Stress is a normal part of life, but it can be a genuine hurdle to cross at times. While some research has indicated potential psychological and physical benefits to temporary bursts of stress¹, several studies have demonstrated that chronic stress can negatively impact health by contributing to the following:²
- Worsening cognitive disorders
- Altering brain structure
- Contributing to brain atrophy
- Impairing memory function
- Negatively impacting learning skills
- Suppressing immune function
- Increasing risk for cardiovascular disease
- Impairing healthy digestive function
- Impacting endocrine system function
Stress management refers to the coping skills we develop to function in stressful situations. And everyone is different: depending on your childhood, social development, personality traits, and psychological makeup, you may be more or less adept at handling stress than others around you.³
The good news is that regardless of your starting place, everyone can improve their coping abilities. Stress will continue to impact our lives as long as we’re breathing — but how we learn to deal with it can mean the difference between living a happy, peaceful life and one ruled by anxiety and health detriments.
This guide offers 16 expert-backed methods of de-stressing in your daily life. The more you practice these techniques, the more naturally they will become a part of your stress management repertoire.
Tip #1: Immerse yourself in nature
Tip #2: Exercise
Tip #3: Meditation and visualization
Tip #4: Breathing exercises
Tip #5: Incorporate spirituality
Tip #6: Avoid unhealthy vices
Tip #7: Reconcile your mental loops
Tip #8: Shift your perspective
Tip #9: Structure a daily routine
Tip #10: Take up a new hobby
Tip #11: Take a warm bath
Tip #12: Practice gratitude
Tip #13: Establish a healthy sleep schedule
Tip #14: Face your problems
Tip #15: Eat well
Tip #16: Learn to set boundaries
Even if it involves just a simple walk around the block, getting outside in nature is a time-tested and professionally-backed coping tip to give your mind and body a reprieve from overwhelming chronic stress.
Research indicates that boosting your levels of sunlight-derived vitamin D3 may elevate serotonin levels, effectively improving your mental health by:⁴
- Reducing depression
- Improving sleep quality
- Reducing anxiety
- Changing food preferences
- Improving focus
According to the American Psychological Association, regular exposure to nature can reduce the risk for psychological disorders and improve empathy and teamwork.⁵ And another study from researchers at Stanford University showed that walking for 90 minutes a day in a natural, non-urban environment showed decreased brain activity in key areas associated with depression.⁶ Whether you live in the city, suburbs, or countryside, here are some ways that you can incorporate more nature into your daily life:
Take a stroll in a nearby park or wildlife area.
Begin a small garden in your yard or on an outdoor patio.
Explore outdoor hobbies like bicycling, jogging, hiking, fishing, or geocaching.
Join a community garden effort.
Lastly, if you’re in a truly urban setting without nearby parks, bringing plants into your office, home, and indoor workspaces has demonstrated the ability to lower psychological stress and create a more focused environment.⁷
Physical activity offers several health benefits, including stress reduction. Going for a short walk around the block can be beneficial, but if you live in an area without many parks or outside exercise areas, the gym can also be a stress-relieving location. Studies have shown that physical exercise reduces stress by:⁸
- Ramping up endorphin production
- Regulating sleep
- Diminishing symptoms of depression
- Boosting energy
- Instilling calm and focus
If you’re someone who struggles to find motivation in following a daily exercise routine, consider some of the following factors to get you started.
Find something enjoyable
Finding a physical activity that you enjoy is key to developing a healthy fitness routine. After all, if you hate cycling, skipping a spin class is far easier than if you love it. What activities did you enjoy when you were more active? Were you engaged in any sports in the past? If you could excel at any sport, which would you choose? Even starting at a beginner level in an activity that intrigues you will give you the motivation you need to keep working at it.
Connect with a partner
Exercise can be challenging to commit to independently, but it holds us accountable when we have a partner and often makes the effort more enjoyable. Try to connect with a friend, coworker, or family member interested in the same activities you are. You might even arrange to meet up with friends for a hike in a park rather than happy hour at the bar — you’ll likely feel much better about it afterward.
Do what you can
If committing to a daily jog or gym session is something you feel like you just can’t undertake for whatever reason, do what you can and let the rest go. Try committing to a 30-minute daily walk or low-impact exercises like yoga, swimming, or cycling. Whatever form of exercise you can do, do it, and don’t fret about what you can’t achieve yet.
Search for resources
If you don’t feel comfortable taking workout classes in your area, there are endless online fitness resources and videos covering all types of exercises for various levels. If you’re just starting to get into the fitness game, look into beginner’s yoga videos or resources on low-impact activities.
