14 of the Best Ways to Handle Stress
Cue up your favorite song
No, it doesn't have to be classical music. Listening to songs of their choice helped patients who were about to undergo surgery feel less anxious, according to a study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. If you need some inspiration, here are eight songs that can help you feel calmer.
Give yourself a DIY massage
A 15-minute chair massage can help relax your sympathetic nervous system, lowering your stress levels, found a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience. If you don't have the luxury of being able to take a trip to the masseuse, "Simply rolling a tennis ball over muscles with the palm of your hand can trigger a similar response," says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Do a mental dress rehearsal
Before Navy SEALs start an op, they spend hours going over every likely scenario and how best to respond to each. It's a technique called mental loading, says Lu Lastra, director of mentorship for Naval Special Warfare and a former SEAL command master chief. It helps to ease anxiety and boost confidence during stressful situations, and you can do it, too. Stressed because your boss just asked you to step into her office, or your kid's teacher called and said she needs to have a word with you? Spend a few minutes running through the possible scenarios in your mind and how you'd react to each one.
Clench and release
When you're so stressed that your muscles are tense (hello there, never-ending shoulder tightness!), "Start by clenching the muscles in your forehead and face as you take a breath and hold it for a moment," says Nina Smiley, PhD, co-author of The Three Minute Meditator. "As you release the tension, exhale fully and relax. Work your way down your body, repeating the process. The tightening and releasing is a physical cue to the body to let stress go."
It almost sounds too easy, but experts say separating yourself from whatever's stressing you out is one of the smartest things you can do. "In a way, smokers have the right idea," says Julian Ford, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and co-author of Hijacked by Your Brain. "When they step outside to light up, they're doing one of the most important—and hardest—parts of de-stressing: taking a break. They consciously distance themselves from immediate pressures and remove themselves from all the cues that say, "Work harder." This naturally turns down the alarm in their brain. Happily, you don't have to engage in dangerous behavior like smoking to do this. Simply walking away from stressors for a few minutes can be one of the best practices for learning to handle daily pressure."
Find a funny meme
Aside from being another way to step back from a stressful situation or task, just thinking about laughing can reduce levels of stress hormones, according to researchers. May we suggest this collection of the best memes of 2016?
Breathe just like this
We have three breathing techniques that can calm you down in a pinch.
4 x 4 x 4 breathing Used by Navy SEALs, this exercise involves breathing deeply for four counts, then exhaling for four counts and repeating the cycle for four minutes. You can do it throughout the day to help combat stress, whenever it arises.
1-2-3 breathing "By forcing yourself to breathe as you do in your most relaxed moments, you trick your body into releasing calming neurohormones, causing a biological shift in how you feel," says psychotherapist Belleruth Naparstek, a leader in the field of guided imagery. "Just inhale and feel your abdomen expand. Go as slowly as possible, counting in 1-2-3. Then, observe the turn of your breath, and breathe it out 1-2-3. Whether you do this for one minute or five, it's going to bring you to a calmer place."
Diaphragmatic breathing Expanding your belly gives your lungs room to take in more oxygen, improving circulation and helping you feel calmer. Start by lying on your back with your knees bent. Place one hand just below your ribcage and the other hand on your upper chest. Breathe in slowly through your nose so your stomach pushes against your lower hand. As you exhale through pursed lips, contract your abs. The hand on your chest should stay as still as possible throughout the whole exercise.
If You're Looking for a Long-Term Stress Solution
Write about what's stressing you out
Laying out your feelings about whatever's causing you stress can help you feel less stressed about it. That's what researchers found when they asked people to spend just 20 minutes on two different days writing about a stressful event (the findings were published in Anxiety, Stress & Coping). The researchers believe the act of writing helps you organize your thoughts, making it easier to let go of any negative emotions.
Make tea part of your daily routine
Drinking four cups of black tea a day for six weeks helped people de-stress faster and lower their cortisol levels after a stressful event, according to a study from University College London. (Black tea is high in antioxidants, which may lead to relaxation by effecting neurotransmitters in your brain.) You could also try valerian root tea for an immediate calming effect. "Tea made from valerian root relaxes the nerves," says Roberta Lee, MD, the vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and the author of The SuperStress Solution. "Think of it as a very weak Valium."
Get a pet
Sure, it can be stressful if Sparky occasionally pees on the rug, but a furry companion can lead to greater calm overall. Research has found that pets can lower anxiety levels among hospital patients, relax study subjects asked to solve a difficult arithmetic problem and lower the blood pressure of people in stressful jobs.
Embrace the outdoors
Time to take your baths outside, in a sense. "Forest bathing", popular in Japan, involves spending time strolling, sitting and generally immersing yourself in nature. Research on the phenomenon shows that compared to walking in a city, walks in nature lower cortisol levels by 12.4 percent, decrease activity in the sympathetic nervous system by 7 percent and lower heart rate by 5.8 percent. Even more impressive, time spent outside can increase activity in your calming, parasympathetic nervous system by 55 percent.
Make a weekly dinner date with friends
Spending time with family and friends can boost your health in many ways, including fighting stress. How? When you're socializing, your body releases oxytocin, a chemical that lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure.
Sweat out your worries
Forget endorphins. Some researchers say that the feel-good effects of exercise should actually be credited to endocannabinoids, molecules made up of lipids that affect the body in a way similar to the active ingredient in marijuana. The molecules bind to your nervous system, triggering reactions that decrease anxiety. A single fifty-minute sweat session can increase blood levels of endocannabinoids, but consistently working out can also have a protective effect if you're prone to anxiety. Need exercise ideas? Here are three walking workouts that burn major calories, plus a full-body workout you can do with just one dumbbell and two cardio workouts that don't involve running.
This one's so simple yet so effective. An analysis of 39 studies on mindfulness-based therapy found that meditation can treat anxiety, mood disorders and depression. Better yet, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that meditation can lower stress levels in less than one week. Try starting with these five one-minute meditations, and for even more motivation to practice, here are six additional ways meditation benefits your body and brain.
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