Adults in the United States struggle with stress – from work, children, aging parents, major life changes, and much more. Women report higher levels of stress than men. On average, men reported feeling a 4.6 on a scale of 1-10, while women reported 5.3 on the same scale.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the US, and stress is a huge trigger for this problem. Feeling overwhelmed and too stressed without treatment or management can also lead to hair loss, appetite and weight changes, depression, irregular menstruation, acne breakdowns, reduced sex drive, and insomnia in women.
At the same time, more women are abusing drugs, especially alcohol, as they stereotypically drink wine as a reward for their hard work or to de-stress. However, abusing drugs and alcohol increases the risk of physical dependence, addiction, and increased stress on the body and mind. Women who abuse drugs or alcohol to manage stress do not experience less stress; instead, they put themselves at greater risk of chronic illnesses, early death, fertility struggles, financial problems, becoming the victim of a crime, mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and family problems.
Instead of turning to drugs or alcohol to de-stress, it is important to find healthy ways of managing the experience. Women who experience high levels of stress leading to panic may also have depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition. Consulting a doctor or therapist to discuss symptoms can help to get an appropriate diagnosis and course of treatment. Working with a behavioral therapist and possibly taking small doses of prescription antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can help to manage mental health on top of immediate, healthy approaches to de-stressing.
Alternatives to Using Drugs and Alcohol to Self-Medicate
Women in recovery need to find healthy alternatives to drug abuse, particularly if they abused substances as a method of managing life’s stresses. Here are the 10 most popular healthy techniques to de-stress that do not involve alcohol or drugs.
- Get enough sleep. Insomnia is associated with high stress, anxiety, and depression. Going to bed at the same time most nights of the week, staying in bed and away from distractions like food or phones, and waking up at the same time every day will help to regulate stress hormones and promote a balanced mind. It is easy to let regular sleep schedules slide by when working long hours, staying out too late with friends too often, watching a marathon of a television show, or bingeing on social media, but remember, sleep is one of the best ways to de-stress.
- Exercise regularly. Find a few types of exercise that are enjoyable, like walking or jogging, yoga, tai chi, weightlifting, swimming, or bicycling, and do these for at least 30 minutes every day on average. It is best to combine strength training and aerobic exercise. Work up to harder workouts, like sustained running or heavy lifting. Building stamina improves lung and heart function and releases endorphins, which increase the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, thus improving mood. While mood improvement is not directly correlated with weight loss, losing excess body fat can improve hormone function, which can boost mood, too. While a physician should determine if their patient needs to lose weight for health reasons, there are many additional benefits of exercise.
- Learn breathing, mindfulness, or meditation techniques. Meditation and mindfulness often start with breathing exercises, which help to take the mind away from stressful experiences and put it into the present moment. If the present moment is stressful, mindfulness and guided meditation can help one imagine better outcomes, visualize calmness, or focus on regulating breathing and heart rate through biofeedback. Some people may benefit from a spiritual practice alongside meditation, but many medical studies have shown that mindfulness and breathing techniques do not need to be associated with a religious or spiritual tradition to be helpful.
- Eat regular, healthy meals. Eating enough fruits and vegetables, and smaller amounts of protein from meat or animal products, will help the body regulate all systems, from brain to gut to nerve endings. Vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, calories, fiber, and sugars are all needed by the body to heal, create new cells, flush toxins, and regulate body chemistry. Eating at regular times reduces overeating and helps one plan healthy meals in advance. Additionally, limiting the intake of substances like alcohol, caffeine, salt, refined sugar, and fats from fried or junk food can reduce hormone and neurotransmitter surges and plunges. This improves the body’s reaction to stress.
- Find a way to get out of your head. In addition to exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, and sleep, picking up new hobbies, enjoying entertainment, or spending time with loved ones can help one get out of a stressful mindset and focus on something else. Many meditation techniques begin with focusing attention on an object or body sensation, which is a way to immediately get out of your head and de-stress quickly. Long-term management of stress means going back to regular beloved experiences, like watching a sunset, reading a book, listening to a favorite song, painting, knitting, or spending time with a close friend – without drugs or alcohol.
- Develop small, daily rituals. Getting appropriate sleep means managing the ritual of going to bed and getting up at the same time, but other rituals can be helpful, too. Walking part of the way to work, listening to a playlist of favorite songs while doing chores, or spending time with a pet so they can get exercise are all examples of daily rituals that can benefit you.
- Express gratitude. This goes beyond saying “thank you” to waitstaff or coworkers and extends into saying “hello,” expressing love and affection, and doing small things for friends and family. This can be random or ritualized, depending on what works best for you. It can also be counting the good things in your life and feeling thankful for these opportunities, support systems, and other positive things. Some research has shown that practicing gratitude can increase activity in the hypothalamus, which is closely associated with stress levels. Gratefulness can also trigger the release of dopamine, which improves mood.
- Take short breaks. In the middle of a stressful day at work or home, taking five minute breaks to breathe, enjoy the view, think of a loved one, or even look at cute cat or dog pictures online can help to relieve immediate stress. It is important to keep these breaks short to reduce long-term stress associated with failing to complete a project or worrying about not finishing tasks. However, productivity improves when people take short breaks to breathe and think about something else.
- Ask for support. Friends and family want to help, so reach out and ask for it. Ask for a hug, a note of love and support, or just a short conversation to feel better. If you are overcoming symptoms of addiction or a mood disorder, reaching out for social support can be especially important.
- Decompress. Get a massage, take a warm bath, put a heat wrap on your neck and shoulders, or massage an essential oil into your temples. These can all decompress the body to relieve stress. Many people carry tension in their bodies, and that tension can turn into pain, which increases the experience of stress. Taking care of the body in many ways changes the short-term and long-term experience of stress.
Working to end an addiction, reducing alcohol or caffeine intake, managing a stressful life change, or managing symptoms from a mood disorder can all be accomplished with the help of these 10 approaches to stress relief. It is important to get help from medical professionals to manage mental and behavioral conditions, including addiction, but working to relieve stress in daily life will help women in recovery stay focused on long-term sobriety and healing.