What to do when stress spirals out of control  

Sometimes you need more than just a shoulder to lean on, and it’s okay to need outside help with managing your feelings. Here’s how to cope when faced with some common stressors.

Woman thinking about calling her case manager for behavioral help

Stress is natural. It’s something everyone feels at some point in their life. But right now, we seem to be at a tipping point. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that Americans are having unprecedented levels of angst, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We all handle stress differently. “Our ability to deal with stress is a balance between the demands [placed on us] and the resources we have to meet those demands. When that balance is off, we experience stress,” says Caroline Watts, Ed.D., director of school and community engagement at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. The ideal situation is for people to have enough demands to feel motivated, plus access to resources for support.

When stress is too overwhelming 

When people have difficulty coping with stress, they may do just about anything to feel better, such as drinking more than before or turning to other substances. These behaviors might ease stress and worry in the short term, but in the long run they can create more anxiety and/or quickly turn into an addiction.  

“When we’re under stress, we reach for things that are self-soothing,” says Watts. Pouring yourself a drink feels good because it allows you to put off your problems for the time being. It’s a way to figuratively run away, she adds.  

If occasional drinking or prescription misuse has turned into a habit that you’re unable to break, there’s no reason to feel ashamed. Anyone can develop a substance use disorder. Young adults are especially vulnerable, partially because they have less life experience. “The brain is not fully developed until age 24,” says Sarah Kawasaki, M.D., an addiction medicine specialist at Penn State Health. “Because their brains are still forming, young adults have a tough time realizing that stress is temporary. And it becomes even more difficult when you introduce substances like alcohol into the mix,” she says. 

Unfortunately, substance use can balloon into something that’s out of your control. “We can do something about many of the stressors in our lives, but not all of them. The tricky thing is recognizing how stress affects each of us differently. And sometimes you need outside support,” adds Dr. Kawasaki.  

When it’s time to seek help 

If you or a loved one needs help coping with stress, there are recurring things to look out for, including repeated instances of the following:

  • Alcohol misuse, especially before age 21
  • Changes in mood 
  • Changes in behavior 
  • Problems sleeping (Dr. Kawasaki notes that sleep is usually the first thing impacted) 
  • Relationship problems 
  • Difficulty taking care of oneself (e.g., getting out of bed, getting dressed, showering, etc.) 
  • Calling in sick from school or work 

According to the National Institutes of Health, treatments may include: 

  • Behavioral counseling 
  • Talk therapy or counseling 
  • Medication 
  • Support groups 
  • Treatment of withdrawal symptoms with medical devices or apps 

“There’s no one-size-fits-all method for help,” says Watts. If you’re trying to help someone close to you, it’s vital to listen to them. Invite them to have an open discussion about their options. “It’s extremely difficult to force people to engage in a form of treatment they’re not interested in,” she explains. And that can be especially true of young adults.  

Healthy ways to handle stress 

No matter what’s on your mind, these self-care habits can help you cope. Remember: Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s important to replenish our own needs so we can be fully available to others.  

  • Find support: “We all need a team,” says Watts. That might be your partner, friends, family members, a health care provider, or close colleagues at work. “Having a sense that you have people to support you is critical for successful treatment,” she explains. 
  • Meditation: Apps such as Headspace and Calm have made mindfulness more accessible. And many people find that they’re helpful, says Watts. Some, like Insight Timer, are even free. Start with five minutes a day and see if it helps you relax. Then gradually increase your time to get greater benefits. 
  • Exercise: “Exercise is one of the best things we can do for ourselves both physically and mentally,” says Watts. Try to plan some form of enjoyable movement every day. Maybe that’s grooving around the kitchen to your favorite playlist while you cook dinner, walking with a coworker at lunch, or scheduling stretching breaks throughout the day.  
  • Focus on sleep: Sleep is the basis of good self-care. “Following a good sleep schedule is important for everyone,” says Dr. Kawasaki. Research shows that people who don’t get enough z’s rate their stress levels as higher. Here are some best practices to help you fall (and stay) asleep.
  • Learn your triggers: You know there are some things that just set you off. These are called stress triggers, according to the Mayo Clinic. They may range from daily annoyances like heavy traffic to larger life events like going to large family gatherings. Knowing what your triggers are can help you plan and prepare for them ahead of time. When you’re feeling more in control, your stress doesn’t get so out of hand.

Not sure what your triggers are? Consider keeping a journal. Write down what thoughts or events add to your angst. And think about what self-care tools or exercises can help you let off some steam. You can find some ideas here. Other stress-busting activities may include:

  • Taking a five-minute walk
  • Sitting in a quiet room for a few minutes
  • Taking a warm shower
  • Practicing deep breathing
  • Calling a friend

Stress is always going to be part of life. While we don’t have control over everything that happens to us, we do have control over how we respond to our triggers. The more you practice healthy responses to stress, the more balanced you’ll feel — and the more ready you’ll be for any challenges life tosses your way.