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7 Steps to Navigating a High-Stress Period

May 6, 2021
Woman Stressed

We’ve all heard the tips to drink water, take walks, and get plenty of sleep to combat stress. But this May, which marks both Mental Health Awareness Month and the end of the extended tax season, we wanted to take a deeper dive into how to navigate burnout both during and after a high-stress work period.

Unsurprisingly, it starts with a deeper understanding of self-care.

According to Nicole Burgess, a Soul-Led Leadership Coach whose background includes Counseling Psychology, we often need to learn that self-care isn’t a commodity or experience.

“Self-care is often thought of as bubble baths and vacations. Something that is done ever so often versus a daily practice,” Burgess says. “When self-care is not part of your everyday life it leads to burnout, sleep issues, health issues, and even disconnection from family and friends.”

Not sure what this looks like? Here are seven steps to get started.

1) Acknowledge that you’re stressed

How many times have you automatically replied “okay” when someone asked you how you were doing? We live in a society that embraces the busy and values masking emotion. In lying to others, it’s easy to lie to yourself. Acknowledging that you’re stressed, overwhelmed or facing anxiety is the first step to finding relief, especially when you’re known to keep things bottled up.

On a similar note, not everyone in your life may understand your stress because they’re removed from your day-to-day work. While your body language or responses to questions and situations likely give away that you’re stressed, it’s important to acknowledge to those close to you how you’re feeling and why.

2) Learn how YOU like to relax

Not everyone finds relief in meditation, yoga, taking a walk or the other activities frequently recommended for relaxation and stress relief. You might even find some of these activities downright stressful themselves. That’s okay! We’re all unique, and finding what works for you can take some experimentation.

According to the American Psychological Association, the goal is to find a healthy activity (whether exercise, enjoying a healthy meal, talking to your best friend for 10 minutes, etc.) that you solely focus on for a period of time to take your mind off of work. Indulging occasionally in things like junk food is okay, but it’s important to avoid using them as a consistent crutch to make it through a high-stress period.

Need a starting point? Burgess recommends designating quiet time in the morning to write down three things you’re grateful for and do mindful breath work. Inhale through the nose and exhale through your mouth; be sure you’re breathing through the belly and not just your chest, a habit many of us have formed. Repeat when needed.

3) Commit to your non-negotiables

Figuring out what helps you relax is just the start; now you have to commit to actually taking the time to engage in those activities. “Even your busier times of work are a season and do not require you to sacrifice your wellbeing by not taking breaks, mindfully eating your meals or exercising,” Burgess says.

Curveballs are a fact of life, but the longer you break your commitment, the harder it is to follow through with your self-care.

4) Control what you can

For most of us, anxiety and stress is driven by what you can’t control. While you can’t wave a magic wand and suddenly get control of everything, there are still many things you can control.

“Each day you get to decide how you treat yourself consciously or unconsciously,” Burgess says.

When things start to feel out of control, step back and look at the choices you can make that can directly impact how you’re feeling. In addition, try to stick to your regular routines and schedule as much as possible. It’s normal for them to get skewed or even eliminated when you’re in a high stress period. But becoming lax when they’re still feasible is a recipe to create more stressful chaos.

5) Eat some fruits and vegetables

One simple thing you can control? Keeping some fruit and veggies on hand—even if your main meal is coming from a drive thru.

“Maintaining a normal, balanced diet when you're stressed and busy with work can be super difficult,” says Emma-Claire Ziolkowski, a registered dietitian. Sneaking some fruits and vegetables into the mix (alongside a healthy amount of water; you should aim for half your body weight in ounces daily) will help keep your mind and body healthy.

“Fruits and veggies are easy to add as snacks and can be added as a side if you're eating out more than normal. These will keep your body feeling good so you can stay focused on your work!” Ziolkowski says.

6) Focus on the present moment

“We live in a fast-paced world, yet you can choose to participate in a harried way or a grounded way,” Burgess says.

One of the ways to stay grounded is to take things a day at a time. Thinking about the future and the other items on your to do list can set you up to spiral. Don’t let the big picture view overwhelm you.

Focusing on the here and now, one task and project at a time, can help keep anxiety in check. At the same time, it’s important to remind yourself that there IS a finish line. The busy season isn’t forever.

7) Have a post-stress plan

Once a high-stress period is over, it’s natural to want to completely crash. But this can actually be detrimental to your health. Researchers nicknamed this phenomenon “the Let-Down Effect.” When your body goes from a high-stress “activation” to a low-stress “activation,” your body’s immune system becomes at risk. (If you’ve ever found yourself getting a cold or other ailment just as you were going on vacation, this could be the culprit.)

The best way to prevent a bout of the Let-Down Effect is to not go from 60 to zero. Instead, look for small, challenging activities to keep your mind and body stimulated. This could look like a short walk, playing a strategy game or doing a puzzle. All of these activities have healthy benefits and can still be fun and relaxing in their own way.

Stress will always be a part of your professional and personal life. While it may feel like extra work to build a self-care plan, the investment will help protect and preserve your mental state and overall health.

If going it alone on your self-care journey isn’t effective, seeking the help of a mental health professional is the best step forward. Therapist databases like those from the Anxiety & Depression Society of America or Psychology Today can help you find professionals in your area who can help.


In a crisis situation? The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) crisis text hotline is available 24/7. Text NAME to 741-741 to access a trained crisis counselor. Learn more about NAMI and their resources here.

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