Stress, whether large and small, is a fact of life. At one point or another, we may face financial stress, the stresses of aging (our own or our parents'), loneliness, health concerns, or worries about getting into college or finding a job afterwards. You may have too much to do in too little time or face stressful conflicts in your personal relationships or parenting role. You may have gone through a breakup or lost somebody close to you. On a daily basis, you may face traffic, a messy house, long hours at work or childcare, or witness terrorism on the news.
Whatever your stress, you need coping tools. Following are six proven ways to reduce stress or recover more quickly.
1. Slow Things Down
Our brains and bodies were designed to face acute stressors and then have a period of recovery to relax, eat, sleep, or procreate before facing the next one. Today we often don’t get that period of rest and recovery. The next best thing is to take 5- or 10-minute mental breaks throughout the day to check in with yourself and notice any signs of tension in your body or of worry in your mind. Take some deep breaths and ask yourself what you need or what is the wisest thing to do right now, and then move forward more mindfully. This is an easy and quick way to bring mindfulness into your life. If it works for you, consider learning to meditate; there are a variety of apps with scripts to help you. Research shows that mindfulness interventions can lower your blood pressure and help your brain deal with stress more effectively.
Studies show that aerobic exercise (like walking or running) has many stress-relieving benefits. It can improve your mood, help you sleep better, improve your focus and mental alertness, and make you feel fitter and more confident. It may even help your brain release dopamine or endogenous opiates that cause a temporary “runners high,” but that only happens occasionally, according to research. Exercise can also lower your blood pressure and help you maintain your weight, thus combating the effects of chronic stress on health. When you are chronically stressed, your cells can age quicker, as shown by shorter brain telomeres. However, moderate exercise several times a week can protect you from this effect.
3. Get in the Green
If you walk outside in green spaces, or even look at pictures of nature scenes, you may be able to increase your resilience to stress. A recent study by Stanford researchers showed that walking in green campus parkland reduced anxiety and worry more than walking on a busy street and had cognitive benefits as well. In another study, students were stressed by having to take a math test and getting feedback (even if not accurate) that they were performing below average. After the stressor, researchers assigned participants to one of two groups that either saw pictures of empty pathways and trees or pictures of urban scenes with cars and people. Those who saw the pictures of trees had faster cardiovascular recovery from stress (e.g., heart rate slowed down faster).
A recent study by Tara Kraft and Sarah Preston at the University of Kansas showed that smiling—even if they're fake smiles—can help your body resist stress. In this clever study, the researchers used chopsticks to arrange subjects’ mouths into either (fake) smiles or neutral expressions. Half the subjects in the smile group did not know they were smiling. The other half were told to smile and therefore had genuine smiles (which involve moving both eye muscles and mouth muscles). But both smiling groups had lower heart rate than the neutral group after performing a stressful task. The group with genuine smiles had the lowest heart rate overall; the fake smile group had less of a drop in positive mood during the stressor. The researchers suggest that moving your facial muscles sends a message to your brain that can influence your mood.
5. Stand Upright
Do you remember your mother telling you to stand up straight when you were little? Well it turns out that standing in an upright pose actually helps you perform better under stress, as compared to slouching. In another clever recent study, published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers assigned people to either stand upright or slouch. The researchers held the subjects in position with physiotherapy tape (after giving them a cover story). Both groups then had to do a stressful speech task. The upright group performed better and had less fear and more positive mood, compared to the slouchers. They were also less self-conscious. So the next time you’re under stress, remember to stand tall.
6. Try to See Your Stress as a Challenge
A study by Harvard and Yale researchers shows that your attitude toward stress matters and that people can learn more positive attitudes. The researchers showed one of two brief video clips to managers at a large, multinational banking firm, then measured their mood and work performance in subsequent weeks. These managers had high-pressure jobs with quotas they had to meet. One group saw a clip showing the negative effects of stress while the other group saw a clip about seeing stress as a positive challenge. The group that saw the clip about the positive aspects of stress actually felt less stressed—they engaged more at work and were happier and healthier. They also reported a 23% decrease in stress-related physical symptoms (like backache) compared to the group whose members saw the negative video. So try to see your stressors as challenges that you can learn from (even if it’s just learning to tolerate stress).
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former Professor of Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on relationships, stress, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet. She is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger) now on sale at Amazon.