22 Proven Tricks That Melt Stress
You're doing your best to keep it together during these COVID-19 times. But it's no surprise that stress—our "fight or flight" response—has kicked into high gear.
Not to worry: Although stress and anxiety might seem to come on in a flash and resurface at the slightest trigger, you can deal with it just as quickly and easily with this proven advice.
Practice Deep Breathing
This is one of the quickest ways to relax—your body's built-in anti-anxiety system. "Inhale to the count of three, and let your belly expand to get a deep breath," says Erin Hinek, LPC, CPCS, a licensed professional counselor in Decatur, Georgia. "Hold for a count of three, and then exhale slowly for a count of six."
Write A List
"Making a to-do list of everything that’s rolling around in your mind can help you 'brain dump' all of the things that you may be ruminating about," says Hinek.
Leapfrog Over It
"One of my favorite tricks to deal with stress is to do something called leapfrogging," says Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, a psychotherapist in Sarasota, Florida. "Instead of thinking of a stressful event, be it a colonoscopy or doing a presentation, think past it. Most people become stressed because they focus on the stress-causing event which raises their anxiety. In leapfrogging, you focus on how you’ll feel after it—which lowers anxiety."
For example, if you're getting a medical test, focus on how relieved you'll be when it's over and think about simply walking to the car and any plans after that. If you're giving a presentation, picture yourself relaxing at home later, and think about how proud you'll be about its success. "The more sensory and grounded the envisioning is, the more it reduces stress," says Koenig.
Talk To Yourself
"When feelings of stress or overwhelm strike, repeat a positive affirmation or mantra that is easy to remember and will calm your nerves," says Casey Kaczmarek, MA a holistic health and wellness coach in Portland, Oregon. "You can find one on the internet or create your own. Try starting it with 'I am', such as 'I am filled with peace, love, and light.'"
Try This Simple Visualization
"Try a visualization technique to soothe your nervous system," says Kaczmarek. "Start by closing your eyes and taking three to five slow, deep breaths. Then, starting with the top of your head, slowly imagine your entire body filling with white light. Sit with that for several minutes until you feel calmer."
Make A Relaxing Playlist
"Create a soothing spa playlist on iTunes or Spotify, then turn it on for some musical relaxation when stress strikes," says Kaczmarek.
"Keep a couple of calming teas—such as lavender or chamomile—in your car, wallet or purse when you need a quick moment of calm," says Kaczmarek. "Sipping on herbal tea can be turned into a mindful experience that reconnects you to yourself."
Take A Quick Break
"Whatever you’re doing can wait five or ten minutes, which is all it can take to get a hold of your stress," says Kaczmarek. "Take a few moments to mindfully distract yourself with an activity you enjoy, such as stretching, meditating, going for a walk around your office building, or dancing to your favorite tunes."
Keep Things In Perspective
"Place the situation in a larger life perspective," says Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Irvine, California. "Whatever 'it' is, tell yourself, 'I will get through this. I have always survived every life challenge.' Perspective reduces stress."
"Engaging in mindfulness activities and recognizing the signs of stress in the body and mind is the first step to gain control of stress," says Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
"Relaxation techniques such as abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, positive affirmations, and body-scanning exercises support consciousness and promote acting to manage stress levels. It helps reduce automatic reactivity and increases active problem solving to help reinforce taking control of the stress, rather than having the stress take control of the person."
Get Plenty Of Sleep
"Most important in the management of stress is sleep and downtime," says Mendez. "Intentionally giving priority to getting seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep dramatically reduces negative and unhelpful stress reactions."
Step Away From Your Screens
"Setting limits and boundaries on technology, and allowing the mind to take in the world naturally rather than always through a screen, will also contribute to stress reduction," says Mendez. "It may sound corny, but taking time to breathe and see life that is happening in real time can be amazingly relaxing."
Right-Size the Risk
"When we're facing a new situation or challenge, part of our stress comes from the brain’s incredible ability to inflate the level of risk," says Jennifer Hunt, MD, chair of pathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "Suddenly, the new challenge becomes almost as insurmountable as a life-or-death decision. In our minds, the risk seems so high that our stress response takes over and we get stuck in a flight-flight-freeze reaction."
Hunt likes to ask her patients to practice "right-sizing of the risk" by doing a simple three-question exercise:
- What is the worst possible thing that can happen if I attempt this?
- What can I do to prevent that terrible thing from happening?
- What can I do to salvage things if that terrible thing did happen?
"Usually when we go through this exercise, we find that our brains have grossly overestimated how dramatic the situation is," she says.