Mindfulness meditation has proven to be an instrumental tool for helping regulate stress and tension in the mind and body.⁹ Even if you aren’t committed to a specific meditation system, you can still benefit from the deep breathing and visualization that often accompanies guided imagery sessions found online and from many different sources.
Mindfulness meditation is based on two main parts: attention and acceptance. Attention means that in focusing on your thoughts and your breath, you place yourself in the present. Acceptance means that you allow your thoughts to pass through you without trying to fight them. You simply observe these thoughts and let them go.
Researchers have found that mindfulness practices can benefit mental health in the following ways:¹⁰
- Increases energy
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Decreases depression
- Lowers physical and psychological pain
- Reduces blood pressure and heart rate
- Lowers cortisol, epinephrine, and lactate
- Improves breathing patterns
- Increases cerebral blood flow
- Reduces cholesterol
- May help with smoking cessation and other addictions
Breath focus is a technique developed by Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson to evoke the relaxation response, a state of deep rest similar to meditation.¹¹ This form of deep breathing brings your mind, body, and spirit into focus. It is also frequently used by therapists and psychologists to help clients overcome panic attacks and general anxiety.
Deep breathing (also known as yogic or diaphragmatic breathing) has several health benefits, including:¹²
- Increasing oxygen flow
- Triggering the body relaxation response
- Lowering cortisol levels
- Improving focus and attention
- Releasing toxins and negative energy
- Reducing symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety
Types of breath
There are two types of breath:
Chest breathing is a shallower breathing style that uses the secondary upper-chest muscles. This breathing style arises in periods of stress or significant physical exertion, as your lungs expand to their total capacity from the bottom upwards. Chronic stress can lead to frequent chest breathing and, in the extreme, hyperventilation during panic attacks.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is driven by the diaphragm, the muscle that resides just under the lungs. Our abdomens expand first as the lungs fill from the bottom when we breathe with our diaphragms. Singers and actors practice this breathing technique as it is the most effective and efficient way to maintain relaxation while belting out notes or lines across a stage or an arena.
Practicing deep breathing
Deep breathing is an excellent way to ground yourself in stressful times and bring your mind back into focus. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, you’ll follow some of the same actions as if you were going to meditate:
Sit or lie in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
Focus your attention on the movement of your breath. As you inhale through your nose, feel the air flow into your abdomen as it expands. Exhale through your nose and experience the air as it flows out of you.
Place a hand over your abdomen, just below your rib cage. Place your other hand on your chest. Feel your next breath through your hands, focusing on expanding your belly as you inhale.
As you continue to breathe, focus on expanding your abdomen with each breath while allowing your chest to relax.
While continuing slow breaths in and out, focus your mind on your body. Where is there tension? On each breath out, imagine releasing that tension from your muscles.
For more information on deep breathing techniques, a quick internet search will provide you with limitless resources to guide your process.
You don’t have to be religious to incorporate spirituality and positive thought into your life. Spirituality is defined in many ways, but at its core, it is about your connection with others, the world around you, and where you find meaning. Studies have shown that individuals who consider themselves more spiritual tend to have higher psychological well-being and better mental health than those who don’t.¹³
Some ways that spirituality can help with stress include:
Sense of purpose
Whether through religion, meditation, or positive affirmations, getting in touch with your spirituality helps you gain a greater sense of purpose in your life. It leads you to answer essential questions about what is meaningful and insignificant, which can remarkably reduce stress over trivial issues.
Cultivating your spirituality can give you a greater sense of connection with nature, your community, and the world around you. Finding a spiritual connection in yourself can eliminate loneliness even in times of solitude.
Through spirituality, you can come to a greater acceptance of the issues in your control and those that aren’t. Sometimes, letting go of the things that you cannot change is one of the best ways to let go of stress as well.
If you reach out to a spiritual community, be it a church, synagogue, lodge, or worship group, you’ll be expanding your support network. This can help build new friendships and relationships and diminish feelings of isolation and anxiety.
As noted above, individuals who feel a strong sense of spirituality benefit health-wise as well. They experience less stress, anxiety, and isolation than non-spiritual people, whether alone or in a group.
Discovering your spirituality
Uncovering or even re-discovering your spirituality is an adventure of self-exploration. Some of the questions you might ask yourself to help you find a path include:
- What makes you happy?
- What are you proudest of in your life?
- What do you value the most?
- What inspires you?
- What gives you hope?
- In what community do you feel happiest?
- What are the most important relationships in your life?
- What are your beliefs about life, death, the afterlife, etc.?
By answering these questions, you can better understand where you might find a community along the same spiritual journey. And if you choose to follow a spiritual path solo, you’ll find countless books on different spirituality topics.
