When we’re stressed, hormones like cortisol flood our systems, producing the “fight or flight response” in which our heart rate goes up, we breathe more heavily (requiring more oxygen) and our blood vessels constrict. While in the pre-civilization world, the increased blood flow to our heart and muscles helped us escape from predators and dangerous situations, we find ourselves in a very different position now.
Our bodies can’t tell the difference between an approaching grizzly bear and a ticked off spouse or a particularly epic traffic jam, so our stress response is triggered when there’s no imminent danger.
Instead of helping us to escape, this can contribute to chronic conditions like hypertension and headaches, as well as mental health concerns like depression and anxiety disorders. What’s more, stress can make other conditions — like asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia — worse.
We don’t really have a choice when it comes to getting stressed — we may as well work to undo its effects. With that in mind, here are 20 ways, to keep your stress in check:
Breathe…Slow, deep breathing for only a few minutes can dramatically decrease tension.
Brush…Stroking your skin with a dry brush stimulates nerve endings, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and triggers a more relaxed state.
Count…Counting numbers gives your mind something neutral to focus on. This diversion can often get you on a more serene track.
Chew…Chewing gum can seem like a nervous habit, but actually it can relax you. A 2008 study at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, found that chewing reduces the stress hormone cortisol in saliva by 16% during mild stress and nearly 12% during moderate stress.
Deal…As in a deck of cards to play solitaire, one of my personal faves. Focusing on flipping those cards and knowing that my success is due almost entirely to chance to make the pressure of the moment drift off, blown away by the flick of a red Jack onto a black Queen.
Discard…Clutter is more common in the 21st century than ever before, and being buried in stuff increases our level of stress hormones. It can overload our senses and even impair our creativity. Start gaining the upper hand by placing a garbage bag prominently in whichever room is the biggest culprit. Each time you walk by it, throw out at least a couple of items that have overstayed their welcome.
Eat…a piece of chocolate; it stimulates the brain to release beta-endorphins, the body’s own feel-good drug, and also reduces other stress-related biochemical activity. A banana is a good choice, too; it’s loaded with potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure.
Float…Imagine yourself floating in the air, drifting to the ground like a falling leaf. It’s hard to feel pressured when nothing’s pressing against you and you’re moving in slow motion.
Iron…Focusing on the repetitive back-and-forth motion across the ironing board makes this activity akin to meditation.
Kiss…“Kissing relieves stress by creating a sense of connectedness, which releases endorphins, the chemicals that counteract stress and depression,” notes Laura Berman, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who led a study on kissing behavior.
Laugh…I’m not talking about “heh-heh” or “tee-hee.” Let loose with a resounding belly laugh! It will reduce the levels of epinephrine, cortisol, and other stress hormones. And remember…what counts is the physical act of laughing; nothing has to be funny for you to enjoy these stress-busting benefits.
Listen…to a soothing tune. Classical music, in particular, can lower blood pressure, slow down your pulse, and reduce stress hormones. It also increases dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us feel pleasure. My personal favorite: Enya’s “Caribbean Blue.”
Massage…Find the part of your body that feels tight and knead it a bit with one or both hands. Then top it off with a full body shake. It’s like waking up from a refreshing nap.
Organize…Chaos creates stress that we may not even be aware of. Straightening things up to re-establish order can reduce your stress load (not to mention help you find things you’ve been searching for!).
Pet…the first cat or dog you can get your hands on. According to an article in Social Work Today, merely stroking a cat can trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps reduce cortisol level
Pose…in cat-cow position, a yoga pose known to promote a sense of relaxation. It’s also a good prep for more vigorous exercise.
Scan…Focus on each part of your body to see where tension might have a grip on you, then take a deep, slow breath and try to relax the stressed area during the exhale.
Scream…One reason stress builds up in us is because we don’t release any of it. There’s nothing more primal than a good old-fashioned scream to get the negativity out of our system. Doing so also releases endorphins that can provide a great natural source of relief. To avoid scaring the bejesus out of people within earshot: shout into a pillow.
Sigh…A good sigh almost literally takes the weight of the world off our shoulders, because it requires you to lower them. It also makes you relax your jaw and release tension in your upper body, which takes you to a more relaxed state.
Sing…Endorphins and oxytocin, both associated with feeling pleasure and relieving stress and anxiety, are released when we sing. Singing also stimulates the vagus nerve, an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system that helps control our relaxation response. You don’t even have to sing real lyrics; the benefits are the same if you babble through the notes. A great venue for your performance: while driving.
Sip… a cup of hot tea. In a British study, people who drank black tea reduced their stress levels faster than those who drank a tea substitute. A number of herbal infusions have also been shown to have stress-reducing benefits, among them chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower, and green tea. Some teas increase levels of GABA, an amino acid that promotes calm, and an amino acid called L-theanine found in tea appears to work in conjunction with the caffeine to reduce cortisol and improve mental alertness.
Drink… a glass of water. Your cells are mostly water. You need to replace the water lost from sweating, tears and the body’s heating and cooling system on a continuous basis. The link between water and stress reduction is well documented. All of our organs, including our brains, need water to function properly. If you’re dehydrated, your body isn’t running well — and that can lead to stress. (Tip: Having your water softened helps in sipping a better glass. Check out some Water Softener for your home).
Stretch…Sometimes we forget that any stretching is better than none, and we don’t take the time to do it unless we’re ready to do a full-body routine. In just a few minutes, you can easily determine which area of your body seems tightest and stretch it out. For me, it’s usually my thighs, and a quick routine makes me feel a lot more relaxed with every step I take afterward.
Stroll…If you’re in a stressful state of mind because of work or other worries, change the scene. Step outside and take a lap around your house or the block. Check out the sights during your mini-walkabout. If you have a little more time, try a walking meditation; there are even apps to lead you through it.