21 Stress-Reducing Techniques
Last Updated: Apr 16, 2014
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Americans are feeling increasingly stressed, according to a 2012 Carnegie Mellon study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. When researchers compared self-reported stress levels from 1983, 2006 and 2009, they discovered that stress had risen between 10 and 30 percent across all demographic categories over the last three decades. Even more worrisome? According to the American Psychological Association, only 37 percent of Americans feel they are actually succeeding at managing their stress, resulting in negative health effects like skipping meals, lying awake at night and overeating or eating unhealthy foods. If you’re among the many people who are in dire need of a stress intervention, take a deep breath and read the next slides to see 21 stress-reducing techniques.
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FIND SOMETHING THAT MAKES YOU LAUGH
Turns out, laughter really can be the best medicine. A number of studies, including a 2003 study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, have shown that laughter can help ease feelings of stress. And a 2008 study from the American Physiological Society found that even anticipating a laugh can reduce stress hormones. While a lot of these studies are small (and isolating variables in an experiment like this can be tricky), a good belly laugh certainly won't make your stress worse. So consider this science's way of telling you it's OK to watch that stupid cat video at work or take a quick break to catch up on some clips from the previous night's late-night TV shows.
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TREAT YO' SELF
Rough day at the office? Or having a tough time corralling the kids into bed? Take some time out for yourself. Schedule a massage, take a long bath or relax in the sauna. According to a 2011 study from Duke University Medical Center, cancer patients who participated in regular massage therapy sessions experienced lower stress levels than those who didn't. And if you've ever gotten a massage, you don't need science to tell you that massages seem to melt the stress away in a matter of minutes. The sauna is also a great way to relax and unwind. Aside from the peace and quiet you can find during “you time,” the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2015 that frequent sauna use was associate with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease-related mortality.
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PRACTICE PUBLIC (AND PRIVATE) DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION
Reach out and kiss someone! In a 2008 study of 2,000 couples at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers determined that those who kissed spontaneously and often were eight times less likely to experience chronic stress and depression. Even the simple act of saying “I love you” or expressing affection can lower your levels of stress hormones like cortisol and DHEA-S, according to a 2008 Arizona State University study published in Communication Monographs. The finding proved researcher Kory Floyd’s “affection exchange theory,” which posits that affectionate behavior has made significant contributions to human viability and fertility throughout evolution.
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Stressed? Stop and smell the rose oil. “Using essential oils in your environment can actually affect the entire body, [improving] mood and reducing stress,” says natural health expert Kathy Gruver. The reason? Aromatherapy interacts with the brain’s limbic system and hypothalamus, encouraging the release of stress-fighting serotonin -- though some experts think it may simply be an emotional placebo. Along with rose oil, lavender and chamomile are also effective agents for releasing stress. Depending on the type of oil, you’ll find many options for incorporating your preferred scent into daily life -- from drinking teas to using diffusers to wearing them as perfume or in jewelry. Just one caveat from Gruver: “Whichever aromatherapy you choose, make sure to use organic oils.”
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ADOPT A FOUR-LEGGED FRIEND
Pets are more than great companions, they can also be key agents in helping to soothe your stress. In 2010, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden announced their findings that humans get a boost of oxytocin (a “happiness hormone”) when interacting with and petting dogs. Another 2002 study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, followed 240 married couples and found that those with pets had significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure levels than those without a furry friend. The conclusion? Because people perceive pets as a supportive presence in their lives, the end result has significant cardiovascular and stress-reducing benefits. Man’s best friend indeed.
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CONNECT WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Get through your tough days with a little help from your friends. Whether that's grabbing a quick cup of coffee with a friends, chatting with a coworker (not about work) around the water cooler or joining a church or social organization, surrounding yourself with people -- especially positive ones -- can boost your emotional wellbeing. In fact, a 2011 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that college students dealt with academic stressors better when they had a group of classmates or friends they could rely on. And numerous other studies have found that those who are more socially connected (in real life, not just online) live longer, happier lives. That doesn't mean you have to be an extrovert, but you can certainly reap benefits of having a close group of friends.
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BE MORE PROACTIVE AND ORGANIZED
Yes, your environment can be stressing you out. So get organized! A 2010 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that women who described their homes as cluttered or full of unfinished projects had higher levels of stress than those who described their homes as restful and restorative. So if your desk is piled high with half-finished projects, your home is overrun with dirty laundry or your to-do list is never-ending, take some time and prioritize getting organized. Not everything needs to be perfect, but having a more organized home or work space will help you stay calm and focused.