Visualize One Of Your Favorite Humorous Experiences
"For example, one where you laughed so hard you cried or fell down," says Sultanoff. "This can help you in at least three healthy ways. First, when you laugh you exercise your muscles and reduce stress physically. Second, when you experience humor, distressing emotions disappear—even if only for a moment. And third, the experience of humor adds perspective making the stressors of life less potent. It's easy and takes less than 60 seconds."
"Learn one simple joke and be prepared to share it at appropriate moments," says Sultanoff. "Receive humor by watching comedians, sitcoms or improv. Seek out cartoons and share them with others. Or create a 'funny moment' sharing with friends."
Learn Your Triggers
"Most people have specific triggers that bring on their stress, but we never spend a lot of time studying and learning about them," says Hunt. "The more you know about your triggers, the more you can do some early recognition and prevention of your stress."
For example, one person Hunt works with gets stressed when she's faced with a situation in which she feels like she doesn't have enough information to make a decision. "In recognizing this, she has developed a set of questions that she can ask to get the information she needs to untrigger her stress response," says Hunt.
Listen To Your Body
"We all experience stress differently, but essentially everyone has a body-based reaction to stress," says Hunt. "Do your shoulders tighten and scrunch up to your ears? Do you feel a hollow pit-like feeling in your stomach area? Does your heart start beating faster, or your face flush? Your body will be able to tell you that stress is coming on, even before your mind recognizes it."
Learning to identify your bodily cues to the beginning a stress reaction can help you stop it before it becomes overwhelming. "If you're the shoulder-scrunching person and notice they're creeping up to your ears, stop yourself and investigate what in your life is giving you a stress response," says Hunt. "At the same time, actively release and relax your shoulders to reverse the physical experience of stress."
Stop Saying "Should"
"Don't tell yourself what you must, should, need, ought, have or are supposed to do — they’re external motivators to get us to do things we have mixed feelings about," says Koenig. "Instead, use words such as want, desire, wish, prefer, or would like to, which are internal motivators. Telling yourself that you must work on a presentation only makes you want to rebel. Finding the internal desire to work on it and wanting to get started raises your spirits. It’s okay to have two competing wants, or even a want and a fear. The idea is to keep connected with why you want to do an activity more than on why you don’t."
"Meditation is a key to managing your stress and emotions," says Christine Kenney, MSW, a certified health and life coach in Nashville. "Recent studies suggest that meditation decreases stress levels while increasing happiness and compassion. Meditation puts the nervous system into a calm, relaxed state by slowing everything in your body down. Just five minutes of deep breathing can instantly calm the nervous system."
"Exercise has been found to lower the levels of stress hormones in the body," says Carrie Lam, MD, DABFM, a family medicine practitioner in California. "At the same time, it can help release more endorphins, which are chemicals that naturally improve your mood."
"Engaging in activities such as meditation, yoga, or any physical activity such as biking, swimming and walking helps the body reduce cortisol levels and improves overall health," says Mendez. "Movement and physical exercise also stimulate positive thought processes."
Do Face Yoga
"Carrying stress above the neck can lead to teeth grinding, jaw clenching, and other activities that can damage your teeth," says Mike Golpa, DDS, a dentist and director of G4 by Golpa. "I like to help my patients beat this dangerous facial stress with 'face yoga'."
These are some "poses" he recommends to help relieve the stress we can carry in our jaw, mouth, and facial muscles:
- The Satchmo: Puff out the cheeks as far and as tightly as you can, like Louis Armstrong's famous trumpet-playing face. Then blow out that air, inhale, and repeat. This can release tension along the mouth, nose, and jawline.
- The O Sequence: Pucker up and make as small an O shape with your mouth as you can. Then widen that into the biggest smile you can manage. Repeat up to 10 times. This also helps release tension and tightness around the mouth, chin, and nose.
- The Fish: Make fish lips by sucking in your cheeks and catching them between your teeth. Wiggle your puckered lips up and down several times. Release, inhale, and repeat. This releases tension in facial muscles and may make you crack a smile or laugh, which also helps relieve stress.
- The Stargazer: Lift your chin as though you were looking at the stars or clouds. Jut your jaw forward as far as you can. Make an O with your lips. Release, then repeat up to 10 times. This helps release tension in your chin, neck and jaw.
Start Keeping A Stress Diary
"Take the time to jot down your thoughts and feelings every day," says Lam. "That way, you can go over your notes and hopefully discover exactly what is triggering your stress. The following day, take steps to keep those triggers from happening again."
And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.