Your jaw clenches. Your mood swings. You crave sugar or salt—or maybe you lose your appetite altogether. You toss and turn at night, have difficulty concentrating, and feel generally overwhelmed. If these less-than-pleasant descriptions sound familiar, you’re not alone. Stress was the theme of 2020, and it’s carrying over pretty reliably through 2021.

The National Institute of Mental Health says stress is “how the brain and body respond to any demand.” In other words, stress is normal, and it impacts everyone. It’s natural to feel stress when you have tension within a relationship, or when work or school feels especially demanding, or you lose a job or become ill or worry about friends and family getting sick.

But it’s a cause for concern when the stress becomes long-term. That’s when it can increase your risk for certain health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental disorders. It may even impact your memory and the way you think, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.

While you’ll never be able to completely remove stress from your life, there are some ways you can respond to it that help your brain and body cope. As summer transitions into fall, consider adopting these six tips aimed at diminishing stress—or at least improving the way you manage it. 

1. Make sleep a priority

If you’re not getting enough ZZZs, you may be more susceptible to stress. And when you’re stressed, it may disrupt your sleep. Welcome to one of the vicious stress cycles! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a handy sleep chart indicating how much sleep is recommended for different age groups.

According to the chart, adults ages 18 to 60 should be aiming for at least seven hours of sleep per night. Make this a priority and schedule it in if you can. If you’re struggling to sleep, ensure you have the proper sleep setup—dark, comfortable, relaxing, and free of electronics.

2. Keep connected

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be tempting to isolate yourself. Just remember that smiling, laughing and sharing your feelings with others can serve as stress relief. Schedule time to connect with people who bring you joy, whether it’s friends and family, a religious community, volunteer activities or others in your life.

These days, you don’t even have to leave the house to keep in touch. Schedule a phone or video call and you can cut out a time-consuming commute and avoid adding more stress to a hectic schedule.

3. Sweat it out

When you’re stressed, it’s easy enough to tell yourself you don’t have time to exercise. And in doing so, you may be falling victim to yet another vicious stress cycle! That’s because exercise is helpful in relieving stress by producing endorphins that make you feel good. (Bonus: exercise may help improve your sleep.)

Often, the hardest part of working out is getting started. Find an activity you love, or can at least tolerate, and aim for at least 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day, five times a week in accordance with public health guidance. Don’t like working out alone? Phone a friend and make it a social activity. Then you’ll be combining two stress-relieving tips into one!   

4. Learn relaxation techniques

Racing thoughts aren’t necessarily going to calm themselves. By learning different ways of relaxing, such as meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises, you can take back control of your mind and operate at your own preferred pace. Look online for different apps and videos that teach these calming techniques to get a leg-up on feeling laid-back.

5. Take a break

If you’re able to take a vacation, or even a staycation, your brain will thank you. Mix up your routine and shift your focus to activities and people you love. It’s amazing the kind of perspective—and relief—you gain when you specifically schedule time for yourself.  

6. Ask your doctor for help

If you’re finding that stress is taking pleasure out of your day-to-day life and keeping you from participating in activities you love, consider talking with your doctor or making an appointment with a mental health professional. Through office visits or even virtual appointments, they can help you work through your feelings and find ways to cope.

Find a doctor today to help you move forward and manage stress differently in order to live the life you want to live.