Stress is an unavoidable part of life. It can come from work, relationships, finances, and other aspects of daily living. While a little stress can help motivate us, too much can impair our health and well-being. That’s why it’s important to actively manage stress in healthy ways. But with the vast number of stress management techniques available, how do you know which are most effective? Let’s review some of the top research-backed strategies.
One of the most effective ways to bust stress is to do some form of physical activity. Exercise increases endorphins which boost mood. It also improves sleep and self-esteem. Research shows exercise works fast to tamp down the body’s stress response. Weight training, aerobics, yoga, walking or jogging are all effective options. Aim for 30 minutes of activity most days of the week. But even short 10-minute bursts can help in a bind.
The practice of meditation has been used for thousands of years to cultivate peacefulness, presence, and insight. Research confirms it is highly effective at reducing markers of stress like cortisol levels. Meditation also increases gray matter in the hippocampus, improving emotional regulation. There are many types of meditation to choose from. Two evidence-based examples are:
This involves sitting quietly and paying attention to the present moment. Focus on the sensations of breathing. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath. Start with sessions as short as 5 minutes and work up to 20-30 minutes daily. Apps like Headspace and Calm provide guided mindfulness meditations.
TM involves silently repeating a mantra to calm the mind. Sessions are 15-20 minutes twice per day. A certified TM teacher provides a personalized mantra and proper instruction. Studies show TM reduces cortisol and anxiety.
When we feel rushed, overwhelmed, and unable to keep up with demands, our stress climbs. Refining time management skills can help take control of hectic schedules. Useful strategies include:
– Prioritizing important tasks with tools like the Eisenhower Matrix
– Batching similar tasks to preserve focus
– Saying no to nonessential duties
– Delegating when possible
– Taking breaks to recharge
– Tracking time spent on tasks
– Planning days and weeks in advance
Carving out small pockets of relaxation, fun and alone time in the calendar also prevents stress buildup.
Positive Social Connection
Close relationships with friends, family, and community provide meaning, love, and support. But nurturing these bonds takes effort. Make spending quality time with loved ones a priority. Schedule dates, join a book club, volunteer together. Deep conversations help build intimacy. Practicing gratitude and forgiveness maintains harmony. Laughter and playfulness inject fun. Feeling connected slashes stress and boosts health.
Stress bubbles up when basic self-care falls by the wayside. Getting sufficient sleep, eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, and taking time away from screens all reduce anxiety. Make it easy on yourself by preparing healthy snacks and meals in advance and putting away devices an hour before bed. Treat yourself kindly and know it’s ok to say no sometimes.
Stress can be exacerbated by exaggerated negative thinking. Cognitive restructuring helps correct distorted thought patterns like:
– Catastrophizing (imagining the worst case scenario)
– Black & white thinking (viewing situations in extremes)
– Overgeneralization (believing one failure makes you worthless)
Catch yourself when making unreasonable inferences. Evaluate if thoughts are overly dramatic or irrational. Then substitute more realistic neutral or positive self-talk. This takes practice but results in a less anxious outlook over time.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This focused breathing exercise involves systematically tensing and relaxing muscle groups from head to toe. Tightening then releasing tension melts stress away. The practice also increases body awareness. Do it while lying down, sitting, or standing. Apps like Calm provide guided progressive muscle relaxation scripts. Generally relax each muscle group for ~5 seconds then release for ~30 seconds.
Being in nature reliably reduces stress hormones, heart rate, and negative thoughts. It also boosts mood and attention. If possible, build more green space into your day with activities like hiking, gardening, strolling through a park or beach. Keep stress at bay even in poor weather by gazing out a window or tending to houseplants. Introduce nature sounds and images into indoor environments.
Creativity & Play
Tap into your inner child and inject more fun into life. Playful activities like art, music, dance, and games lower stress. Set aside time for hobbies that immerse you in a state of flow. Doodle, make crafts, journal or cook something new. These creative outlets provide distraction from worries plus a sense of accomplishment. Laughter and lightheartedness act as a pressure valve to release tension too.
A small dose of escapism gives the mind and body a break from stressors. Lose yourself in an engrossing book or movie for an hour. Watch or play sports you enjoy. Download an entertaining game or puzzle app on your phone. Just don’t overdo leisure as an avoidance strategy. Balance needed relaxation with addressing problems head on.
Human touch in the form of massage calms the nervous system by slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and reducing cortisol. Schedule regular therapeutic massages or just ask a loved one for a hand, foot or shoulder rub. Acupressure, reflexology and Reiki may also help relieve stress. Be mindful of duration and pressure preferences when receiving touch.
Inhaling soothing scents affects brain chemical stress pathways. Lavender in particular reduces heart rate and improves mood. Add a diffuser with oils to your home or office space. Apply diluted oils directly on skin for absorption. You can also put lavender or vanilla extract on cotton balls and inhale throughout the day. Just avoid strong scents if you have allergies or asthma.
Sipping teas made with stress-relieving herbs provides small doses of natural plant medicine along with a self-care ritual. Chamomile, lemon balm, ashwagandha, valerian and passionflower are some anti-anxiety options. Chamomile has apigenin which binds to receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA to induce calmness. Start your day with tea as a preventive measure or drink it as needed for symptom relief.