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KEEP A JOURNAL
Ever heard of the HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) model? It’s used to illustrate the poor reaction to stress that can result when your basic needs aren’t being met -- and that’s exactly where therapist and counseling educator Diane Lang’s Journal of Truth exercise comes in. For one week, her clients keep a record of how much water they drank, what they ate and when and how much sleep and exercise they got. “At the end of the week, it shows why you’re stressed and unbalanced -- whether it’s having large gaps between meals and causing your blood sugar to drop or too much caffeine or sugar,” she says. “Keeping this journal shows which basic needs are being met and what changes you need to make.” Additionally, writing in a journal, even for just a few minutes, can be very therapeutic and allow you some time to step back from a stressful situation and reflect on why you're feeling so stressed. It's not always possible in the moment, so if you can't break away from a tense conversation, write about it afterwards and reflect on how you can handle similar situations in the future.
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INDULGE IN A POWER NAP
Too busy for a nap? You may want to reconsider. Research has shown that even a 10-minute power nap can work wonders. Those who take a brief nap exhibit significantly improved alertness and cognitive performance compared with those who don’t nap at all. “People are actually getting the same benefit from a nap as a night of sleep,” says Sara Mednick, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Surprisingly, shorter naps actually prove to be more effective than napping for 30 or 90 minutes -- lengths of time that may cause grogginess. So go ahead and allow yourself to take that short siesta and consider wearing earplugs and/or an eye mask to truly unplug.
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TAP INTO HEALING ENERGY
It may sound like an abstract principle, but according to certified energy therapist Kristin Borostyan, “there are several engaging, quick methods people can use to reduce stress and realign themselves.” One of her clients’ go-to moves is dubbed the Hook Up. To do it, place one middle finger between your eyebrows and your other middle finger on your navel. Then gently press each finger inward and upward and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. “You might experience a sigh or a yawn,” she says. “This shows that your energies are hooked up properly.” If you try this and you don't sigh or yawn, it doesn't mean that the exercise was unsuccessful. Borostyan adds that “when your energy is aligned, your body’s reaction to a stressful situation is significantly reduced.”
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DRINK MATCHA TEA
If you're desperate to find your Zen but also need to stay on your game to get everything done, a cup of organic matcha tea may be just what the stress doctor ordered. “Not only does matcha make you feel calm and alert at the same time, but it’s loaded with antioxidants,” says Elizabeth Trattner, integrative and traditional Chinese medicine expert. This powdered green tea contains high levels of L-theanine, an amino acid proved to have both psychological and physiological anti-stress qualities. A 2003 study published in Journal of Chromatography A also found that matcha has three times as much of a potent antioxidant known as EGCG -- or epigallocatechin gallate -- compared to other types of green tea. Consume matcha hot, cold or even latte-style with coconut milk, Trattner suggests. “Make sure to buy a bamboo whisk called a chasen to prepare it correctly.”
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TAKE TIME TO EXERCISE
Get up and get moving to beat your stress. According to the American Psychological Association, regular exercise helps the brain handle stress by releasing neurochemicals to help the body respond more appropriately. There is some evidence to suggest that the release of norepinephrine is responsible for the brain's efficient handling of stress. But other researchers have a much simpler explanation. “Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress,” says Rod K. Dishman of the University of Georgia. “It forces the body's physiological systems -- all of which are involved in the stress response -- to communicate much more closely than usual.” So the more you exercise, the better your body becomes at communicating about and dealing with stress responses.
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PUT DOWN YOUR SMARTPHONE
Between social media, texts, apps and games like Words With Friends and Candy Crush, it’s no wonder that smartphones have the potential to stress us out -- after all, wielding a smartphone can feel like a full-time job by itself. A 2012 study of more than 100 people by British psychologist Richard Balding showed that the number of times you check your phone daily directly relates to the amount of stress that you feel. Balding also concluded that the stress was more closely associated with personal than professional use of smartphones, stemming from compulsive checking for texts and social media notifications.
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REMEMBER TO BREATHE
We have the terrible tendency of holding our breath when we're stressed. But this only compounds the problem. Instead, try practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing. A 2010 Spanish study found that slow, controlled breathing decreased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in both men and women. And a 2006 Indian study found that mental relaxation and slow breathing help lower blood pressure. So when you feel stress start to creep up on you. Take a few minutes and breathe deeply. There are a few techniques you can try: Breathe deeply in though your nose, hold and breathe out through your mouth; use a finger to block one nostril and breathe in through one side of your nose and out through the other; or place your hands on your belly and breathe in and out through your nose, paying special attention to how your rib cage expands laterally.
