Everybody has stress. Some stress is good for you, helping you respond to situations and acts as a protective measure. While too little stress can lead to boredom and depression, too much can cause anxiety and poor health. The right amount of acute stress, however, tunes up the brain and improves performance and health. You know far too well that too much stress can interfere with life and begin to cause harm to your mental and physical state. On Stress Awareness Day, we will be highlighting what you can do to manage your stress before it becomes a problem.
More than 60% of Americans report feeling significant stress on a daily basis. Stress is any event or thought that triggers emotional or physical tensions in the form of frustrations, anger, or nervousness.
As part of your fight or flight response, stress causes your body to release cortisol and adrenaline, two hormones that make you more alert, tensing your muscles and increasing your blood pressure and heart rate.
This may be beneficial when you’re in danger for your life in the wild, but it’s usually unsettling and unhelpful when you’re at your desk, pounding away at your computer.
Plus, over time, chronic stress can have negative effects on your health — so it’s important to learn stress relief techniques that work for you in times of trouble. Here are 15 of the best ways to relieve stress.
1. Exercise regularly
The main way exercise helps relieve stress is by increasing endorphins, leading to the so-called “runner’s high,” says Ben Hagopian, MD, a primary care physician at Maine Integrative Family Care.
Endorphins are the hormones produced naturally by your brain to alleviate pain and reduce stress. Exercise also ultimately decreases the levels of hormones associated with stress, like cortisol and adrenaline.
Hagopian recommends any kind of cardio or aerobic exercise — such as walking, cycling, or dancing — but says the specific type doesn’t matter as much as just getting some physical activity, and doing something you enjoy.
Working out even when you aren’t feeling stressed can also help you manage stress later on. A 2007 study compared the stress response of elite athletes to healthy non-athletes. Researchers put participants through the Trier Social Stress Test, or TSST, a standard procedure for inducing stress in studies.
While both groups saw increased cortisol levels and heart rate, the increase was significantly less for the elite athletes compared to the healthy non-athletes. The athlete group also reported being calmer and in a better mood.
2. Practice relaxation techniques
Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can also help manage stress.
Usually, when you are stressed, you breathe faster and take shallow breaths, because your heart is racing. Slowing down your heart rate by focusing on your breath can help. Hagopian recommends a technique called 4-7-8 breathing, where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds.
Meditation also has a number of benefits, including stress relief. In a small 2013 study, medical students who participated in a four-day mindfulness meditation program had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to before the program.
Hatha yoga has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels during a stressful event. A 2017 study found that a single Hatha yoga session before a stressful task lowered cortisol levels and blood pressure levels in participants when compared to a control group.
3. Get more sleep
Anyone who has ever had to function on just a few hours of shut-eye knows that lack of sleep makes it harder to deal with anything, including stress. In fact, 21% of adults report feeling more stressed when they don’t get enough sleep.
Adults typically need seven to nine hours of sleep. But for many people, being stressed makes it harder to fall asleep.
There are some basic ways to improve sleep, including:
- Establish a sleep routine. It’s important to practice good sleep hygiene, which means going to bed and waking up at around the same time every day. This helps your internal clock, called your circadian rhythm, stay in sync so that your body is ready for sleep at your set bedtime.
- Turn off devices. Scrolling through our phones or watching TV can be stimulating, which makes it harder to fall asleep. Hagopian suggests setting a specific time when you turn off your devices and switch to more calming activities.
- Have a calming, pre-bedtime ritual. This can be a warm bath, reading a book, listening to music, drinking chamomile tea, or anything that will calm you, says Hagopian.
4. Eat a healthy diet
Another key to managing stress is your diet. “Healthy nutrition is super important,” Hagopian says. “Eating lots of fast food, or food with a lot of processed flour or sugar, is going to make you feel worse.”
Here are some stress-reducing nutrients to look for in foods:
- Vitamin C helps lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. A medium orange has about 70 mg of Vitamin C, which is 100% of the daily recommended amount for adults. Other good sources include vegetables like broccoli (78 mg/cup chopped) and cauliflower (52 mg/cup).
- Complex carbohydrates increase the production of serotonin, a hormone involved in regulating your mood and happiness. Examples of complex carbs include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Magnesium helps fend off stress-related headaches and fatigue. It can also help older adults get better sleep. Foods like spinach, salmon, and soybeans are all good sources of magnesium.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce surges of stress hormones. They are found in fish like salmon and tuna, nuts, and seeds.
5. Connect with loved ones
When you are feeling stressed, reaching out to your friends and family can help. Research found that people with less social support are more reactive to stress, exhibiting increased heart rates, blood pressure, and hormone levels.
Having a best friend by your side might make it even easier to cope with stress. A 2011 study of kids ages 10 to 12 found that having a best friend nearby led to lower cortisol levels after an unpleasant situation. The researchers had kids write in a journal multiple times a day to record their experiences, and tested cortisol levels in their saliva.
Moreover, a study done at the University of North Carolina found that women who spent time with their partner, including receiving a hug from them, had higher oxytocin levels (the “feel good” hormone) and lower blood pressure when asked to then prepare and record a speech about a recent event that made them angry or stressed.