Cultivating your spirituality means connecting to your inner self through reflection and meditation. Some practices that you may find beneficial include the following:
- Prayer or meditation can help center your mind, connect with a higher power or your higher self, and give you a feeling of transcendence.
- Journaling offers a creative outlet for your thoughts as you progress along your spiritual journey.
- Daily mantras and positive affirmations provide new perspectives and greatly benefit stress relief and relaxation.
- Seeking a friend or advisor on your spiritual journey may lend you guidance and insight.
- Prayer beads, crystals, and healing stones can assist with stress relief by providing a textural comfort that re-grounds you and refocuses your spirituality.
- Nurturing your relationships with friends and family offers a sense of community, gratitude, and love.
It may be cliché to reach for a drink when times get stressful, but turning to vice to quell anxiety is common and troublesome. Since the COVID pandemic began, unhealthy drinking habits have risen by over 14% among adults over 30, and many individuals have reverted to smoking after years of cessation.¹⁴
The problem with vices like smoking, drinking, and over-caffeinating is that they only exacerbate stress while temporarily delaying the symptoms.¹⁵ For instance, if you’re stressed about an upcoming exam and start drinking coffee or sodas religiously as you cram, you’re inevitably going to hit a wall and come crashing down. This often leads to more significant anxiety in the long run.
The same applies to alcohol, cigarettes, and recreational drugs. These forms of self-treatment may temporarily dull your anxiety, but soon you may face more stress as a result. Consuming these substances can also lead to long-term physical health problems that only contribute to stress levels.
Your best bet for overcoming anxiety is to practice mindfulness, gratitude, and mind-centering activities rather than self-medicating or relying on vices. Many resources online discuss quitting smoking, and online support groups can help with substance abuse issues.
Stress and anxiety often result in circular thought patterns associated with rumination and catastrophic thinking.¹⁶ We play out scenarios in our minds and keep finding ourselves at the same dead-end, feeling helpless and unable to “snap out of it.” Simply being aware when this happens is the first step to overcoming it.
When you enter into a ruminating stage where you feel badgered by worry and negative thoughts, there are several ways to address the situation, including:
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member to help re-center your thoughts.
- Meditate to allow the thoughts to pass freely through you.
- Speak with a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Practice breathing and visualization exercises.
The reality of happiness, stress, and mental health is that it’s all connected by perspective. If you have ever talked a loved one out of a state of anxiety or depression, you likely know how much perspective dictates the situation.
Shifting your perspective involves looking at your situation from another point of view. Try answering some of the following questions:
- If you were your best friend, what advice would you give?
- Would you see things as dire from an outsider’s point of view, or would you have more sympathy?
- What options are available that you may not have seen from within your microcosm of experience?
- What are some positive aspects of your situation?
Sometimes stepping outside of yourself allows you to think outside the box and find new solutions.
Shifting your perspective about a situation is not always easy, but it’s one of the most imperative choices you can make to help quell anxiety and stress. Incorporating some of the other tips in this guide can help change perspective, like taking a step away from the situation to immerse yourself in nature or talking to a friend or therapist.
Even taking a break to do a simple art project, like sketching a drawing, can give your mind a reprieve. This could help you re-envision your situation, options, and potential to overcome the stressors in your life.
When we live unstructured lives, we often find ourselves stressed out for no apparent reason. But the reality is that we’re anxious because we constantly have to make choices, turning simple, everyday tasks into difficult hurdles. Studies show that by establishing a routine, we can reduce stress in our lives, improve our sleep quality, and benefit our overall mental health.¹⁷
By scheduling out your day, including breaks, time for yourself, and time for socialization, you’ll feel less conflict as you go about your life. You know what tasks you have time for, and you can then readjust your schedule as needed. However, flexibility is key here. Ensure that you have leeway in your routine and incorporate leisure time so that the schedule does not turn into another source of anxiety.
When stress gets overwhelming, having a hands-on hobby like knitting, drawing, baking bread, or painting can help to ease your mind and reset your body. These activities give your mind a new direction and help take the focus away from the cycling thoughts that come with anxiety.
Studies have shown that individuals who regularly engage in enjoyable leisure activities experience the following health benefits:¹⁸
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower cortisol
- Reduced waist circumference
- Reduced body mass index (BMI)
- Higher levels of positive psychosocial states
There are plenty of reasons people may innately choose to take a hot soak when stressed. Soaking in warm water evokes sensations of being in the mother’s womb and helps relieve tense muscles. Some studies have shown that immersion bathing, as opposed to showers, can help improve both physical and psychological health.¹⁹
Adding aromatherapy elements such as candles, incense, and scented bubbles can further the experience of calm by engaging odor-receptors in the brain and lowering cortisol levels, diminishing anxiety, and giving you a sense of peace.
