Here are the best techniques for finding fast stress relief — and for keeping your spirits high in the process.
A calming sleep routine, a restorative yoga practice, and spending plenty of time with family and friends go far in keeping stress levels in check. But you can’t necessarily Downward Dog your way out of the stress that shows up when you find out you’ve missed a flight, you get a feisty email from a coworker, or your dishwasher breaks unexpectedly.
You know the feeling: Your heart starts to race, your palms get sweaty, and that feeling of being overwhelmed takes over.
How do you get back to feeling normal as quickly as possible?
“Stress management can be critical to help you address stress in a healthy way,” says Melissa Dowd, a licensed marriage and family therapist and San Francisco–based therapy lead at PlushCare, a virtual health platform. “It’s important to acknowledge the feeling and utilize coping strategies.”
Otherwise, the stress could become chronic, which can harm your health and take a toll on your body both physically and mentally, Dowd says, adding that it may lead to symptoms such as low energy and headaches or eventually contribute to more serious conditions such as autoimmune diseases, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or obesity.
Here are five quick techniques that can help you break the stress cycle at the moment that takes five minutes (or less), so you can calm down, refocus, and go about your day.
1. Take a Few Deep Breaths
“There’s a very close link between the breath and the body,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an assistant physician and clinical researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. When you’re stressed, your breathing may speed up, which raises blood pressure and increases heart rate, according to the American Heart Association. “But when your breathing is calm and measured, your body calms down, too,” she says. “I’ve seen patients break out of panic attacks by using diaphragmatic breathing to change their mental state.”
Try this quick diaphragmatic breathing technique from the Cleveland Clinic:
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your knees bent and your shoulders, head, and neck relaxed. Place one hand against your stomach and one on your chest.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
- Exhale, tightening your stomach muscles and letting them fall inward as you push the air out through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still as possible. “Pursed-lip breathing can help slow down your breath and get more air into your lungs, especially if you are feeling shortness of breath from stress,” says Kelley Green, a mindfulness coach based in Brooklyn, New York.
2. Step Outside
Another instant way to de-stress is to embrace the great outdoors, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. “Stepping out in nature is definitely helpful,” she says.
Studies back this up. One study published in September 2014 in the journal Environment and Behavior found that people who simply looked at images of trees reported feeling less stressed out. This works in a few ways. Natural environments can automatically capture one’s attention while eliciting feelings of pleasure, according to an October 2014 article published in Frontiers in Psychology. People tend to be captivated by nature, and being absorbed in the great outdoors may take your mind off of whatever’s bothering you, according to the University of Minnesota.
3. Make a List
Having a lot to do (especially if there’s time pressure) can sometimes send people into a spiral of stress and anxiety. In these instances, it can help to write down everything that’s on your plate, according to Queensland Health.
“Getting your to-dos out of your head and onto a piece of paper can be very helpful for folks,” Dr. Dossett says. It can help you prioritize and focus on what’s in front of you, rather than feeling anxious that something’s going to slip through the cracks.
4. Cue Up a Meditation App
Meditation can bring about a sense of calm, peace, and balance — which is especially helpful in those moments when you feel anything but calm, according to the Mayo Clinic. The great thing about meditation is you can call on it wherever you are. If you’re just getting started, a guided meditation can help guide your attention away from the stressful mess of thoughts in your head.
Consider downloading an app. Green recommends Calm and Headspace and the YouTube Channel Great Meditation. “These are all great exercises to help with your practice, especially if you’re new to it,” she says. A randomized, controlled trial published in June 2019 in JMIR mHealth uHealth had college students use the app Calm. The students reported reduced levels of stress after eight weeks of using it for 38 minutes per week (a little more than five minutes per day).
Meditating can help you calm down and gain perspective, according to the American Heart Association. Maybe you’ll decide that thing that sent you spiraling isn’t as big of a deal after all.
Embrace your inner child and play with a fidget spinner or stress ball when stress sends you into a crabby mood, suggests Queensland Health. These simple toys may seem better suited to the middle school set, but picking up a stress ball and giving it a few hard squeezes can break a stressful train of thought, and the same thing goes for a fidget spinner.
“Anything that distracts you and shifts your focus can bring a reprieve from stress,” says Alka Gupta, MD, an internal medicine and integrative medicine doctor in private practice in Washington, DC. “These introduce a nice break into a high-pressure day.”
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