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How to Prevent Stress from Reaching a Breaking Point

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
September 11, 2023

Nowadays, there seems to be no shortage of people, places, and events to stress us out. From news headlines to finances to work to personal relationships, it can sometimes feel like we're being bombarded by stressors. When this feeling of being overwhelmed and under pressure becomes persistent and sustained over time, it can tip over into chronic stress.

“This type of stress can lead to physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that may become more severe if left untreated,” says Renetta Weaver, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker based in Waldorf, Maryland.

The Impact of Stress Over Time

Following an acute stressful event—think a job interview or getting stuck in traffic—there's usually a calmer period that allows for rest and recovery. But when we go straight from one nerve wracking occurrence to the next, the stress can pile up.

“The accumulation of stress is similar to the idea that if you push dust under a rug, you may not be able to see it, but over time it will form lumps or come out on the other side,” says Rachel Kaplan, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City.

Cumulative stress may not be noticeable at first, but if it’s not addressed it can have a serious impact on mood, energy level, motivation, concentration, relationship dynamics, and overall feelings of happiness, Kaplan says. Carrying the weight of cumulative stress can make you less patient and more irritable, you may find yourself struggling to stay present or find pleasure in activities you normally enjoy.

One key to curbing these negative effects is to not wait until you feel stressed to address it. “If you're someone who only notices that you're stressed when you reach that boiling point, it’s important to more frequently pay attention to and take inventory of your experience of stress both in your mind and in your body,” Kaplan says.

5 Tips to Help Keep Stress from Piling Up

When you’re already feeling stressed, try implementing one of these tips:

Make Time for Self-Care

Taking care of yourself not only feels good, but gives you a chance to relax, rest, and rejuvenate. “This may involve taking a break from work, engaging in activities that you enjoy, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy diet,” Weaver says.

Step Away if Possible

Remember, you have the power to choose what you spend your time on. Rather than getting caught up in negative conversation or spending time watching TV shows or engaging with social media that triggers comparison and self-criticism, give yourself permission to opt out, tune out, and log off.

Get Grounded

You might take a few deep breaths, move your body, practice mindfulness, or meditate. These exercises are a helpful signal to your body that it doesn't have to continue responding emotionally and physiologically to a threat. “This can be incredibly helpful in bringing down what gets activated in your mind and your body so you can re-address the issue at hand in a more articulate way,“ Kaplan says.

Be Intentional About What You Eat

According to Weaver, “Eating certain foods may reduce stress by promoting relaxation, reducing muscle tension, and lowering stress hormones in the body.” Foods that may help support you in times of stress include the following:

  • Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables “may help to regulate blood sugar levels and promote the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and reduce stress,” Weaver says.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, may help reduce the negative effects of stress on the body.
  • Magnesium-rich foods like almonds, spinach, peanuts, and black beans. A study published in the journal Nutrients suggests that increasing your intake of this essential mineral may help reduce stress and promote relaxation.
  • Dark chocolate, which is loaded with antioxidants and compounds may help improve mood and decrease perceived stress. “Eating a small amount of dark chocolate can help to reduce stress and promote feelings of well‑being,” says Weaver.

Be Aware of Warning Signs That Stress is Accumulating

Try to notice the cues from your mind and body that your emotions are becoming heightened, so you don’t reach a point where it’s harder to control your reaction. This might include your breath getting uneven, your muscles tightening, feeling a headache come on, or indigestion, according to the Cleveland Clinic. “This makes it easier to respond to your feelings and respond to a stressor in a calmer way,” Kaplan says.

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