Stress is part of all of our lives, pushing us to perform at our peak levels or acting as a stumbling block. Our ability to perform at our best decreases when we are challenged by excessive levels of stress.

By creating a plan, we can manage our stress to support top performance and create opportunities for calm in the everyday. Although approaches to stress management are not one-size-fits-all, by implementing a few strategies, you can take steps towards leveraging stress to achieve your peak performance and carve out time for calm.

1. Plan for prevention

We often think about stress management as purely reactive. By creating a daily/weekly plan to control stress, you can build your ability to manage stress before it happens.

2. Build a buffer

A healthy lifestyle is your best defense against stress. Studies show that by creating a healthy lifestyle, stress buffering (how much we can handle) improves. When lifestyle factors such as adequate sleep, healthy eating and regular physical activity patterns are in place, your body and your mind are better able to handle stress when it happens.

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3. Know your red flags

When we experience stress, our bodies and minds show the signs. By increasing awareness of your stress signals, you can be more responsive when stress happens. Knowing your early warning signs is the first step to actively engaging in stress management.

4. Identify your stressors

Active stress management starts by taking a close look at all of the things that cause stress in our lives. While this may sound straightforward, sometimes the outcome is surprising. By taking a close look at our habits, we realize we have more control over aspects of our stress than we originally thought. For example, you may know that you find traffic stressful, but you may not have acknowledged how chronically leaving the house five to 10 minutes late is contributing to that stress.

5. Focus on what you can do

When we’re stressed, we often get caught up in things outside of our control. Instead of focusing on circumstances that you can’t change or influence, direct your energy toward what is within your power to change. Start by thinking about how you can manage your time differently, set short term goals that move you toward what you want and take steps toward improving your self-care to cope in the meantime.

6. Kick back and relax

By participating in relaxation activities, we turn down the sympathetic (stress) response by stimulating parasympathetic (relaxation) response. Find activities that are deeply relaxing to you and incorporate them into your routines. A few examples of relaxation activities include meditation, journaling, listening to music, visualization and stretching.

7. LOL

You may have heard that laughter is the best medicine, and research demonstrates that it has benefits to the cardiovascular system and mood. Find a friend who has a knack for telling good jokes or watch cat videos on YouTube — whatever makes you laugh is your best medicine.

8. Have face time with a friend

Face-to-face interaction counteracts the sympathetic response, turning down our stress naturally. Connecting with a friend and voicing your problems can be deeply calming and strengthen the bond between you. Building and maintaining a network of friends can also improve your resilience when life’s stressors build up.

9. Take a deep breath

When all else fails, take a deep breath. Deep diaphragmatic breathing turns on the parasympathetic response by stimulating the vagus nerve. Breathing deeply from the abdomen can be a great strategy in an acute moment of stress because you can do it just about anywhere. Try taking slow, rhythmic belly breaths at a rate of about five to six breaths per minute to deepen your relaxation.

When you take steps to manage your stress, you are taking steps to improve your health and quality of life. You can improve immune function, improve focus and boost your energy. Remember, just a small investment in creating your calm can result in big returns for your health and happiness.

By Marissa Marchioni, OTD, OTR/L

If your stress is getting to a level you are unable to handle and nothing else is working, reach out to your primary care physician for help. If you are local to Southern California and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800)USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.