Multiple studies have shown that regularly practicing gratitude has several health benefits, including:²⁰
- Helping to cope with stress
- Reducing the risk of heart disease
- Improving sleep
- Increasing positive emotions
When we shift our perspectives from stressful thoughts to thoughts of gratitude, our brains release dopamine and serotonin, two feel-good neurotransmitters that reduce anxiety and make us happier.²¹ Some excellent ways to practice gratitude in your daily life include:
- Keep a gratitude journal or write daily about the people and things you’re thankful for.
- Write notes or cards to friends and family expressing your appreciation for your relationships.
- Express your gratitude to coworkers and peers for their contributions.
- Take time to contemplate the people, relationships, pets, and other aspects of your life for which you are grateful.
Getting too little or too much sleep impairs cognitive function and can contribute to heightened stress levels. According to the American Psychological Association, 42% of adults report fair to poor sleep quality, and 43% have experienced some form of stress-induced insomnia in the past month.²² Too little sleep coincides with even higher stress levels, becoming a negative cycle.
Conversely, sleeping too much can negatively impact your health as well, potentially contributing to:²³
- Heart disease
- Higher mortality
- Weight gain
According to the National Sleep Foundation guidelines, healthy adults should get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night, with babies and adolescents needing more for healthy growth.²⁴ If getting an adequate amount of shut-eye is a struggle for you, try the following tips:
Shut off all electronic devices, including cell phones, computers, and television screens, at least 30 minutes before you lie down.
Limit caffeine consumption after morning hours.
Eat at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.
Limit alcohol consumption.
Try using blackout curtains or a sleep mask if light is an issue.
Run a fan in your room for white noise.
Experiment with guided audio recordings to lull you into a deep sleep.
When dealing with overwhelming or complicated issues, our first response is often to run from the problem. It’s just too much, and we can’t handle it. But persistently putting off the issues haunting you never makes them go away. Instead, it often creates a mental vacuum where you obsess over the issues without accomplishing anything. Clearly, this creates a stressful headspace.
We can eliminate that internal battle by tackling the issues head-on. Sometimes it’s as simple as finally making that dreaded dentist appointment. Other times it’s as complicated as divorce proceedings or changing careers. However, the issues you’re facing are surmountable if you take them one step at a time.
Doing so may mean breaking down each element of a more significant problem and dealing with it piece by piece or taking that first step toward a solution. Either way, focusing on each stage can help to keep you from getting blinded by the seeming giant in front of you.
Stress eating is a real thing, and it’s a significant contributor to the rise of obesity and the many health issues associated with it. Even before the pandemic, obesity levels in the US were over 42%, steadily increasing over the past decades.²⁵ Today, that number is likely far higher.
When we’re stressed, we often make unhealthy eating choices that contribute to weight gain and other issues. Just a few of the impacts of overeating and obesity include an increased risk for:²⁶
- Joint pain
- Psychological issues
- Heart disease
- Gallbladder disease
- Pulmonary embolism
- Premature morbidity
Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to aid stress relief, better sleep, increased energy, and cognitive focus. If you feel like the occasional indulgence in junk food, keep it to a minimum and remember to practice gratefulness for everything you take into your body.
Sometimes, the simplest solution to a stressful situation is as easy as learning to say no to obligations that you can’t handle. Saying no and setting boundaries can be intimidating, especially when we want to please our friends, coworkers, bosses, and spouses. But the reality is that we all have limits to what we can and cannot do, and trying to accomplish too much can throw us into a whirlwind of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Consider the following situations when saying no may be the best thing for your mental health:
- When the obligation interferes with higher-priority commitments in your life
- When the activity requires a more significant time commitment than you can spare
- When you feel pressured despite a lack of desire to engage in the activity
- When you feel pressured to commit without adequate time to formulate a schedule around it
Some things to keep in mind when saying no:
- You’re not being selfish but instead taking into account your existing obligations.
- You respect your mental health by not committing to something that will add unnecessary stress to your life.
- You open doors for others to take advantage of the opportunity you refused.
- You allow yourself to pursue other interests.
How to say no
For many people, saying no is a challenging endeavor. Here are some tips to make it easier:
You don’t have to make elaborate excuses to avoid a situation you’re not interested in. You don’t even need to elaborate at all. Simply state your reason for refusing the request and go about your day. Even just a “no, thank you” is sufficient.
Show respect for those who have presented the opportunity — express gratitude and recognition of the offer and their efforts. Be thankful for their generosity, but stay concise and clear that you are not interested or are otherwise engaged.
You may face a situation where you will need to turn down an offer or request more than once. Simply repeat your initial response as necessary.
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