Reviewed: Dr. Rachael Grantham Psy.D

When stress and anxiety attack, it’s hard not to feel like you’re drowning, and unfortunately this feeling is all too common for the majority of Americans today. Life is full of stressors and we must find ways to cope so that we can all have the life that we deserve.

How we respond to the challenges coming our way often determines how much stress and anxiety we experience in our lives. In an effort to “live your best life”, it is important to find ways to help reduce your stress and anxiety and while everyone is different here are a few simple ways that have been proven to help.

1) Exercise

If the stress of everyday life gets overwhelming, the solution may be as simple as going on a run or playing a game to relieve stress. Aside from the well-established health benefits of regular activity, research suggests that exercise actually changes the part of our brains responsible for handling stress.

According to an article published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, college students in swimming, body conditioning, and yoga classes completed the surveys before and after their workouts. Swimmers had unusually positive initial moods and reported less tension and confusion after swimming. Participants in yoga were significantly less anxious, tense, depressed, angry, fatigued, and confused after class than before.

2) Nutrition

During times of stress, we often turn to traditional “comfort” foods such as macaroni and cheese, pizza, and ice cream. According to The International Journal of Health, Wellness and Society these high-fat foods are usually the worst possible choices because they can make us feel lethargic and less able to deal with stress. Not only that, but stress can drive up our blood pressure and raise cholesterol levels, increasing our risk of heart attack due to elevations in blood pressure.

A balanced diet leads to a healthy lifestyle and can reduce overall levels of stress and anxiety. Plan healthy recipes, have pre-cut and cleaned vegetables and fruits available in order to consume 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Also, drink plenty of water, eight 8-ounce glasses, to assist your body in managing stress.

Included are a few reminders from the American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. Try incorporating these recommendations into your daily routine.

  • Balance calorie intake and physical activity to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Consume a diet rich in vegetables and fruit.
  • Choose whole-grain, high fiber foods.
  • Minimize your intake of beverages and foods with added sugar.
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. Limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.
  • If you consume alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Limit intake of saturated fat to 5-6% of energy and reduce intake of trans fat.

3) Engage your senses

Give in to aromatherapy. Light a candle, take a relaxing bath with lavender scented bath salts. Pleasant scents have been proven to lower stress levels and produce a more calm and relaxed state of mind.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 81 adults were divided into 3 groups and the group that was knowingly exposed to aromatherapy noted lower stress levels and improved mood after being exposed to aromatherapy.

According to their research, lavender aromatherapy can significantly reduce stress levels, as well as other scents like peppermint which can also boost cognition and improve brain function.

More ways to engage your senses:

  • Diffuse essential oils, calming scents include lavender, rose, and sandalwood
  • Cook one of your favorite meals, the scents will calm you and awake your senses
  • Topical lotions and oils can also be calming

4) Start a Journal

Journaling is one of the most powerful tools for self-growth.  Simple but effective journaling can help both physically and mentally. A pen coupled with paper can serve as a powerful tool.  Journaling is a practice that can help you to understand your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Journal writing also is good for organizing your tasks, and it helps with stress management. You can plan when you need to finish specific tasks, and in that way, you avoid more stress in your life.

5) Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness describes practices that keep you grounded in the present. Mindfulness creates a healthy distance between you and your stressful thoughts and anxious feelings, giving you the space to choose how to respond to them.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology an improved state of mindfulness can lower stress levels and those that exhibit strong mindfulness practices show an overall lower level of stress on a regular basis.

There are several methods for increasing mindfulness including:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness behavior therapy

6) Laughter

The saying “laughter is good for the soul” isn’t all that far off. A good laugh has some promising short term effects, it stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increases endorphins released by the brain. Laughter also stimulates your stress response, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, before calming back down, which promotes a relaxed feeling.

According to research found in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion one study showed that those that experienced higher levels of laughter while dealing with negative life events experienced lower levels of stress than those experiencing negative life events without higher levels of laughter. So… laugh it out! Consider watching a funny television show or video.

7) Procrastination is Not Your Friend

We are all guilty of this, and therefore we all suffer from the stress and anxiety that procrastination brings along with it. According to the Journal on Procrastination, Health and Wellbeing, procrastination not only leads to higher levels of stress but can also lead to chronic health issues.

