A woman appears to be meditating outside near a beach.
Find peace and relaxation with these tips from a pro. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Is stress so common in your life that it feels normal? Do you experience stress without even realizing it?

If so, you may want to take a step back and look at what’s going on.

When you’re stressed, awareness is half the battle, according to Kiran Taylor, MD, division chief of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“Recognizing stress is important because we don’t function optimally when we’re stressed—things often go harder and we don’t feel as efficient,” Dr. Taylor said.

We also tend not to enjoy things as much as we could when we’re stressed.

“Our view, our perspective, is tainted by the stress,” she said.

Yet knowing we’re stressed isn’t enough. We also need to recognize how we react to stress, “because we’ll often take it out on other people and things,” Dr. Taylor said.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“You may not have a lot of control over what is making you feel that way, but you have control over how you choose to react,” she said.

Choose your strategy

Once you’ve learned to recognize your stress and how you tend to react to it, what can you do about it?

The best approach is to develop a personalized game plan.

“People have different ways of achieving a relaxed state,” Dr. Taylor said, so find relaxation and coping strategies that work for you.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Talk it out

“If you’re a talker and you need to talk through something, then (the remedy might be) calling up your friend and having the friend as a support,” Dr. Taylor suggested. “Or a therapist, a church member—somebody you know you can talk to about your stress. An outlet.”

2. Pick relaxing habits and hobbies

Hobbies presumably are things that relax you, so that as you fall into them, your body naturally relaxes and your mind relaxes.

“You can also create new ways to relax, like deep breathing, stretching, exercise, muscle relaxation, pampering,” Dr. Taylor said.

Don’t assume it takes a lot of effort to minimize stress.

“It could be simple: five deep breaths once a day or whenever you feel tense, which takes 30 seconds,” Dr. Taylor added.

She sees these ways of “flash treating” stress as very important, “because if we’re not feeling optimally in line, motivated, in tune with our needs, then it’s only going to be harder to do the other things we need to do to take care of ourselves.”

3. Reject harmful habits

Some of the ways that we relax are productive, but some may be counterproductive.

“For example, people who emotionally eat—they’re kind of taking eating too far to help them relax or cope,” Dr. Taylor said.

Your best bet is to avoid practices that can make things worse.

If self-help isn’t enough

Strategies like these can help most people manage their everyday stress. But if your stress is so significant that it’s affecting your ability to function, it’s time to turn to a licensed mental health professional.

“If you’re missing work, you’re not making it on time to places, you’re not keeping up with responsibilities, you’re not taking care of your hygiene, if your relationships are getting disrupted—if you’re not functioning to that degree, then that’s where I encourage people to seek professional help,” Dr. Taylor said.

“People can seek professional help at any point along the way, but those would be telltale signs that, hey, this is not a bad day, this has been happening enough and going on long enough—the way you’re reacting to the stress is damaging your life further.”

Managing stress is particularly important for people who deal with chronic disease.

“Stress certainly doesn’t help you,” she cautioned, “and it might contribute to worsening of chronic disease.”