Stress is a normal part of the human experience—it's actually programmed into us; an incredible hold-over from our primal days meant to keep us safe from danger. But now that we're no longer in direct harm from hunting for our next meal, stress is more likely to be triggered by non life-threatening experiences, like issues at work or family annoyances.
And while triggers of stress can sometimes seem trivial, the effects stress has on our bodies are not. Stress can leave us feeling uncomfortable, sick, or even in pain, and finding ways to manage it are crucial in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Health spoke with several experts on how to relieve stress nearly instantly or over time using a variety of methods. Here are 15 things you can do right now to help you start feeling calmer.
1. Make a list of things you’re grateful for.
We get it, it can be difficult feel gratitude for anything when it feels like the world is falling down around you. But showing gratitude for the smallest things, like a warm cup of tea or a sunny day can lift your spirits and reduce anxiety, Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast, tells Health. If possible, start a daily gratitude journal where you list what you're grateful for that day, turning the stress-relieving habit into a routine.
2. Get some rest.
Previously reported by Health, neuroscientist Matthew P. Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep, firmly believes in sleep as your “superpower.” According to one of his sleep studies published in 2017 in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, those who are sleep-deprived were more reactive to emotionally negative stimuli, than those with a proper night’s rest. If you’re feeling more stressed than usual, assess your previous night’s rest and try to hit the hay a little earlier, or slip in a midday nap to refresh your brain.
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3. Play with a pet.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, just petting an animal can boost your serotonin and dopamine levels, and a 2016 survey of 2,000 pet owners, conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) revealed 74% of them experienced mental health improvements from owning a pet. that Alongside providing a form of therapy, owning a pet can add a level of structure, routine, as well as additional exercise to your lifestyle, helping to reduce stress and anxiety. According to Sandra Baker, PhD, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, hanging out with a dog after a stressful event greatly reduces your cortisol levels and possibly buffers the impact of the event.
4. Try to meditate.
Meditation is easily one of the most science-backed and proven methods of relieving stress and anxiety. There are several types focusing on music, breathing, postures, and more, you can easily find a method that works for you to relieve stress. “Specifically the practice of mindful meditation has been shown to reduce stress,” Dr. Saltz tells Health. “There are numerous apps that can get you started. It's not hard to learn, but it takes practice.” Not sure where to start? Try the MyLife Meditation by Stop. Breathe. Think app (free on iTunes and Google Play) for guided audio meditations on all moods from joy to anger.
5. Spend some time in nature.
As previously reported by Health, spending time in nature has a profound effect on our stress levels. According to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, even spending just 20 minutes in a park does wonders for our well-being. According to research psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Joy of Movement, incorporating a little nature every day is beneficial to managing your stress levels. Depending on how you’re social distancing, getting to a park every day may not be easy, but even a short daily walk outside (hello vitamin D!) would suffice and help you clear your head.
6. Trigger a pressure point.
Did you know your body practically has a stress-release button? There’s a spot between the tendons—about two or three finger widths above the center of your inner wrist—called the pericardium 6 (PC6). According to Nada Milosavljevic, MD, medical director of BodyLogicMD, applying pressure to this point has been used to prevent postoperative nausea and vomiting and has a therapeutic effect on those dealing with chronic stress and anxiety.
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7. Tense and relax your muscles.
One of Dr. Saltz’s favorite de-stressing techniques actually involve tensing your muscles, holding them in that tense position for 5 to 10 seconds and then releasing, creating a near instant feeling of relaxation. “This practice reduces stress through the mind-body connection—when we're feeling very stressed, we tense up our bodies,” says Dr. Saltz. “And when we tense up our bodies, it reinforces the message to your mind to be stressed. It's a signal of physiological arousal. Doing what you can to relax your body helps relax your mind.”
8. Clean up your space.
Check your desk right now. If the mess is adding to your stress, give it a quick clean. As previously reported by Health, cleaning up can help create a feeling of control when your environment feels chaotic, while your newly organized space can bring a new sense of clarity and calm. Chaotic environments create more stress, according to Susan Biali Haas, MD, wellness expert and author of Live a Life You Love. “When you engage your senses, like touch, it takes you out of your stressed-out mind and has a meditative effect," she said. Set a timer for 10 minutes and organize what you can for an instant space (and mind) refresh.
9. Get in some light exercise.
Dr. Saltz recommends doing any form of aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes, three or four times a week (which is actually the amount of activity the CDC recommends for healthy adults) a is great for stress, anxiety, and improving your mood. Some examples of heart rate-boosting activities include a light jog, dance cardio, or sex. She encourages you to find an activity that you find the most fun and stick with it. If possible, squeeze it in before work, during your lunch break, or even make exercise a family activity after work by taking a walk.
10. Embrace your inner child and play.
When was the last time you colored, played hide and seek, or watched cartoons? Dr. Saltz believes that embracing playtime as an adult can be amazing for stress. Bonus points if you have actual kids around to play with. However determining what that is is entirely up to you and your childhood. Don’t be afraid to get silly and embrace whatever uniqueness comes to mind.
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11. Get a little help from your friends.
Even while social distancing, social support is a huge component of a healthy life. According to a 2015 meta-analytic review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, as reported by the American Psychological Association, prolonged social isolation has the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If loneliness is adding to your stress, call a friend or family member to chat, Dr. Saltz recommends. “Social support is definitely a stress-reliever,” Dr. Saltz tells Health. “Talking with people that you feel connected to, trust and can share your feelings with is important.” This includes a therapist as well if your stress is feeling prolonged.
12. Set work-life boundaries.
As women take on multiple roles at home and work, not setting boundaries can often result in chronic stress, according to Dr. Saltz. Setting boundaries for how far you decide to stretch yourself can be great for managing your stress levels in the present, but especially in the future. “Setting boundaries and having discrete relaxation time or playtime is key,” she says. “For some people that could be getting in a hot bathtub to relax your body and have privacy. Some combination of being able to be in touch with what you're feeling and tend to them, while setting limits for what you will and won’t take.”
13. Write in a journal.
As previously reported by Health, journaling is a great cognitive behavioral method of releasing negative emotions and reducing stress and anxiety. “Journaling is another method of expressing your feelings, reviewing them, reprocessing them,” Dr. Saltz tells Health. However she understands that journaling isn’t always a substitute for talking about your emotions with a trusted person in your life. The method works best in conjunction with social support.
14. Try hatha yoga.
Yoga has been practiced for centuries for its physical and mental benefits, using muscle strengthening and breathing exercises to establish calm and reduce anxiety in those practicing it. A 2018 study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women who practiced hatha yoga three times a week for four weeks—or 12 sessions overall—reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, compared to those levels before starting their yoga practice. Hatha yoga is one of the most beginner-friendly forms of yoga, focusing on deep breathing and gentle movements to relax and calm the body.
15. Do some deep breathing.
The sweet spot between meditation and full-blown physical exercise, Dr. Saltz is a fan of deep-breathing exercises and the psycho-physiological effects it has on relieving stress. Simply breathing in, holding, and releasing to counts of five can do wonders in slowing your heart rate and hitting a virtual reset button on whatever activity was causing you stress, she says. The best part about this tactic is that it can be done pretty much anywhere.
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