Ask the Expert: How Can I Lower My Stress Level?

You cannot escape stress. Getting the kids off to school, a ruined meal, taking care of an aging parent, job worries, or any life event can cause your stress level to rise. “Stress is normal,” says Dr. Victoria Cohen, D.O., a family medicine physician with the Ascension Medical Group Greater Mack Primary Care. “We all have stress. We can find comfort in knowing that we are not alone in feeling stressed or overwhelmed.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States. ADAA says that in African American women, anxiety is more chronic and symptoms are more intense than in Caucasian women.

“Stress manifests itself differently between people and we process stress differently,” Dr. Cohen says. “It occurs at different times and it can be associated with different triggers.” Untamed stress takes a toll. In fact, stress is linked to higher incidents of heart attack, stroke and other types of cardiovascular disease in African American women, the American Heart Association (AHA) notes.

It’s important to identify your “go-to” techniques to relieve stress, Dr. Cohen suggests. “Unfortunately, many of us use unhealthy techniques,” she says, including stress eating, binge-watching Netflix or shopping. Dr. Cohen says some of these methods aren’t completely bad, however, “the issue is when we are using these for coping and not addressing the main issue.”

There are a variety of tools to combat stress – and among them is mindfulness, which Dr. Cohen describes as “being aware of your physical and mental presence in the moment. Practicing mindfulness allows you to assess the things going on around you and determine how they impact you mentally.” 


Researchers from Johns Hopkins University conclude that using mindfulness meditation can help ease anxiety, as well as help with depression and pain. In his book Being Peace, author Thich Nhat Hanh recommends, “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a “wonderful moment.”

Dr. Cohen personally uses mindfulness techniques to change the focus to breathing rather than the stressor. “In medical school we practiced a mindfulness technique called ‘Soft Belly’,” she says. “Take a deep breath, saying the word ‘soft’ and slowly exhale, saying ‘belly.’ I found this to be so beneficial that I practice this with my family.”

There are many benefits to mindfulness. “You can identify stressors on-the-spot and practice mindfulness techniques to address them immediately,” Dr. Cohen says. Increased productivity and enjoyment of activities, improved sleep and reduced muscle tension are just a few of the other dividends. “Overall, it helps to improve your quality of life,” Dr. Cohen says.

Everyone can use mindfulness techniques, she adds. You can get started today by downloading a free app, such as the Breathe app, to your smartphone. Other mindfulness techniques focus on objects in your surroundings or listening to music. Many of them can be incorporated in your daily routine.

“Mental health plays a huge role in how we are able to tackle our day-to-day responsibilities,” Dr. Cohen says. “You may not enjoy each moment in life; however, we are given new days to turn things around. We can start the change one moment at a time.”

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