monitor and software that can translate input from the monitor into HRV levels. A range of inexpensive monitors is available for the consumer in the form of chest straps, ear clips, finger clips, and even “smart” clothing. Monitoring can be done on a personal computer—but even better, monitoring can be done using a smartphone with an HRV monitoring app such as SweetBeat™ from SweetWater Health™. A wireless mobile monitoring system provides real-time data on your HRV everywhere you go.

Do What Works for You

Once you have information about your stress levels—when you’re stressed, how much you are stressed, etc.—you can learn tools to control it. A number of stress-reduction resources are available. Many of them are free or inexpensive, and don’t require prescriptions or psychotherapy. Simple deep breathing exercises will show an immediate drop in HRV, and you can do them almost anywhere.

Some people prefer physical relaxation or working out. Some practice yoga, qi gong or other mental and physical exercises to control stress. There is no “right” way to manage stress; it depends on what you feel comfortable doing, and what is convenient for you. (Obviously, you can’t interrupt a heated discussion with an uncooperative neighbor to assume the downward-facing-dog yoga position. But you can take a couple of deep breaths.)

A number of stress-reduction resources are available. Many of them are free or inexpensive, and don’t require prescriptions or psychotherapy. You can even affect HRV levels with good nutrition and regular exercise.

By monitoring your HRV on a regular basis, you will see what activities lower your HRV levels. This gives you options. For example, if your HRV goes down significantly during the weekday morning rush to get ready, you can change your behavior. Get up a little earlier to give yourself more time, make lunches for the kids the night before so that you have time to eat breakfast and glance at the paper, and make sure that everything you need for the day is sitting by the front door.

5. Do what works for your own life and situation. No one approach works for everyone, and trying to do something that doesn’t fit your life and style will only result in—more stress!

[1] American Psychological Association, 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] American Institute of Stress,

[4] Steven L. Sauter, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

[5] Center for Disease Control, 2011

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Leave A Reply (119 comments So Far)

  1. Clifton
    2 years ago

    I sure would like to fight against or flee from my taxes! T statistic cited in this article are staggering – even stressful. I can’t say that my life has been filled with tragedy or any really challenging circumstances, but it amazes me why so many people do not know how to manage stress. To me it is very simple. It is healthy to exercise regularly and when you do, you can also eliminate your stress.

  2. Adrianne
    2 years ago

    This article is so true. One of the most stressful things for people in the workforce is rushing in the morning to get ready for work. And once you leave the home the stress seems to begin all over again as you commute through gridlock. Fortunately, I do not have to commute to work, but I used to, and it would be stressful for me on days when I was running late. This can be easily avoided.

  3. Brian
    2 years ago

    I find that the best ways to manage stress, in terms of exercises, meditation tech needs such as yoga, tai chi, or any of the mild forms of martial arts. The benefit of these meditation techniques is that they help you practice controlled deep breathing. The practice of deep reading that only reduces stress, but also improves your cardiovascular and your endurance as a result. I started yoga couple of years ago and I haven’t stopped since.

  4. James
    2 years ago

    I agree completely with Brian the best way to manager stress is through exercise. As you go through the day like Adrianna said and the stress ebbs and flows all day long the tension builds up in your muscle and the release of those muscles by physical movement and getting the blood flowing is the best way to release the tension thereby relieving the stress.

  5. John
    2 years ago

    Adrianna seems to have a grasp on reality when it comes to stressors. Most people don’t believe that they get stressed getting ready for work n the morning but they do because they are trying not to be late. And traffic is the worst stressor ever that is why everybody screams and yells at each other. Why do you think that they call it road rage? Thank you for posting this it was great.

  6. Mary
    2 years ago

    There are a lot of things that are stressful in life and you are right how we deal with it is what determines what level of stress it is. I think the most stress I have had is when people in my Church decided to get together and divide the church. I can’t believe that people would do that but it happens and it is very stressful for those in the middle.

  7. Barbara
    2 years ago

    I can’t believe the amount of stress that people can be under without even realizing it. Like you said they just figure “same old, same old then when their body starts to crash and tell them hey you can’t keep doing this then the doctor tells them that their stressed and that is what is causing it. Then you take some relaxation time and realize the stress you were really under.

  8. William
    2 years ago

    Stress is the leading cause of heart attacks and things isn’t it? Not to mention the stomach problems that you can get from stress as well, ulcers, bleeding in the lining, etc. I have found that exercise is my best way to relieve stress and it works really well. When I don’t exercise I don’t sleep as well and I can tell that I have a lot of tension in my neck and things.

  9. Timothy
    2 years ago

    My mom has all kinds of illnesses now that she is older and I think a lot of it is from stress when my brother and I were kids, stress of finances and a lot of anger and bitterness towards her mom which also stressed her out. How do you tell someone like that, that they need to let it go in order to feel better when it is something they have held onto forever.

  10. Melanie
    2 years ago

    I used to think that Yoga was a form of exercise that older people and women did just to feel better about themselves . But once I tried it for the first time, it beat me up, and I was surprised by how strenuous a one hour or 90 minute session can be. That was two years ago and I haven’t stopped doing it since. It is great for burning fat and increasing your stamina .

  11. Mildred
    2 years ago

    I have been under a lot of stress lately because of a new job and try to correct the previous person’s errors. I am finally getting ahead of the eight ball now and the stress level is going down but I would still like to learn to manage it better. I love yoga but I skip the meditation part at the end, do you think that would help me manage it better?

  12. Tina
    2 years ago

    Can’t stress harm your health just likely bitterness? Bitterness causes people to be ill physically, I can attest to that, my mom holds bitterness in her heart and she can’t forgive her mother for some things she did and she has a lot of physical illnesses because of it that are actually killing her. How do you tell someone that and get them to believe they need to do let it go?

  13. David
    2 years ago

    To me stress is just slow suicide. You can’t be truly happy if you live under the stress of the world. Let that stuff go and live your life free from stress, you will fill better physically and emotionally which will give you more energy to enjoy life even more. Maybe even get out there and do some physical activity with your family.

  14. Kenneth
    2 years ago

    Exercise is the best way to relieve stress unless you are like my husband. I got into kickboxing and I was telling him that hitting that punching bag really helps me get the stress from the day out of my system. So he tried it and told me it just made him more angry, the more he hit the bag the more he thought about the day and the madder he got, why is that?

  15. David
    2 years ago

    Stress and bitterness is killing my mom because it makes her physically ill. The reason we know this is because she will have a good day and feel good then when the stress of the family business hits her or she gets angry at the person she is bitter towards she physically is sick for days. How can I explain to her why this is happening?

  16. Hazel
    2 years ago

    Stress is such a waste of time for anybody. You spend so much time thinking about the “what if’s and stressing about it that it will literally make you ill. You have to stay calm and breathe deeply when stress gets you down and exercise as soon as you can to keep the stress from escalating.

  17. William
    2 years ago

    Have you ever seen that picture that someone made years ago that said “STRESSED OUT and had a picture of a Zebra losing her stripes? That is some serious stress and if we let ourselves go that far by holding everything in then we pretty soon are faced with a lot of health stuff. Trust me I know this sounds crazy but it is also true I am living proof.

  18. Roger
    2 years ago

    Have you ever seen that picture that someone made years ago that said “STRESSED OUT and had a picture of a Zebra losing her stripes? That is some serious stress and if we let ourselves go that far by holding everything in then we pretty soon are faced with a lot of health stuff. Trust me I know this sounds crazy but it is also true I am living proof.

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    11 months ago

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  20. zboy
    11 months ago

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