Regular, everyday life can be stressful enough. Pile a global health emergency like the novel coronavirus pandemic on top of it, and a nonstop state of anxiety can quickly become your new normal.
But there are ways to cope — and they don't necessarily have to involve carving out an hour for meditation or yoga. (Though if you're up for it, you should totally do it.)
Chronic stress can make you feel miserable, of course. But it's also bad for your body, upping the risk for headaches, stomach problems, trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping, weight gain and even heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. So taking steps to keep those anxious feelings in check are well worth the effort.
Best of all, you can relieve stress quickly with some super-simple strategies. Try working these easy behaviors into your everyday routine. They'll calm you down almost instantly — and over time, they just might put a dent in your daily stress level.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Write Out Your Feelings (and Then Maybe Throw Them Away)
It's an easy way to let your feelings out that you can do anytime, anywhere: Jotting down what's on your mind helps give a voice to your worries and fears.
And over time, it may help you ID the specific problems or negative thought patterns that are contributing to your stress, so you can take steps to solve them. As a result, there's a good chance you'll feel less anxious, overwhelmed or depressed, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Some folks like to keep a notebook or diary, since it lets them reflect on their feelings over time. But according to a study published November 2012 in the journal Psychological Science, writing your thoughts on a single sheet of paper and tossing it in the trash afterward can also be effective. Throwing away your written thoughts could actually help clear your mind.
Try it: There's no right or wrong way to journal — all you have to do is grab your pen and let the ink flow. Picking a regular time to write can help make journaling a part of your daily routine. But if you'd rather keep a notebook handy and write whenever the mood strikes, that works too.
2. Crank Some Tunes
That feeling you get when a great song comes on? It's your body's relief system at work. Listening to music balances out the stress response by lowering levels of the hormone cortisol as well as blood sugar, finds a 2018 review of 44 studies published in the journal Progress in Brain Research. As a result, you start to feel calmer and more relaxed almost instantly.
Try it: The review concluded that any type of music can get the job done, so pick whatever you're in the mood to hear. Just be sure to do it with intention: According to a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, listening to music for the purpose of relaxation — as opposed to just having it on in the background — yields the biggest benefits.
3. Pet Your Dog or Cat
Hanging out with a furry friend ramps up the production of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that boosts feelings of closeness and wellbeing. It also dampens the production of the hormone cortisol. And that can help stop feelings like stress and anxiety in their tracks, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Don't have a pet of your own? Spending time with someone else's furball will also do the trick, suggests a June 2019 study of students participating in an animal visitation program published in the journal AERA Open. Offer to take your neighbor's dog for a stroll, or volunteer for cat-visit duties the next time your friend is traveling.
Try it: Try to be with your pet for 10 minutes or so. That's the amount of time it takes for the cortisol-crushing effects to really kick in, per the AERA Open study.
4. Sniff Some Lavender
The scent has a soothing effect that can boost your mood and tamp down anxiety. Lavender contains several compounds that seem to activate calming receptors in the brain in animal studies, according to an October 2015 review in Molecules.
And the effects are almost instantaneous: A study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that intensive care patients who smelled lavender reported feeling more positive and less anxious right away.
Try it: Add two or three drops of lavender essential oil to two cups of water. Dip a washcloth in the mixture and wipe the cloth on your face or around your neck, recommends the Cleveland Clinic. On the go? Try slathering on a lavender-scented lotion.
5. Take a Deep Breath
Sometimes all you really need is to pause for a few big inhales and exhales.
Deep belly breathing takes in more oxygen than the shallower chest breaths we take when we're stressed, according to Harvard Health Publishing. That slows down your heartbeat and causes your blood pressure to drop, sending your brain the message that it's time to calm down.
Try it: To relieve stress quickly, stop what you're doing and sit down in a comfortable position. Take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to expand as much as possible. Exhale, keeping your lips in an O-shape (like you're whistling), until all of the air is out of your belly, per University of Michigan Medicine. Repeat slowly up to 10 times. Now, doesn't that feel better?
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- Mayo Clinic: "Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Journaling for Mental Health"
- Psychological Science: "Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation"
- Progress in Brain Research: "The Biological Impact of Listening to Music in Clinical and Nonclinical Settings: A Systematic Review"
- Psychoneuroendocrinology: "Music Listening as a Means of Stress Reduction in Daily Life"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Alleviating Anxiety, Stress and Depression with the Pet Effect"
- AERA Open: Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Molecules: "A Systematic Review of the Anxiolytic-Like Effects of Essential Oils in Animal Models"
- Journal of Advanced Nursing: "Sensing an improvement: an experimental study to evaluate the use of aromatherapy, massage and periods of rest in an intensive care unit."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response"
- University of Michigan Medicine: "Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation"