A bit of stress is good for us. The right amount of stress, not more nor less, motivates us to work, pick out dangers from a distance, and go about living through a typical day. We call it eustress or good stress.
But, when it becomes chronic and overwhelming, we must set out to manage and reduce stress. To protect ourselves from living under toxic stress, we need coping strategies that work.
Now, these are some common ways to manage stress—listening to music, reading a book, watching movies, pampering yourself, going out shopping, going on a holiday, getting good sleep, talking it out with others, and starting relaxation programs.
We go beyond those above. We bring you 10 effective science-based strategies to reduce your stress. These tips can produce positive results in a day!
Stress is our response to an adverse situation, person, place, or thing. Usually, every interaction between a person and the environment causes stress, small or big, fleeting or lasting. American Psychological Association says, “Stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures, but can become unhealthy when it upsets your day-to-day functioning.”
10 Unusually Effective Ways To Reduce Stress
Here are the 10 best strategies from experts to manage stress, each highly effective. Practice these as a part of your lifestyle to get calmer and happier. Even if you pick up and do only one, your stress would come down fast.
1. Take a walk (ideally in the forest)
Get up, move away from the stressful situation and take a short, brisk walk for 15 to 20 minutes. When you remove yourself from a perceived threat, your mind relaxes.
And when you walk, you spend your energies feeding your brain positively. Exercise both releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and lowers stress-related neurochemicals like cortisol.
A 2016 study found barely 12 minutes of walking increased joviality, vigor, attentiveness, and self-confidence. Those in the control group who sat and watched a slideshow did not have the same benefits.
The researchers Krizan and Miller found “incidental ambulation” (the type of walking that gets you from place to place, not the kind you do around a track) roundly contributes to a positive mood even when they did not focus on their movement. It can also override the effects of other emotionally relevant events, such as boredom and fear.
A 2017 study found walking sends pressure waves through our arteries that increase blood supply to the brain.
Walking and other aerobic exercises refresh our minds by regenerating new brain cells in the hippocampus, the seat of memory in the brain.
So, a brisk walk can reduce overthinking, boost your mood, and improve memory.
The Japanese practice forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin means “forest,” and yoku means “bath,” so shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere.
Studies show shinrin-yoku can boost our immunity by increasing our body’s Natural Killer (NK) activity.
2. Do the diaphragmatic breathing
Take a few deep breaths when a stressful situation appears. It works.
Deep breathing moves the diaphragm (the muscular partition between our chest and abdomen) and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. It reverses your stress response by relaxing your body and quietening your mind.
The American Institute of Stress says focused breathing is the best relaxation response to stress. They call it a “Super Stress Buster.”
With a few deep breaths, you also give yourself several seconds before reacting. Those seconds help you decide what you should rationally do rather than rush in to do something impetuously. Those moments are the time to access the higher parts of your brain and do what you should ideally do.
Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, distinguished between a stressor (the stimulus) and stress (the response). Viktor Frankl, the legendary psychologist who survived the World Ward II holocaust, sagely advised us to use the “space” between “the stimulus and response.”
The next time you get into an unpleasant situation, pause and allow your thoughts to have a brief space. Use that space to take a few deep breaths.
3. Go the ‘proactive coping’ way
Proactive coping has emerged as a new focus of positive psychology research. In this, instead of finding solutions to your chronic stress, you avoid stress in the first place.
In proactive coping, people have a clear future vision.
Proactive coping people see risks, demands, and opportunities in the far future, but they do not take those as looming threat, harm, or loss. For them, these are opportunities to build up resources. In time, these will give them a better chance to clear out the paths to their goals and growth.
Gan, Yang, et al. (2007) say proactive coping predicts functional independence, life satisfaction, and engagement. Schwarzer and Taubert (2002) hold it is a method of assessing future goals and setting the stage to achieve them successfully.
Those who cope proactively prepare much in advance.
It is a stitch-in-time approach to manage stress. By roughly guessing where the next stress could come from, they take steps to make the situation less likely to happen.
Still in doubt? Okay, how about this: all of us can reduce stress by simply getting proper sleep, exercise and nutrition, and being optimistic, right? These are great proactive coping strategies.