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DON’T BE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY
If your inner critic’s messages are deafening, it may be time to reduce them to a dull roar to save yourself the emotional wear and tear. “The way that we appraise ourselves and our corresponding self-talk impacts how we feel emotionally,” says clinical psychologist Christina O’Flaherty. “When we beat ourselves up for mistakes or shortcomings, we are more likely to feel more stressed in the face of a challenge.” Instead, O’Flaherty advocates practicing self-compassion, a technique proved to boost happiness and optimism. “Think about times when a close friend is struggling with something and write down what you would say to her to make her feel better,” she adds. “Try treating yourself the way you would treat your friend.”
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EAT A HEALTHY, BALANCED DIET
Your food can directly impact how you handle stress and anxiety. Start your day off strategically with a complex carbohydrate like steel-cut oats. “Complex carbs cause the brain to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter which produces a calming effect on the body,” explains internal medicine physician Saundra Dalton-Smith, M.D. She adds that you can give your healthy oatmeal an extra boost of crunch and sweetness by adding raisins and sunflower seeds. “Both are rich in B vitamins, which help to reduce stress.” Even the simple act of eating breakfast can help you de-stress, according to a 2012 Mindlab study that noted an 89-percent anxiety reduction in those who make time for the morning ritual. But don't stop with breakfast, eating well throughout the day will keep your energy levels up, allowing you to handle stressful situations and make decisions with a clearer head.
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STRIKE A (YOGA) POSE
As the yoga trainer for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, Dana Santas is accustomed to helping athletes in high-stress situations. Her solution? Strategic yoga poses and breathing techniques. Much of her philosophy mirrors that of a 2012 Harvard study that found holding an open, expansive posture increases testosterone and decreases cortisol levels. One of her favorite techniques to teach is the “mountain” pose, in which you stand with your feet hip-distance apart, inhale and raise your arms overhead at shoulder width. Once in position, you should take 10 slow, deep breaths, emphasizing your exhalations and counting backward from 10 to one, advises Santas, who owns Radius Yoga. “The combination of being able to take deep breaths and hold an open posture is the perfect recipe for de-stressing,” she says.
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THUMP YOUR THYMUS
When therapist Neca C. Smith trains corporate clients to reduce workplace stress, she suggests a technique known as thymus tapping. “When stress is present, the immune system shuts down,” she says. “Thymus tapping is an energy-medicine technique used to give the immune system a jolt of energy and relieve stress.” To practice this, locate your thymus, which is at the top of your chest just below your collarbone, and use your fingers to tap for 20 seconds while slowly breathing in and out. Take it up a notch by tapping a waltz-style beat, a method recommended by holistic physician John Diamond.
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PRACTICE MANTRA MEDITATION
Simple phrases can be powerful stress relievers, a truth yoga teacher Lisa Espinosa knows all too well. At her weekly beginners meditation class at Chicago’s Beverly Yoga Center, she teaches new practitioners the art of mantra meditation. “Mantra meditation is when you repeat -- either silently or aloud -- a word or phrase,” she says. Her suggestion is to choose a mantra (either a Sanskrit one like “ohm shanti” or a simple English phrase like “more peace” or “more balance”) and repeat it out loud every day for two minutes and then silently for three minutes. “It’s like you are training your mind to feel relaxed every time you repeat this mantra,” she says.
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LISTEN TO MUSIC
If the right song can make you stop stressing and sing along, you’re not alone. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing sought to examine the effects of music on those in high-stress professions. It found that those who sat and listened to soothing music of their own selection for 30 minutes had lower perceived stress levels, heart rates and cortisol levels than those who sat quietly for the same length of time. And don’t be afraid to listen to sad songs, because they can actually improve your mood, according to a 2013 study by Japanese researchers published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
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USE AN EASY-TO-REMEMBER ACRONYM
When teaching stress management to first responders, police, firefighters and dispatchers, HR trainer Steve Albrecht uses a simple acronym: BREADS. According to Albrecht, it stands for breathing (keeping your breath slow and steady), relaxation (taking at least 10 minutes twice a day to shut your eyes and relax or meditate), exercise (five days a week for at least 30 minutes), attitude (keeping it positive), diet (low in carbs, high in lean proteins and moderation in caffeine and alcohol) and sleep (more and better-quality sleep, along with good pre-sleep rituals). “It can aid in stress relief and help self-management,” he says.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
How often do you feel stressed? What are some easy tips you use to reduce your daily stress? Have you ever tried any of the tips on this list? What were the results? Which of these tips will you incorporate into your life? Let us know your thoughts, suggestions and feedback in the comments section below!
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