Stress is crucial to keep us motivated, aware, and safe, however chronic stress can negatively affect our health. In fact, high levels of stress significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic pain, and mental illness, among many other diseases. Despite the morbid statistics, for many people stress still feels like an unavoidable reality of life and reducing it is an abstract notion. However, science has proved this wrong!
There are many ways that we can reduce stress and the research shows that having stress-management structures in place is a key element to improving our health and quality of life. Some of the reasons people aren’t taking the time for these are due to stigma, lack of confidence or trust, and/or high barriers to entry. In this article, we’ll dive into seven practical and scientifically backed methods to reduce stress, and discuss how to actually implement them in your own busy life.
1. Try this breathing technique
This one you can do anytime, anywhere, even right now. Our stress levels can significantly impact the way we breathe and interestingly this relationship works both ways. Varying the pattern and depth of breathing has a direct impact on oxygenation levels, heart rate, ventilation, and blood pressure. Based on a recent publication by researchers at Stanford, a daily breath-work practice significantly improved mood and reduced anxiety. Notably, a ‘cyclic sighing’ practice has been shown to be the most effective and it only takes a few minutes. It looks like this:
- Take a normal inhale through the nose
- At the top, take two more short inhales through the nose
- Release a long exhale out of the mouth
- Repeat once, twice or for up to 5 minutes
What’s great about this practice is that it’s an effective method to reduce stress right in the moment, like just before a big presentation or high-stakes meeting. Additionally, implementing this as a daily practice can train your nervous system for long-term resilience and sustained reduction in stress levels.
2. Get moving (and have fun with it)
Exercise in any form can act as a stress reliever. We can’t all relate to the drive or commitment that professional athletes (or even the recreational marathoners and cross-fitters among us) have for their sports, but I truly believe we all have some form of movement that we enjoy. The reason I’m so sure is because movement really does make us feel good! It pumps up our endorphins (happy hormones), allows us to think clearer and faster, and, in the long term, improves our memory and motor function.
Notably, exercise doesn’t always have to be painful or intense. Try going out for a walk during your lunch break or doing an at-home yoga class in pyjamas. Start by decreasing the barriers to get started such as laying out a yoga mat next to your bed for the morning, packing up a thermos to bring out on your walk or picking a gym that’s on your route to work. Then schedule them into your calendar, try to make the activities social, and have fun testing out new things - your body and mind will thank you!
3. Lean into the music
Music has a powerful impact on our emotional and mental health. Imagine watching your favourite movie without a trace of music? It just wouldn’t give you the same connection to the narrative.
Evidence exists to support that both listening and playing music elicit sustained positive emotions and decreases stress. Notably, listening to vocal and orchestral music has been shown to speed up recovery and improve outcomes for critical-care patients. Going the extra mile to create music of your own has even more a beneficial effects as it has been found to improve communication skills, emotional stability, and contentment. We’ve all got different tastes, so whether you opt for Taylor Swift, Vivaldi, or Green Day (or a little bit of each), try incorporating a little more music into your life.
4. Escape into nature
In our busy lives, we don’t always take time to get out into the natural world, but it could make us calmer and happier. A growing number of studies have shown that being exposed to nature can reduce both physical and psychological stress. A meta-analysis by Yao and colleagues showed that increased natural exposure not only improved self-reported stress, but also significantly decreased cortisol (our primary stress hormone) and blood pressure, and increased restorative outcomes.
While not everyone lives in an area that’s surrounded by nature, there are still things you can do to feel the benefit of nature. This includes going to a local park, noticing the trees and flowers in your neighbourhood, and paying attention to what wildlife you have around you (birds, squirrels, racoons…). Even if you can’t get out due to a health condition or social circumstance, try sitting by a window or listening to nature sounds online.
5. Prioritize good sleep hygiene
A lot of us know that sleep is important, but not everyone appreciates how important it really is. Not getting enough quality sleep increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease, stroke, obesity, and dementia. It has also been shown to play a significant role in mental health and psychiatric disorders. However, improving the quantity and quality of our sleep is not out of our control.
