Coping With Stress: What To Do When Life Seems Overwhelming

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

No one can avoid stress completely, and it’s possible you might have trouble achieving your daily tasks and life goals without some element of stress. However, if you don't know how to handle stress in healthy ways, it can lead to consequences. You may be able to prevent stress from building up by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and using effective time management skills. It can be possible to cope with stress as it occurs by using various relaxation techniques, looking for humor in the situation, spending time with friends or family, and problem-solving. If your stress levels are negatively impacting your daily life, it may be helpful to work with a therapist online or in person.

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Is stress becoming too much to handle?

Unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress

Unhealthy coping mechanisms may be self-destructive, and they can compound the effects of stress immediately or in the long run. Before you look at the healthy ways of coping with stress, it may be helpful to recognize unhealthy coping strategies that can do more harm than good.

Escaping into the digital world

People often avoid the uncomfortable feelings associated with stress through videos, social media, or video games. This is not to say that it's unhealthy to ever watch videos, but it can be all about balance. Too much time spent on activities like social media can negatively impact your mental health.

Social withdrawal

Withdrawing from your friends and family may seem more comfortable when you're feeling stressed. Isolating yourself may seem less risky or less emotionally demanding. However, if you stay away from loved ones, you can miss out on the support and companionship they could give you. What's more, always being alone can lead you to ruminate on your problems unproductively rather than finding better ways to address them.

Overeating

Many people overeat when they're stressed. Some choose to eat fatty or sugary foods that provide temporary pleasure, which they may feel is lacking in their lives. But behavior like this can contribute to weight gain and may lead to illness. In addition, ultra-processed foods can be linked to poorer brain health. 

Oversleeping

When life seems overwhelming, many people want to climb into bed and stay for as long as they can. They may go to bed early or stay in bed until the afternoon. They may take long naps throughout the day so that they're only up for a few hours at a time. While sleeping can seem comfortable and soothing, it can also keep you from doing the things you may need to do. Extended time in bed can even be physically harmful, potentially increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Overindulging in alcohol

It can be okay to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a beer during a sporting event. However, consuming too much alcohol to temporarily relieve stress can not only be unhealthy, but it may also turn into an alcohol use disorder over time.

Smoking too much

Many people might start smoking or smoke more when they're in a stressful situation. Smoking can give you a momentary feeling of relaxation. After a while, though, anxiety and tension tend to increase. At the same time, smoking can cause serious health issues.

Drinking too much caffeine

Low to moderate use of caffeine tends to be safe for most people. When you use it to try to relieve symptoms of stress, overindulgence can become a problem. This is generally because caffeine usually works by stimulating your central nervous system, muscles, and heart. If you drink too much coffee or caffeinated energy drinks, your anxiety and agitation may increase, especially if you do so without also giving your body healthy and nutritious foods to use as fuel. In addition, excessive caffeine can contribute to insomnia, nausea, increased breathing and heart rates, headaches, and irregular heartbeats.

Violent outbursts

Some people might take their frustrations out on others, perhaps by yelling at them, starting arguments, or even physically assaulting them. Not only might you end up hurting someone you care about by responding to stress in this way, but also you could lose your job or face legal repercussions.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Taking medications you don't need

People who want to cope with stress on their own might use prescription or over-the-counter medications that are not necessarily intended for stress relief. This coping mechanism can have negative impacts on your health and should generally be avoided.

Using illegal substances

Using illegal substances may provide a temporary escape from feelings of stress. However, many of these substances are addictive, and most are harmful. They may not only have the potential to damage your physical and mental health, but they can also land you in jail or with fines.

Healthy coping strategies for stress

Here are some of the safe, healthy ways to cope with stress that can provide relief and help you resolve problems in more positive ways.

Exercise

Being physically active can help your body cope with the negative effects of stress. Exercise can also prompt your brain to release feel-good neurotransmitters that can increase your ability to cope with stress mentally. Sometimes, all you may need to do is take a quiet walk around the block. Vigorous exercise can be even better if it’s an option for you.