Having sex, either solo or with a partner, can also help relieve stress. Like exercise, sex triggers the release of endorphins, which boost your mood. Your body also releases oxytocin during sex, especially during a woman’s orgasm.
When it comes to stress, laughter truly is one of the best medicines. Laughing actually triggers immediate changes in your body that can help counteract the stress response.
When you laugh, you take in more oxygen-rich air, which stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles. It also increases your release of endorphins, improves circulation, and helps you relax your muscles, which are often tense when you are stressed.
Hagopian says it doesn’t really matter what makes you laugh, as long as you try finding ways to lift your mood when you’re feeling stressed. Here are some easy ways to induce laughter:
- Watch a funny TV show or movie that you enjoy
- Listen to a favorite comedy podcast or standup routine
- Read a humorous book or satirical article
- Talk to friends or family members who make you laugh
7. Limit caffeine
The right amount of caffeine can keep you energized throughout the day. But too much can increase stress, anxiety, and may cause insomnia and an irregular heart rhythm.
So how much caffeine is too much? It depends on the person.
The National Institutes of Health recommends no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. For reference, an 8-ounce cup of coffee may have anywhere from 95 to 200 mg of caffeine, while the same-sized cup of tea may contain 14 to 60 mg.
You can limit caffeine by opting for caffeine-free alternatives, such as decaffeinated coffee, herbal tea, fruit juices, or water.
8. Go for a walk
Walking, like any exercise, reduces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while, at the same time, triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like serotonin.
You don’t need to walk for that long to reap these benefits either. Although the Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults walk briskly or perform other moderate-intensity aerobic activities for at least 20 minutes every day, or 150 minutes a week, they note that just five minutes of physical activity each day has health benefits.
For an extra boost, take a stroll outside.
“Walking outside also reduces the sense of isolation many people struggle with, and if done during daylight hours, provides a dose of vitamin D,” says Forrest Talley, PhD, a clinical psychologist who has worked at the University of California, Davis Medical Center.
9. Use scents
Aromatherapy – the practice of inhaling certain essential oils – may help reduce your stress.
“Of all our senses, smell is likely to be the one that has the strongest immediate impact on emotion,” Talley says. When you smell a certain fragrance, he says, you are priming your limbic system, which is your brain’s emotion center, to feel better. If that fragrance has a pleasant memory attached to it, the impact is even greater.
In a small 2011 study, lavender oil significantly lowered the stress levels of participants who inhaled it for five minutes. These are some essential oils with stress-relieving benefits:
10. Journal weekly
Writing down your thoughts and feelings, also known as journaling, can be an affordable and accessible way to help relieve stress.
A small 2018 study found that participants who spent 15 minutes journaling three days a week had less anxiety and greater resilience after one month.
Journaling on a consistent basis may help relieve stress because it allows you to clear your mind, release negative thoughts and feelings, and keep things in perspective.
11. Avoid alcohol
Although being under stress may make you crave a cocktail, alcohol can actually raise your stress level by stimulating the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
Avoiding alcohol allows your nervous system to reset to a healthier level, Talley says, “and cuts down on those cringe-worthy moments that lead to regret.”
Instead of downing an alcoholic beverage or two when you’re stressed out, try a booze-free mocktail or a calming herbal tea like chamomile.
12. Listen to music
Listening to music can reduce your heart rate and significantly lower your stress, according to a 2018 systematic review and two meta-analyses.
In fact, in 2006, researchers at Stanford University suggested that listening to music may change brain functioning as much as taking medication. Music with a slow beat slows down our brain waves that are connected to meditative states, while a faster rhythm may help us become more alert and better able to concentrate.
“Additionally, when someone listens to calming music just prior to bedtime, it can improve the quality of their sleep,” Talley says. “Better sleep helps relieve stress and anxiety.”
13. Care for a pet
Along with providing us with companionship and unconditional love, pets can also help lower our stress levels.
Pet owners have lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of the “feel-good” hormone dopamine, according to a 2012 meta-analysis of 69 studies on human-animal interactions.
Research also suggests that looking after a dog can elevate your levels of the hormone oxytocin. This results in feelings of connection, enhanced trust, and calm, Talley says.
14. Think positive
Banishing negative thoughts and focusing on positive ones instead can help reduce stress.
“The human brain appears to be hardwired to more easily focus on the negative rather than the positive, like inertia that keeps you on the couch rather than in the gym,” Talley says.
Making an effort to think positively pushes back against this tendency, he says, and when done with regularity it creates new neural connections in the brain that are wired toward positivity.
In addition to reducing stress, positive thinking may provide health benefits including better heart health, lower depression rates, and a longer life span.
15. Express gratitude
Appreciating the good things in your life and expressing gratitude to others may help lower your cortisol level by 23%, according to research.
“When someone intentionally takes aim at showing gratitude toward others, it results in an increasing awareness of the positive features in their life,” Talley says.
As with positive thinking, expressing gratitude may have additional physical benefits such as lowering your blood pressure and improving your heart health.
At OC Sports and Wellness, we help our patients using the principles of integrative medicine to achieve the best possible health outcomes through in-depth health assessments, testing, and lifestyle changes. Take the first step on your journey to health and prevention. Visit our Facebook page or give us a call to learn more at 949-460-9111.