Paying attention to sleep hygiene is one of the most straightforward and effective ways to set yourself up for quality sleep that keeps your stress levels in check. This includes keeping consistent wakeup times and bedtimes, and turning off electronics 30-60 mins before going to sleep. Restricting smartphone use in the bedroom as been shown not only to improve sleep, but also improve overall emotional health, sense of wellbeing, and connection with others. Additionally, exposing our eyes to natural light soon after waking sets up our internal clock to keep us alert during the day and release sleep hormones in the evening. This is best achieved by getting outside into the sunshine in the morning but for those who aren’t able to do this (or you’re in a rainy and dark wintertime like I am), light boxes that emit artificial light can be a helpful alternative. If after trying out these tools, you still feel you are struggling to get adequate sleep, don’t hesitate to seek help from a doctor or specialist.
6. Fuel your guts with whole foods and mindfulness
Increasing evidence has emerged showing strong interconnected relationships between stress, diet, and the gut microbiota. Notably, high-quality diets that are high in whole-foods (including veggies, healthy fats, and protein), have been associated with a significantly lower risk of anxiety and depression over time.
Eating a balanced diet provides the appropriate energy, immune health, and repair needed to cope with stressful events. Furthermore, certain foods like omega-3 fats (found in fatty fish, soybeans, nuts and seeds) and vegetables have been found to improve mood and decrease stress. If you frequently rely on fast food, consider planning some of your meals ahead of time and prioritize getting some vegetables and proteins in most of your meals. It’s also very common to eat too fast when we’re stressed-out, which can lead to indigestion, overconsumption, and can further increase anxiety. To combat this, mindful eating practices counteract stress by encouraging slow and thorough chewing, healthy food choices, and increased enjoyment of the meal, which in turn improves digestion.
7. Take time to connect with loved ones
You’re busy. They’re busy. Sometimes it feels hard. But regularly spending quality time with friends and family is one the most repeatedly proven contributors to high quality of life and longevity in people all around the world. In fact, studies have shown that social isolation carries a risk of mortality similar to that of other major risk factors, such as smoking.
As people get older, they get busy with work and are often offered fewer opportunities to meet others. Don’t be dismayed though, there are lots of ways to combat isolation and feel more connected to your friends, family, and community. It can be as simple as asking to join the new pickleball ball team, signing up for a language course, or sharing your own knitting skills by inviting others to join you. Even better yet, get moving, learn to play music, or escape into nature with others to compound the stress-busting benefits. Finally, if you’re feeling really isolated or alone, it’s important to reach out to your doctor or someone you trust, because there are many interventions that can help.
Stress is habitual and so is reducing it
Overwhelmed? Heard of some or all of these before? Now that you’ve been reminded that there are practical tools available to actively reduce stress, why not implement one right away and make a plan to do it consistently. These may seem stupid or daunting to start, but they are skills that can be acquired through practice. As with any habit, to make it stick:
- Make it unavoidable (or as easy as possible to start). For example, lay your yoga mat and clothes out the night before so it’s easy in the morning.
- Schedule it. Social events, nature walks, unstructured and dedicated time for self-care - they are all just as important to have in your calendar as work meetings and dentist appointments. If you don’t schedule them they won’t happen.
- Practice practice practice. These are skills that you need to develop. They will become second nature but it just takes a little practice and consistency to start with.
Some stress in life is unavoidable and necessary, but chronic stress can be extremely detrimental to our health and well-being. Fortunately, there are several evidence-based tactics to reduce physical and physiological stress. Of course, everyone is unique in what combination of strategies is most effective at reducing stress in their life. The key is to experiment and discover the tools and habits that work best for you and to apply them consistently.
Thank you to Unsplash for the images and to you for your time! I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments and to know which of these or other tools are helpful for you to combat stress!