We all feel stress from time to time, and thank goodness we do. A stress reaction is what allows our bodies to act quickly in an emergency and prevent injury for ourselves or others. Fortunately, most days we do not encounter emergencies, and yet most of us continue to experience stress on a daily basis.
According to the American Institute of Stress, 73%-77% of people experience stress that affects their physical and mental health. Did you hear that? Up to 77% of us! So unless you are an exceptionally chill Zen master, you probably are experiencing physical and mental discomfort in this very moment due to stress.
There are myriad symptoms one may be having in reaction to too much stress. Reach out to a doctor if you are concerned that stress may be affecting your health, and start implementing relaxation techniques today.
The best way to cope with stress is by getting at least seven hours of sleep per day, eating a predominantly plant-based diet, exercising regularly, meditating, and staying socially connected. “If you’re practicing all these healthy habits, it helps you become more resilient and better able to adapt to life’s challenging situations,” says Dr. Shalu Ramchandani, an integrative medicine specialist at the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Do a relaxation exercise. The relaxation response — the opposite of the stress response — was defined by Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson. It slows your breathing, reduces your heart rate, and lowers your stress hormones.
To elicit this state, Dr. Ramchandani recommends a basic breathing exercise, such as taking 10 very slow breaths in and out. Or try an imagery exercise: “Imagine being in your favorite vacation place, maybe the beach or in nature,” Dr. Ramchandani suggests. “Imagine all the sensations you’d experience there, such as the sight and sound of the waves, the smell of the ocean, and the breeze brushing against your skin. Hold this image for a few minutes and notice the relaxing effect.”
Stretch your muscles. Your muscles tense up under stress. Relieve that tension by stretching. “While sitting or standing, inhale, raise your arms overhead, lace your fingers together, stretch, release your fingers, and exhale as you lower your arms to each side. Repeat three times,” Dr. Ramchandani says.
Take a mindfulness break. Being mindful helps elicit the relaxation response by bringing you to the present moment; it can break a cycle of stressful thoughts. It’s like a real-time imagery exercise: you note all of your senses as you do something soothing. “It could be having a cup of tea and noticing its warmth in your hands, the scent of the tea, and the way it feels going down your throat,” Dr. Ramchandani says, “Or it could be taking a mindful shower or a leisurely and mindful walk through nature.”
Take a brisk walk. Getting 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, is important for all aspects of health, including stress management.
But even a quick 10-minute walk when you’re feeling triggered can help “burn off” stress hormones, counter muscle tension, and release the body’s feel-good chemicals, which promote relaxation. If arthritis or another condition make walking difficult, ask your doctor about other aerobic exercises you may be able to do.
Use laughter. “Laughter has been referred to as ‘internal jogging’ by Dr. William Fry, and may provide a source of healing. It reduces stress hormones and becomes an expression of joy, optimism, and hope,” Dr. Ramchandani says. “Watch a movie or TV show that makes you laugh, maybe your favorite episode of ‘I Love Lucy.’”
Reduce loud noise in your environment. “Loud noise triggers the stress response,” Dr. Ramchandani notes. “It makes it hard to think and takes you away from being mindful. If loud noise is unavoidable — perhaps because it comes from neighbors, traffic, or someone in your home or office — try wearing earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.”
Play soothing music. Unlike loud noise, pleasing music can help elicit the relaxation response. “Music therapy can be very powerful for healing, and it is used in medical settings for everything from cancer treatment to recovering from COVID-19,” Dr. Ramchandani says. “But you need to be present and engaged in the sounds you’re hearing. If your mind is wandering to a stressful place, music won’t help.”
Counter negative thoughts. Positive thoughts help boost positive emotions. “Find three positive things for one negative or stressful thought,” Dr. Ramchandani suggests. “Count your blessings, such as a safe place to live, a nice meal, and heat for your home during cold weather,” she says.
Use positive self-talk. “When you’re self-critical, that automatically activates the stress response. If you give yourself praise and support, it helps reduce stress.” Dr. Ramchandani says. Words to use: “You can do this. You’re smart and strong and you’ve done bigger things before. Even if things don’t go your way, you’re doing the best you can.”
Ask if it’s really worth it. Try to put things in perspective by asking if the cause of your stress will matter a year from now, or if it’s worth the health problems that stress can cause.
Reach out for help. We all want to be independent, but it’s okay to ask a friend or family member to simply listen to your concerns or to help you with activities, such as getting groceries, mowing the lawn, or lifting something heavy. Relieving a burden — either physical or mental — will help reduce stress.
When you’re frazzled by your morning commute, stuck in a stressful meeting at work, or fried from another argument with your spouse, you need a way to manage your stress levels right now. That’s where quick stress relief comes in.
The fastest way to reduce stress is by taking a deep breath and using your senses—what you see, hear, taste, and touch—or through a soothing movement. By viewing a favorite photo, smelling a specific scent, listening to a favorite piece of music, tasting a piece of gum, or hugging a pet, for example, you can quickly relax and focus yourself.
Can, Yekta Said, Heather Iles-Smith, Niaz Chalabianloo, Deniz Ekiz, Javier Fernández-Álvarez, Claudia Repetto, Giuseppe Riva, and Cem Ersoy. “How to Relax in Stressful Situations: A Smart Stress Reduction System.” Healthcare 8, no. 2 (April 16, 2020): 100. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare8020100
Toussaint, Loren, Quang Anh Nguyen, Claire Roettger, Kiara Dixon, Martin Offenbächer, Niko Kohls, Jameson Hirsch, and Fuschia Sirois. “Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2021 (July 3, 2021): e5924040. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/5924040
Unger, Cynthia A, David Busse, and Ilona S Yim. “The Effect of Guided Relaxation on Cortisol and Affect: Stress Reactivity as a Moderator.” Journal of Health Psychology 22, no. 1 (January 1, 2017): 29–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105315595118
Katsarou, Alexia L., Marios M. Vryonis, Athanassios D. Protogerou, Evangelos C. Alexopoulos, Apostolos Achimastos, Dimitrios Papadogiannis, George P. Chrousos, and Christina Darviri. “Stress Management and Dietary Counseling in Hypertensive Patients: A Pilot Study of Additional Effect.” Primary Health Care Research & Development 15, no. 1 (January 2014): 38–45. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1463423612000679
Choi, Dong-Woo, Sung-Youn Chun, Sang Ah Lee, Kyu-Tae Han, and Eun-Cheol Park. “Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15, no. 4 (April 2018): 796. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15040796
Blaxton, Jessica M., Cindy S. Bergeman, Brenda R. Whitehead, Marcia E. Braun, and Jessic D. Payne. “Relationships Among Nightly Sleep Quality, Daily Stress, and Daily Affect.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B 72, no. 3 (May 1, 2017): 363–72. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbv060
Saleh, Dalia, Nathalie Camart, Fouad Sbeira, and Lucia Romo. “Can We Learn to Manage Stress? A Randomized Controlled Trial Carried out on University Students.” PLOS ONE 13, no. 9 (September 5, 2018): e0200997. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200997
Loprinzi, Paul D., and Emily Frith. “Protective and Therapeutic Effects of Exercise on Stress-Induced Memory Impairment.” The Journal of Physiological Sciences: JPS 69, no. 1 (January 2019): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12576-018-0638-0