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11 Easy (and Unexpected) Ways to Reduce Stress

Sit up straight, and keep looking at the fish.

Nenad Aksic/Shutterstock
Source: Nenad Aksic/Shutterstock

Some people collect seashells, stamps, or coins. But if you were born with an anxious brain (like me), you might want to collect as many and varied ways to relieve excessive stress as possible.

Notice that I used the phrase, “excessive stress.” Stress is a part of life, and one great stress reliever is simply accepting that fact rather than expecting life to always be easy. But when stress is overwhelming and persistent, it’s time to take action, because it can damage you in various insidious ways:

  • Chronic stress may put you at risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s by damaging key parts of the brain.
  • Chronic stress may put you at risk for depression and other psychiatric illnesses.
  • Stress is linked to an increased risk for heart attack, diabetes, and stroke.
  • Even moderate stress can impair self-control.
  • More stress is correlated to more headaches per month.

To cope with stress, there’s always the Big Three—exercise; relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation; and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). But there are numerous other ways to reduce stress, some of which take just moments, and some just a simple change in attitude.

The methods below are all easy, fun, unusual, grounded in research, and benefit your overall health by reducing excessive stress. You probably already “practice” some of these methods, but others may be surprising and new. Try one or two in the week ahead.

Surprising Stress-Reducers

1. Wash dishes, mindfully.

I’ve always wondered why I enjoy washing dishes, and now I know. Researchers at Florida State University wondered if certain mundane activities of daily life, like dish-washing, could reduce stress. Using a group of 51 students, they discovered that: “…mindful dishwashers—those who focused on the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water, the feel of the dishes—reported a decrease in nervousness by 27 percent and an increase in mental inspiration by 25 percent. The control group, on the other hand, didn't experience any benefits.”

Any repetitive activity, such as raking leaves, would probably have the same effect if practiced with a dose of mindfulness. Getting chores done in itself probably relieves some stress.

2. Help others.

As you might expect, getting support from others can cool down the stress response. But giving support and helping others is also remarkably effective. Researchers found that providing support to others—even in small ways, such as opening the door for someone—can reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being.

3. Give, when you can.

We know that charitable giving increases your happiness, but does it benefit your health? According to results of two small studies of seniors, people who spent extra money on others had lower blood pressure than those who spent extra money on themselves. These results held up even when income, marital status, and exercise were accounted for.

But beware: Giving when you can’t afford either the time or money to do so could have negative effects on your health. The stresses of care-giving, for example, are associated with higher stroke and heart disease risk.

4. Kiss, hug, and hold hands.

Hugging and cuddling can slow the release of the stress chemical cortisol and increase your flow of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that counter depression and stress, according to various studies. Moreover, the sense of connection with someone you love can provide perspective. When you put a little love in your life, stressors seem smaller and less important.

5. Get a massage.

While we’re basking in the healing power of touch, consider a massage. In a small study, blood samples from adults who received either 45 minutes of Swedish massage or light massage showed lowered stress chemicals, an increased immune response, and higher levels of oxytocin (the famous “cuddle hormone”).

6. Knit or crochet.

According to New York Times health columnist Jane Brody:

"Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine and author of The Relaxation Response, says that the repetitive action of needlework can induce a relaxed state like that associated with meditation and yoga. Once you get beyond the initial learning curve, knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol."

There is some evidence that stitching can reduce feelings of depression, help people cope with chronic pain, and even ward off decline in brain function as we age. While this may seem like a humongous benefit from such tiny stitches, I have personally experienced the pleasant trance state that knitting induces, and can testify to its soothing power. And if you make a gift for someone, you can also get a stress-relief boost from helping another person.

7. Spend time in nature.

An increasing body of research confirms the psychological benefits of spending time in natural environments. Walking in green spaces lowers blood pressure and stress chemicals and can alleviate a depressed or anxious mood. Even looking out your window at your backyard trees and critters can be relaxing and calm your stress response.

8. Sit up straight!

Your mother may have told you this, but now social science research confirms it: Slouching seems to lower self-esteem and mood. By contrast, sitting upright can build resilience to stress, improve memory for positive events, bolster assertiveness and self-confidence, and raise mood and productivity. If you'd like to improve your posture in less than a minute—really—try the amazing palms-up technique.

"Yellow Aquarium Fish," by Ranjithsiji/Commons.wikimedia
Source: "Yellow Aquarium Fish," by Ranjithsiji/Commons.wikimedia

9. Watch the creatures in an aquarium.

Viewing the swimming fish—the more, the merrier—lowered blood pressure and heart rate. Both science and anecdotal evidence confirm this result.

10. Make friends with your stress.

This counter-intuitive idea comes from psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In her book, The Upside of Stress, she encourages you to reframe a stressful situation as a challenge rather than a problem. Preliminary research indicates that people who can develop this mindset will suffer fewer negative health effects from stressful life events. The "challenge response" might also include a determination to uncover personal meaning in both trying and tragic situations. For example, what does your stress response reveal about your deepest values? How does it help you learn what you care about the most? Answering these questions can transform your stress response into a growth response.

11. Your choice: What is your “pet” stress reliever?

Finally, and most important, since everyone is different, figure out what reduces stress for you. For some, stroking a pet works to calm an agitated mind. For others, caring for houseplants is soothing. Other possible unique stress-relievers: putting on a comfy sweater or sweat pants, calling a friend, taking a nap, focusing on gratitude, taking one deep breath, sipping tea, smiling…any of these could work, and many are research-based stress solutions.

... and One Warning

Make sure your chosen stress-reliever is NOT a "false friend," an activity that might relieve stress in the short run but pile it on in the long run. False friends include habits like smoking, procrastinating, over-drinking, and overeating.

Your Personal Stress-Relief Collection

Remember, you are the ultimate judge of the stress-relievers that work for you. One person’s boredom is another person’s stress relief. You get to decide which of these stress relievers you'll include in your personal collection. Once you are conscious of what works for you, you can add a touch of relaxation into every hour of your life.

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© Meg Selig, 2016. All rights reserved.

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