Healthy eating

Eating healthy foods in reasonable amounts can keep your body healthy and your mind clear. While too much heavy or carbohydrate-rich food can make you sleepy, foods with lots of vitamins and minerals, like vegetables, fruits, proteins, and small amounts of healthy fats, can keep you feeling your best.

Getting the right amount of sleep

Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Less than that can make you feel weak and exhausted. Your mind might not work as quickly when you’re tired, so it can become harder to think of ways to solve your problems or reduce your stress. The same can be true of sleeping too much. When you get the right amount of sleep, coping with stress can become much easier.

Time management techniques

Engaging in effective time management can help your days run more smoothly. You might make a list of tasks you need to do for the day but don't be afraid to adapt the list as the day goes on. Try to focus on the activities that are most important to you. It can be best to avoid procrastination and limit the amount of multi-tasking you try to do.

How to cope with stress as it occurs

If you're already stressed, there may be several things you can do to minimize the harmful reactions to stress that can happen in your body and mind. Here are some healthy coping skills for stress that you can use in the moment.

Relaxation techniques

You can choose from a variety of relaxation techniques. One stress coping strategy may be deep breathing. Another can be meditation. You can also use video or audio recordings of guided imagery to calm yourself. One way to cope with stress on the spot can be to do progressive muscle relaxation by tightening and relaxing each muscle group, one at a time, from your feet up to your head.

Humor

Finding humor in everyday life can be a great way to relieve stress. As long as you use humor in kind ways, you might feel better, you may help others feel better, and you can even make stronger social connections. You can also read a funny book or watch a comedy TV show or movie to encourage laughter.

Problem-solving

You might choose to think about what could be causing your stress. Once you've identified a stressful problem, you can think of some steps to take to cope with the issue. Then, try to follow through with action. What you do doesn't have to completely solve the problem or even make a major impact. Any small improvement can bring some relief and help you avoid feeling powerless in the situation. If there is nothing you can do about the situation, then it’s usually best to try to let it go.

Social support

Getting social support when you're experiencing stress can help you cope with it better. Spend time with friends and family, or enjoy some easy-going companionship while doing things like taking a walk, playing a sport together, going grocery shopping, chatting about things that interest you, or playing a board game.

Talking to a therapist

If you've tried all these ways of coping with stress and still don't know what to do when you're feeling overwhelmed, a therapist can help you in several ways. They can teach you new stress-reduction skills and relaxation techniques. They can also help you learn to think differently about your problems and your ability to solve or live with them.

Is stress becoming too much to handle?
Another benefit of talking to a therapist may be that they can help you sort out what you can change and what you might need to learn to accept. You can talk to a therapist online through BetterHelp or visit a licensed mental health professional in your local community. 

Benefits of online therapy

If you’re already feeling stressed, the idea of having to find a local therapist who’s accepting new clients and whose schedule aligns with yours can seem overwhelming. That’s not to mention the tasks of ensuring reliable transportation to and from the appointment, finding childcare, visiting a new location, and meeting someone new in person, which can add more stress to the situation. When you try online therapy, many of these barriers to care can be eliminated. Instead, you can enjoy getting the professional help you deserve from the comfort of your home or any location with an internet connection.

Effectiveness of online therapy

A growing body of evidence suggests that online therapy can be highly effective, particularly for anxiety and the effects of stress. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you believe you’d benefit from working with a licensed therapist.

Takeaway

When you learn how to cope with stress in healthy ways, life often seems easier and challenging situations can become more manageable. Getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep, eating healthily, and managing your time wisely can keep stress from becoming overwhelming. You can also manage stress as it occurs by leaning on friends and family, using various relaxation techniques, and coping with humor. Working with a therapist can be helpful if you’re having difficulty managing stress. You can match with a licensed therapist through an online therapy platform or seek out a mental health professional in your local area.
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