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Stress

Stress Relief 101: A Science-Based Guide

How do we control, reduce, cope with, and relieve stress? Here are some tips.

Key points

  • Ongoing stress is hard for the body to handle and can wind up making someone physically ill.
  • Lifestyle changes like sleeping more, exercising regularly, and eating well can help relieve stress.
  • People who are stressed may also benefit from breathing techniques, happiness visualizations, gratitude lists, and self-compassion practices.
 1388843/Pixabay
Source: 1388843/Pixabay

Stress sucks. Luckily, science has pointed to a variety of tools, strategies, and techniques that can help relieve stress (take this stress quiz to see how you're currently doing).

Why stress relief is important

Stressful experiences activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. We may at first feel energized because the HPA axis stimulates the production of cortisol and other energizing hormones—it gives us the energy we need to get away from the stressor (which used to be things like predators). But if we experience stress too frequently, our HPA axis can start to get dysfunctional, leading us to feel "wired but tired."

That's because, in our modern world, we often experience more ongoing stress than our body is really designed to handle. As a result, we can end up mentally and physically ill. And we may even need to detox our stress to get our bodies working properly again.

Ways to relieve stress

Given just how harmful stress can be on the body, finding ways to relieve stress is essential. In this article, we'll talk about some of the science-based stress relief strategies you can try.

Stress relief techniques

Get good sleep.

Not getting enough sleep contributes to greater HPA axis activation. So to relieve stress, it can be really helpful to get more (and better) sleep. Be sure to block out blue light (from TVs, phones, and computers) 30 minutes before bed. You may also want to consider getting a red light bulb (which research suggests may improve sleep) for your bedside lamp.

Exercise lightly.

We all know that exercise is good for us. But exercise also increases the demand for energy and cortisol, so if we desire to relieve stress, we may benefit more from lower-intensity exercises, like walking, swimming, or yoga.

Try meditation.

Studies show that mediation can decrease cortisol in the context of stressful situations. Plus, meditation has been shown to help reduce depression and anxiety across several studies. So it may be helpful to try meditation for stress relief and see if it's a good fit for you.

Develop a challenge mindset.

When we view situations as threatening, it can make us feel more stressed. If we instead view our difficult situations as a challenge (and not a threat), we can feel less stressed and more capable of handling the situation. So try to shift your mindset and think about how you have the skills to handle the stressors that come your way.

Use breathing exercises.

One good way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system—our "rest and digest" calming system—is by regularly using deep breathing. For example, taking a breath in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, releasing for a count of four, and holding again for a count of four is a simple technique that can help you slow your breathing down. Check out the video below to be guided through this breathing exercise:

Take a cold shower.

My absolute favorite way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is by taking a cold shower after getting warm with an exercise or a sauna. Both exercise and a sauna may be self-soothing, but research shows that submerging the body in cold water also activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system. So, consider trying a cold shower or swim to relieve stress.

Reconsider your diet.

The foods we eat often contribute to stress. For example, sugar increases inflammation, which stresses the body, so it can exacerbate stress in the longer term. Trans fats also contribute to inflammation, which can put pressure on the HPA axis. In general, eating a diet of high-quality protein and vegetables seems to be the best bet to relieve stress.

Avoid caffeine.

Caffeine actually activates our HPA axis, making us feel more anxious. So ditch the coffee, caffeinated tea (like green and black teas), and energy drinks to relieve stress.

Consider taking adaptogens.

Adaptogens are plants that are thought to help relieve stress. Some adaptogens that have been studied and shown to work include Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Eleuthero, Jiaogulan, Rhodiola, and Ginseng.

Stress relief activities

We've covered some of the best stress relief techniques, but here are a few more activities to use to keep relieving stress.

  • Happiness visualization: This exercise can help you visualize happiness and mentally relieve stress.
  • Gratitude list: By noting down the things you're grateful for, you can focus more on the positive and less on stressors.
  • Self-compassion: Sometimes we feel stressed because we're being too hard on ourselves. Try this self-compassion exercise to learn how to be a bit nicer to yourself.

In sum

In our modern world, most of us need some stress relief. By learning to use these science-based stress-relief techniques, hopefully we can start improving our mental and physical health.

This post was adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

References

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Al'Absi, M., et al., Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical responses to psychological stress and caffeine in men at high and low risk for hypertension. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1998. 60(4): p. 521-527.

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