7 Ways to Cope with Persistent Stress

Editor’s note: This article originally ran March 14, 2022 and was updated April 6, 2022. 

For the past two years, it’s been one crisis on top of another: a global pandemic, deadly violence over racial and political divisions, soaring inflation rates.

“Acute stress has significant impacts on our physical and mental health,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD. “Persistent, relentless stress depletes our internal stores. The physical impact of always staying at this heightened state could mean our ability to recover is limited.”

But there are ways to deal with enduring stressors, and it starts with taking care of ourselves. Dr. Charguia offers these seven tips.

1. Breathe.

“Taking deep breaths starts a biological cascade that reduces our response to stress,” Dr. Charguia says. “It has a calming effect, stopping the ‘fight or flight’ impulses so we can better cope with things.”

Getting sufficient sleep, exercising and eating healthy are other ways to take care of yourself.

“When we are stressed, we tend to lose sight of what our basic needs are,” she says.

If you are not taking care of your basic needs, you can become more anxious, possibly distorting risks or imagining worse catastrophes.

“You can feel more and more like the problems are insurmountable,” she says. “So first and foremost, just breathe.”

2. Acknowledge what you can control—and what you can’t.

“There’s no magic that is going to make all of this go away,” Dr. Charguia says. “We feel like we can’t do anything, or that what we can do is small.”

Instead, be realistic with yourself about things you cannot control. Let go of those worries. Instead, concentrate on things you can control—for example, whether you and your family are vaccinated, or if you can cut back on trips to the grocery store while gas prices are rising.

“Give yourself credit for your successes,” she says.

3. Connect with others.

Recognize that it’s OK to ask for help. That may mean talking with a friend or family member, sharing grief or worry, or sharing happy news. It might mean seeking professional help. Counseling may be available through telehealth.

“Understand that there are resources all around us, formal and informal,” Dr. Charguia says. “Right now, many of us are exhausted and depleted, and it’s hard to have a meaningful connection with hope. It’s hard to ask for help, but it is important that we don’t suffer alone.”

4. Don’t take on too much at once.

When so many things are coming at us, we shouldn’t try to fix everything at one time.

For example, don’t try to improve your sleep habits, start a new exercise routine and change your diet all at once.

“Identify one step at a time to focus on—something that is meaningful and that you can be successful with,” Dr. Charguia says. “Try not to set goals that are insurmountable. Take it step-by-step, allowing yourself to build a foundation for success.”

5. Recognize things that trigger your anxiety and try to avoid them.

If watching the news is stressful for you, give yourself a break from it. Or if you take solace in knowing what is going on, look for additional information that might shed more light on current events.

You may also be able to better control your anxiety by choosing the amount of time or the time of day that you listen to news or connect with friends and family. For example, checking email and social media before bedtime can keep you awake and upset when you should be winding down.

6. Refill your bucket.

Whether it’s journaling, meditation, prayer, music, gardening, reading, sports, hiking, fishing, art or a world of other activities, find something that “refills your bucket” with joy and contentment.

“There are a thousand and one techniques when it comes to grounding and coping,” Dr. Charguia says. “We all need to make sure we’re doing something that is feeding our soul and guarding against burnout.”

Getting outside to take in the signs of spring might be a good tactic.

“Spring brings more sunlight, rebirth, regrowth,” she says. “It’s a reminder that time continues to move forward, and that there are things we can depend on.”

7. Don’t make it worse.

Bring awareness to what may be destructive means of coping, Dr. Charguia advises. In times of stress, especially prolonged stress, some people can react impulsively, engaging in abusive or addictive behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse.

“We can feel, act or respond in ways that we don’t think define us,” she says. “We may become irritable or angry or reactive, and that only adds to our stress.”

She suggests reaching out for help if you find yourself reacting in negative ways.

If persistent stress is making you feel exhausted and depleted, don’t suffer alone. Reach out to friends, family or your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.