Some may find stress relief with certain vitamins, minerals and plant concentrates. But supplements are no substitute for lifestyle measures like diet, exercise, meditation. Discuss options with your doctor to avoid interactions with medications. Research on supplements for anxiety is limited but some to consider include:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Found in fish, omega-3s regulate stress-system hormones and neurotransmitter pathways involved in mood. Look for combined EPA and DHA forms.
Healthy gut microbiome balance plays a role in mental health. Probiotics increase good bacteria. Look for blends with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
This mineral helps regulate stress hormones and neurotransmission. Magnesium glycinate is an absorbable form.
Found in green tea, this amino acid boosts alpha waves that induce calmness. It can lessen physiologic responses to stress when combined with caffeine.
Stress Inoculation Training
This psychotherapy technique helps develop resilience by mastering relaxation skills and changing thought patterns when under minor stress. With practice coping well with small daily hassles, people are better equipped to handle big challenges without becoming overwhelmed. Talk therapy provides guidance for learning stress inoculation skills.
Social Support Network
Close supportive relationships act as a buffer against stress. Nurture and grow your social connections by joining groups, regularly calling friends and family, volunteering, attending mixers. Supportive social interaction results in feel-good oxytocin release while limiting loneliness and isolation. Even cuddling a pet helps reduce cortisol levels.
Working towards meaningful goals infuses life with direction and purpose which counters stress. Set SMART goals for work, relationships, health, leisure and personal growth. Apply strategy and effort to regularly make progress on targets. Celebrate successes and reformulate goals adjusted to evolving priorities. Feeling driven and accomplished net positive emotions.
Taking time to intentionally recognize and reflect on blessings, big and small, cultivates gratitude. This might mean keeping a gratitude journal, writing thank you notes, praying, or meditating on moments for which you are thankful. Try incorporating gratitude into mealtimes or bedtime rituals. Its positive focus minimizes fixation on problems that provoke stress.
Any activity that elicits the relaxation response automatically counteracts the body’s stress activation. Activities like breath focus, meditation, prayer, and yoga prompt this innate physiological state of tranquility. Make relaxation techniques part of your daily routine. Schedule set times to engage in calming practices and retreat into relaxation when feeling frazzled. Apps like Calm guide relaxation response breaks.
Caffeine & Alcohol Moderation
Drinking too much caffeine increases heart rate, jitters, and anxiety. Alcohol provides temporary relief but disrupts sleep and interacts with stress hormones long-term. Limit coffee to 1-2 cups daily and avoid after 2 p.m. Heavy drinking episodes should be minimized as well. Be wary of using either as a frequent crutch to unwind.
Organization & Planning
A disorganized, chaotic environment breeds inner discord and scattered attention that piles on stress. Set up systems to keep home and work running smoothly. Maintain tidy, clutter-free spaces. Have a place for everything. Use calendars and planners to track schedules, to-do lists, appointments, and deadlines. Being prepared and on top of obligations limits worrying and frustration.
Delegate & Outsource
Rely on others for help instead of taking everything on alone. Delegate tasks at home and work when possible. Hire a cleaning or grocery delivery service if affordable. Share rides, childcare duties, holiday meal prep. Swap skills and favors with neighbors and friends. Even small time savings add up. Being territorial about responsibilities only fuels stress. Learn to relinquish control.
Stress & Coping Self-Assessment
Before exploring stress management techniques, evaluate your current level of stress and how you cope. Assessments like the Brief COPE Inventory or Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory quantify stress and identify areas for improvement. Results can pinpoint unhealthy coping tendencies like avoidance or addictive behaviors. They also show where adding positive skills like exercise, relaxation, and seeking support might help most.
Practicing mindful awareness means focusing fully on the present moment with openness and curiosity. Observe thoughts and feelings without judging or reacting to them. Instead accept inner experiences and outside situations for what they are. This mental stance counters rumination and worry over what was or what could be that raises stress. Regular meditation cultivates mindfulness as a daily habit.
Learning to confidently and effectively express needs and wants reduces inner tension and outer conflicts that stir up stress. Assertive communication enhances relationships and self-esteem. Practice being direct and honest with your views while listening respectfully to others. Negotiate win-win scenarios. Say no without guilt. Set healthy boundaries against manipulation. It’s possible to be kind and compassionate while also being assertive.
Therapy & Counseling
For severe, persistent anxiety and stress, psychotherapy provides needed support. Cognitive behavioral therapy is often recommended to change thought and behavior patterns contributing to distress. A therapist can teach coping strategies tailored to your circumstances. Support groups also help by sharing struggles and realizing you’re not alone. Online options make counseling more accessible and affordable these days.
There is no one size fits all solution for managing stress. Experiment to find which science-backed techniques work best for your personality and lifestyle. Having a variety of healthy coping skills at your disposal lets you adapt to diverse stressors and prevent anxiety buildup. Make stress relief a priority every day, not just when you feel overwhelmed. Consistency with self-care creates resilience over the long-haul. Don’t hesitate to seek outside help from counselors or support groups if needed. With some trial and error, you will find the optimal stress-busting ritual to restore calm and joy.