Stressed? Center yourself with these speedy de-stressing strategies.
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We all deal with stress in one form or another. While stress generally gets a bad rap, some stress can actually be good for you and help prevent depression and anti-social behavior. It can also make you more resilient when it comes to coping with future stressful events. The keys to de-stressing include learning how to keep your stress levels at a manageable level through healthy habits, and finding effective ways to relieve stress quickly when it hits, so you can get back to a more balanced state of mind.
An occasional stressful week at work or a bad argument are normal parts of life. But when stress is chronic, recurring, and negatively impacting your life—and potentially harming your mental and physical health—it’s important to find the right coping strategies to de-stress quickly. If you find that you’re having trouble sleeping, functioning day to day, or maintaining healthy relationships due to stress, learning in-the-moment stress management techniques can help you get your brain and body back on track. Here’s how to relieve stress quickly, according to science and experts.
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Slow your breathing.
By slowing your breathing, you can actually help your body relax more quickly than you think. You may notice that when you’re stressed, your breathing becomes more shallow and concentrated in your upper chest (that panicky, unpleasant, breathless feeling that can make your heart race). Shifting your breathing to your diaphragm (think: inhale into the belly vs. the chest), can reduce your body’s stress response and regulate your nervous system.
“Often, we take shallow breaths when we’re stressed, and this may cause our bodies to feel even more tense,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. To alleviate shallow breathing associated with high stress levels, experts often recommend practicing the 4-7-8 breathing strategy, which is one of the fastest and easiest ways to stop stress in its tracks.
“First exhale all of your breath through your mouth. Then inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds and exhale the breath through your mouth for eight seconds,” Lira de la Rosa says. “Repeat this cycle at least four times. This technique helps your body activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the stress brake pedal), so that your body can begin to slow down.” (Bonus: This breathing exercise is incredibly helpful for falling asleep.)
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Try progressive muscle relaxation.
A number of muscle relaxation strategies can help you de-stress. Two of the most popular are guided imagery, which means focusing intently on calming images like seascapes, and progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing one muscle group at a time. Muscle relaxation strategies have the power not only to alleviate stress, but to reduce headaches, anxiety, nighttime awakenings, and how long it takes to fall asleep. Lira de la Rosa explains that progressive muscle relaxation can help your body activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
“Tense one body part at a time for five seconds, then release the tension, repeating this one more time. You can start with your toes, feet, calves, hamstrings, buttocks, stomach, chest, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, face and then end with your forehead.”
Practice mindfulness or meditation.
Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or a combination of the three are all proven ways to reduce stress quickly. A systematic review of 17 studies on mindfulness-based stress reduction found that 16 of these studies demonstrated positive changes in psychological or physiological outcomes related to anxiety and/or stress. In fact, mindfulness reduces physical markers of stress, such as high cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
The way mindfulness works is simple: It slows your mind down and gives you more control over your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. “You may take a moment to observe your thoughts without judgment,” Lira de la Rosa suggests. “Some people find it helpful to imagine the thoughts going on a leaf that is flowing down a stream. Every time a thought comes up, you can visualize this thought just gently flowing down the stream. This exercise can provide you with a quick check-in with your thoughts and can help you practice letting go of stressful thoughts.”
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One of the best ways to kick stress fast is getting some exercise. Whether that means hitting the pavement for a run, kickboxing, or lifting weights, almost all forms of physical activity are effective. Exercise has long been touted as an essential part of overall health management, especially for heart health, but it can keep your stress levels low as well.
David Seitz, MD, a board-certified physician and acting medical director of Ascendant NY, says exercise doesn’t have to be complicated or even drawn-out to provide benefits. It also doesn’t need to be formal or serious. Make it fun by dancing or turning on an ’80s jazzercise video. “Exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects,” he says. “Exercise also helps to clear your mind and improve your sleep, both of which can help reduce stress levels. If you don't have time for a full workout, even a short walk or run can help reduce stress.”
Write down your emotions.
When you’re full of unpleasant emotions—triggered by stress or causing your stress (or both)—expressing yourself verbally is a powerful tool to process your thoughts and find some relief. Susan Bernstein, PhD, who provides psychological coaching and support for business leaders, says writing out your emotions is a proven and effective way to reduce stress. Research has found that expressive writing, or journaling, can help reduce anxiety in those with expressive personalities.
“When we feel stressed, our mind can ruminate and start weaving stories that are not necessarily supportive,” Bernstein explains. “I recommend getting a pen and paper and writing out the situation and your thoughts about it. Most importantly, include your feelings in your writing.” Writing by hand is most effective, she adds, because it can help you name and tame your emotions.
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Have a really good laugh.
A good, deep laugh can make you feel better quickly, especially when laughter comes from the belly. Experts have long studied the therapeutic benefits of laughter in mental health, discovering that it decreases cortisol (a stress chemical) levels in the body and alters serotonin and dopamine levels, which are both responsible for mood and happiness.
Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor, says humor “shifts distressing emotions” and your perspective into a more positive direction, while deep, “heartfelt” laughter provides physical stress relief in the form of muscle relaxation: “[It]instantly reduces physical stress and tension.”
Practice these strategies consistently.
While these suggestions can relieve stress quickly, long-term stress relief and management involves developing some healthy everyday habits. If you practice deep breathing regularly, engage in exercise, get enough sleep every night, and make it your mission to laugh more, you can promote healthier stress levels in your life.
“The difficulty with stress is that over time, our bodies begin to adapt to our stress levels. That’s why stress relief can feel temporary if we do not take active measures to manage it on a regular basis,” Lira de la Rosa says. “It’s possible to experience long-lasting effects of stress relief, but this comes with continued self-care and practicing stress-relieving exercises.”
You don’t need to wait until you’re at your breaking point to do some gentle breathing exercises or start journaling. Reflect and identify what tends to trigger stress for you, as well as what stress feels like when it hits you. That way you can reach for the right tools at the first signs of stress and prevent more serious, prolonged stress.
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