Many times it is too hard to do everything you need to do at once. One tool is to make a list of things that need to be done, and then divide the tasks up. For each task that you have divided, you’ll have a beginning and an end. The tasks should be broken into small enough tasks that you don’t get overwhelmed by what needs to get done. This will help you to start, which is often the hardest thing to do.

Here are a few more tips to prevent procrastination:

  • Create early deadlines for yourself, so when the actual deadline comes you are ready.
  • Accountability always helps, get a friend to make sure you are sticking to your deadlines and not waiting until the last minute.
  • Make to do lists with reasonable deadlines.

8) Give Yourself a Break

“No Pain, No Gain” Stress and busyness are commonplace in our lives almost to the point that if you are not stressed or busy you must not be doing something right. We are always striving, bettering, moving forward, one self-help book at a time. According to recent research we all need to give ourselves a break.

While honest self-reflection and hard work are important, studies are showing repeatedly that being too hard on yourself is counterproductive, as is too much self-criticism. Showing yourself kindness and respect isn’t being self-centered, it will help you overcome failures and find success.

Psychologists refer to this self-respect and kindness as “self-compassion”. In a recent study found in the Journal of Self and Identity research showed that those with higher levels of self-compassion had lower levels of stress and anxiety. People with self-compassion are honest about their own short-comings and failures, but they don’t beat themselves up for it. They comfort themselves, they recognize failure and mistakes as part of life, and they see the situation as a chance to grow.

9) Listen to Music

Put on some headphones and let the music take control. Seriously. The right music can have a very relaxing effect on the body and the mind.

The benefits of music cannot be denied, in fact music is a wonderful tool that can promote wellness and help us overcome many of the obstacles we face in life.

Music has shown to help us reduce blood pressure and to also build serotonin in the brain. Soothing music can induce the relaxation response in our bodies by helping lower blood pressure and the heart rate, relaxing our bodies and reducing stress.

10) Take a Breath

Sometimes you just need to breathe. According to a recent study published in a paper titled Psychophysiological Effects of Breathing Instructions for Stress Management deep controlled breathing can lower the heart rate and reduce stress and anxiety. Deep breathing is a technique that allows you to calm your mind, focus on your body, and become more present. Deep breathing helps you calm down, think more clearly and focus on what you are doing.

To achieve deep breathing, concentrate on your breath, take deep slow breaths, breathing in through your nose, filling your lungs and feeling your belly rise, and then exhaling fully through your mouth.

There are a few different types of breathing exercises including abdominal breathing, belly breathing, paced respiration, and diaphramic breathing. For more instructions on deep breathing exercises click here.

11) Hugs & Kisses

People crave touch, interactions with others can help us get through hard times and according to recent study publishes in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, human touch can even reduce stress. A hug, a hand to hold, a connection that can manifest into something that’s tangible. And even on stress-free days, we may seek out the healing components that touch has to offer.

Flying solo these days? Try getting a massage. Studies also support benefits of massage and demonstrate that it is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain and muscle tension.

Positive physical interaction can help release oxytocin and lower cortisol, this can help lower blood pressure and decrease the heart rate, both of which are associated with stress.

12) Find your People

One of the best recipes for relieving stress is social support. Support from friends and family can help you get though stressful times. The psychological and physical resources that others provide can help you cope with adversity.

Research published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology shows that people who encounter major life stresses, such as the loss of a spouse or job or pet, experience less stress during those difficult times if they have an effective network of friends or family for social support.

When people have a community they can lean on, they are psychologically better able to handle job stressors, unemployment, marital strife, serious illness and other tragedies, as well as the everyday problems of living.

Community is a huge part of life. Find your people and hold on to them.

Conclusion

We all have stress! Whether it’s at work, at home, at school, in our relationships… wherever it may be, stress can keep you from feeling and performing your best mentally, physically and emotionally. No one’s life will ever be completely stress free so it’s important to know how to manage and cope with the stress in your life so you can do you.

Author: Ryan House, Doctoral Student Clinical Psychology

Reviewed: Dr. Rachael Grantham, Psy.D.

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