Modern medicine has increasingly come to acknowledge the role that stress plays in our health and well being. In fact if one has a stroke or heart attack, G‑d forbid, one of the vital components of the rehabilitation process is learning stress management to develop a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

Maimonides taught that we need everything in moderationThe great rabbi, philosopher and doctor, Maimonides (1135-1204), taught that we should work to prevent illness or disease, rather than wait for a problem and then attempt to resolve it. With this in mind, we must look at stress and how it affects our lives while figuring out how we can manage our stress to prevent illness.

The first step is to understand what stress is. The medical dictionary describes stress as "any physical, emotional, social, economic or other factor that requires a response to change."

Other definitions of stress describe how any situation can be stressful and that stress contains both positive and negative aspects and may affect one positively or negatively. Events that are exciting and positive are generally thought to not require any intervention. To a certain extent, this is true. However, Maimonides taught that we need everything in moderation and warned against any situation where one is out of control and unbalanced, regardless if that is a result of joy or anxiety.

When understanding stress, it is clear that what is perceived as a stressor is in fact a trigger or springboard for change or a response. Although our bodies usually consider a stressful situation as potentially dangerous, one can, in fact, work with the situation in order to use it for progress and growth.

When teaching stress management, a common illustration given is to consider you are going for a walk in nature when you suddenly encounter a hungry lion. In this situation, you have two choices. Either you can run away as fast as possible, or you can stand still and wait for the danger to pass. Hence, we term our reaction the "fight or flight" response. In both situations, your senses have to be functioning at their optimum and your muscles need to be ready to react as quickly, smoothly and skillfully as possible to assist you to get out of danger. As a result, the body secretes certain hormones which help those needed muscles to react quickly in order to be ready to work effectively. Those muscles that are not necessary, e.g. the muscles of digesting food in the stomach, need to be stilled at that time. The body, when functioning properly, therefore has an automatic reaction that kicks in to save oneself under such extreme situations.

Your diet must contain each of the major food groupsHowever, when your body is constantly considering events in your everyday life as stressful in a negative way, then the repetitive physiological changes that take place can be harmful to your body. Hence, illnesses like forms of skin disease, stomach ulcers, heart attacks, and allergies are often linked with stress.

So the question is: how can we work on our stress in order to be able to respond to whatever occurs in our life in a manner that is productive, effective and conducive to health and progress, rather than disease? We need to begin by looking at our daily habits to ensure that they support a healthy lifestyle. Included in this is how much you sleep, and whether the sleep is restful and rejuvenating, or if you wake up feeling more tired than when you went to sleep. Your diet needs to be balanced and healthy, making sure to eat home-cooked food rather than fast foods. In addition, your diet must contain each of the major food groups, including plenty of roughage and water to ensure effective elimination of waste.

Water! As part of how much water you drink, keep in mind that our bodies are comprised primarily of water, and that we require – on average – eight glasses of clean, pure water daily. If you are healing from an illness or undergoing a stressful situation, your body may require more water, up to twelve glasses per day.

Exercise! Make sure you are getting regular exercise that includes an increase in heart-rate for twenty minutes at a time, two to three times a week. This aids your body in manufacturing certain hormones which help one to feel relaxed and positive. It also helps the heart and circulatory system to work well – not to mention that exercising trains and tones your muscles. It is proven that those who are fit are able to handle life's events in a more balanced manner and are less likely to feel the negative physiological effects of stress.

While looking to your health, it is important to develop healthy habits to cope with stress and not to turn to substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or excessive exercise. Rather than use an unhealthy escape from the stress, one should learn various relaxation techniques. For some, this can be by practicing deep breathing, and for others, listening to music or engaging in some kind of creative activity; some enjoy walking in nature and others might enjoy cooking, baking or even household tasks. Of course, all the types of physical movement and sport are very good for toning the body and increasing good, deep breathing.

Shallow breathing, in and of itself, is a strain to the bodyWhat is relaxing for one is not necessarily relaxing for another and it is important to find what works for you. With whichever activity you chose, make sure it is carried out in a healthy manner and that you make sure you breathe deeply. Shallow breathing, in and of itself, is a strain to the body, as it limits the amount of oxygen that reaches the muscles and other organs.

After looking at our health, our next step is to identify the factors posing a stress to you. Is it your family, your home, where you live, your neighbors, too much work, too little work? One helpful method to figuring this out is to put your thoughts and feelings on paper. Whatever is happening in your life, write about it through describing all the various factors. When you feel you have a clear idea of what the problem is, then write yourself a goal to achieve, in a positive clear manner, stated in the present tense and with practical actions to make it happen.

When you are happy with your set goals, write them out in large letters and stick them up somewhere where you can see them regularly. It can be on or next to your mirror, on the inside of your wardrobe, on your refrigerator. You can then stop each time you are near it and read, or even say your goal out loud, several times. In this way you help your subconscious to affirm you will find a solution and each reminder further helps you in coming up with more options.

Your next step is to place your goal on the top of a page and brainstorm options to resolve or assist what you are going through. For this task, be as creative as you can. Place the main issue in the center of the page and then write branches from it of whatever thoughts come to mind. Put in both positive and negative ideas, your strengths that you can use to help solve or change the situation, and your weaknesses to work on.

Now take a look at your description, with both strengths and weaknesses, and put them in order of priority. Once you have done so, write some action plans. This can include your need to gather information. Write down what information and where you can find it. You may need to delegate some tasks to someone. Write down which tasks and to whom you can delegate.

Are there any relationships that drain your energy?You may need to schedule a meeting with a superior, with staff or family members. Write down each stage of this e.g. I need to schedule a meeting with X, on Y date. To do so, I need to call X or Q, or I need to send an email or write a letter. Write down when you will do it.

Keep going with this list until you have exhausted all your possibilities. Remember to look at your environment. How satisfying your lifestyle is, the nature of your relationships, whether you need to learn something to help find the solution, the possible need to ask advice from a friend or relative, the need to seek medical attention or professional input. Take a look at your time management. Can you save time anywhere, and if so, how? Are there any relationships that drain your energy? If yes, how can you deal with them?

And one thing to always remember is the need to train yourself to think positively rather than to expect a negative outcome. We are taught that our thoughts have energy and can be used to either help us or do the opposite, G‑d forbid. There is the concept of tracht gut vet zein gut, think good and it will be good. If you put out a positive energy through good thoughts, then you help yourself be optimistic and also help others respond in a constructive manner. If, on the other hand, your outlook is one of doom and gloom, you are setting yourself up for a fall before it has even occurred.

While clearly the topic of dealing with stress is a large one, hopefully the outlined approaches will prove helpful and useful. And hopefully it is now clear that with the right approach and attitude, it is possible to manage our stress and use it as an opportunity to change, grow and progress in life.