None of us are strangers to stress. We face it at work and at home, in various stages of the day and in varying degrees. What causes one person stress may not phase another, and how each of us deals with stress varies. But in these crazy times, stress has become as much a part of our day-to-day existence as our morning coffee, making it dangerously close to becoming an “accepted” part of our existence – and that’s just scary.
You could say that April, for me, was a month from hell (though I won’t bore you with the details). The good news is, all that angst caused me to do a little research on stress relief, and I found quite a few sites expressing thoughts on the topic. Below, I’ve listed some suggestions that were consistently mentioned across the board, and also a few that surprised me. Whether you choose one or more of these techniques when stress starts raining on your parade, the important thing to remember is this: Regaining your sense of calm doesn’t have to take a long time – but it will have long-term benefits.
9 Ways to Diminish Stress
1. Get Physical
Yeah, I know. Doctors always tell us that exercise is the best stress reliever, and we all complain that we have no time. But consider why exercise is consistently listed as the top stress reliever. Physical activity produces feel-good endorphins and turns your mind away from external issues, focusing them inward on your body’s movements and breathing. It helps you sleep better too, which is another stress reliever (I know, first hand, what a lack of sleep can do to your stress level. It isn’t pretty.) If you can exercise outside that’s even better – connecting with nature, another stress reliever, leaves you feeling more free and less “trapped” or boxed in.
2. Crack Up
Doctor Lee Berk of Loma Linda University claims that laughter can do as much for your body as going for a run. In a study she conducted, she found that volunteers who watched 20 minutes of comedies and stand-up routines experienced a dramatic drop in stress hormones, blood pressure and cholesterol. In other words, a really good belly laugh can remind us to see the humor in things, but it also has real physical benefits that can’t be ignored. Take some time to meet your funny friend on a lunch break, watch the latest episode of that irreverent sitcom, or search Youtube for an old stand-up routine that always had you in stitches… the doctor says it’s good for you!
3. Eat a Piece of Chocolate
You won’t get any arguments or excuses from me on this one. An excuse to eat chocolate? I’m in. A recent study found that people who rated themselves highly stressed to begin with had lower levels of stress hormones after eating dark chocolate every day for two weeks. The subjects only ate about 1.5 ounces a day (so the chocolate lava cake is off limits) but this is still promising, no?
Stress can cause the best of us to become reclusive, but connecting with friends or relatives can provide the very distraction, support, and feeling of alliance we need. A cup of decaf with that friend who really “gets” you, or even a quick call to someone who makes you feel less vulnerable during moments of stress can remind you that there’s more to life than whatever has you twisted in knots.
5. Learn to Say No
Saying yes to keep the peace, to prevent arguments or to be sure a task is done “correctly” can actually backfire in the long run, leading to stress, anger and resentment. The bottom line is, you might want to do it all, but you probably can’t without paying a big price. Saying no (or no, thank you) is not only ok, it’s a healthy thing to do.
6. Take a Break From All Things “Technical”
I told you I’d surprise you. A study by the University of California has showed that checking e-mail put test subjects on constant high alert with heart rates that indicated stress. I realize that our phones, ipads and laptops have become extensions of ourselves, giving us unlimited access to information and giving others unlimited access to us – but is that always a good thing? Choreographer Twyla Tharp says that when she needs to focus she’ll go a full week without “distractions.” Of course, by distractions she also means the television, the news and clocks, which could cause someone like me to lose her edge – or her job. But the point still is, it’s a good idea to take breaks from all of the information that floods our minds each day. Put the digital device away during a dinner with friends, make a pact to not text for a block of time during the weekend and, at work, check email at designated times instead of constantly toggling back and forth between your current project and your Outlook account.
7. Get Musical
If music soothes the savage beast, imagine what it can do for a human stress ball. Mental distraction, reduced muscle tension and decreased stress hormones are just a few benefits that occur when you let yourself get lost in a piece of music that you love. Don’t believe me? A study in The Journal of Advanced Nursing found that patients who listened to songs of their own choice were actually less anxious before surgery. Really, any hobby you enjoy can have a positive effect on your stress level. Try painting, gardening, building model cars – anything that allows you to focus on what you’re doing in the moment instead of all the things that you feel pressured to do.
8. Write it Down
A 2010 study in Anxiety, Stress and Coping found that writing about a stressful event for just 20 minutes on two occasions lowered levels of perceived stress. I, personally, love this one and use it whenever things seem overwhelming. When I write about my concerns or express my feelings on paper, my thoughts start to organize themselves and seem less nebulous, allowing me to process whatever I’m experiencing.
I know what you’re thinking… I have to be out of my mind. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but one site claimed that housework’s repetitive nature can help release tension because the repetitive rhythms of folding clothes or vacuuming can disrupt negative thought patterns and trigger a relaxation response (according to Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine). I’m not really sure how Dr. Benson came to this conclusion but I’m having a hard time seeing myself the slightest bit relaxed while facing a load of dirty laundry at the end of a long work week. But, hey, who am I to argue with science?
So there you have it – nine ways to head stress off at the pass. Feel free to try one or more of these suggestions and tell me what you think – and to share your own thoughts on the stress dilemma. In the meantime, I’m heading out for some chocolate.