Those who cope proactively, for example, know persistent lack of sleep builds up the stress. So, they sleep for 8 hours and take a daytime nap. Another example: they do not smoke or drink. By keeping themselves away from these, they also avoid the stress of future health problems.
Aspinwall and Taylor (1997) assert proactive coping is a process through which one prepares for potential future stressors and possibly averts them altogether. They specify the five stages of proactive coping:
- resource accumulation,
- recognition of potential stressors,
- initial appraisal,
- preliminary coping efforts, and
- elicitation and use of feedback concerning initial efforts.
Stephanie Jean Sohl and Anne Moyer write,
Aspiring for a positive future rather than preventing a negative one is distinctly predictive of well-being.
4. Forgive others, and yourself too
Resentments are storehouses of stress. Chronic anger keeps you in a fight-or-flight mode.
Unforgiveness, which is reflected as anger, hate, and resentment, creates stress within a person and in situations when they interact with others. Several studies show forgiveness comes with more happiness, better mental well-being, improved physical health, and less depression.
Forgiveness is an effective coping mechanism. It can reduce the effects and the feelings of stress linked with unforgiveness.
McCullough and his team found an increase in forgiveness linked to a decrease in rumination. Rumination is overthinking past events, which can result from stress and lead to anxiety or depression.
A study on 332 young, middle-aged, and older adults over five weeks showed forgiveness could significantly reduce stress. The researchers behind the Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study write:
Forgiveness may be a form of coping that helps alleviate perceptions of stress that contribute to poor mental health.
Forgiving is not always easy. But remember, you forgive for your own sake – for reducing your stress, not for the other person’s. When you forgive, you consciously decide to let go of your negative feelings whether the offending person deserves it.
For all it matters, you do not even have to let the person know you forgave them. Forgiveness does not wait for an apology, so do not expect or demand their “mea culpa” before you forgive them. Just forgive.
Instead of seeing forgiveness as letting someone “off the hook,” rather see it as you are freeing yourself. You are only releasing your resentment, not condoning the unjust act.
Forgiveness is a dynamic state that changes over the time. You can forgive without forgetting.
You can forgive your malefactor a little today without any need to forget what they did. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. So forgiving them today does not prevent you from withdrawing your forgiveness in the future.
Forgiveness is a choice you are making. And you are the one to get its benefit.
And forgive yourself, too. Self-forgiveness is letting yourself move ahead of your past wrongdoings.
All of us, at least once in our life, have behaved badly and felt guilty later. It might have caused you to dislike yourself, believe you are not worthy of trust or love, devalue your self-esteem, or even suffer a disturbed mind.
To cope with these ill-effects of past actions and to go forward, you need to forgive yourself. So, learn how to forgive yourself.
5. Practice the Stoicism philosophy
Stoicism flourished for nearly five centuries in ancient Greece and Rome. And the influence of Stoicism has endured to the present day.
Stoics hold that peace of mind comes from understanding and giving our attention to only what we can control. They believe we can only control our thoughts, attitudes, and responses. We cannot control what lies outside ourselves.
But if we try to control the external elements, or the outside event itself, we would only waste our emotional and physical energy. This idea is somewhat similar to the phenomenon of ‘cognitive control,’ the belief that you can control your reaction to an event.
According to Donald Robertson, author of How To Think Like A Roman Emperor, most modern forms of self-help are ultimately indebted to the Stoics, as is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of psychotherapy.
The Stoics also kept death in their thoughts.
Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able – be good.— Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher and one of the greatest Roman emperors
So, remind yourself that you and others, with all the successes and possessions, are ultimately ephemeral. None and nothing will last. Simply ask yourself, “Will it matter in a year?”
You might want to catch our little post on how to be a Stoic in today’s times: Beginner’s Guide To Learn Stoicism.
6. Be mindful for some time today
In modern life, we do not have as many physical dangers as the perceived ones. We no more face fierce predators as tigers or dire threats as famines. But we still react to non-life-threatening situations with stress. As soon as our mind gauges any situation as physically hazardous, our bodies jump into stress mode. Mindfulness helps us observe the situation curiously and accept it without jumping to judgments.
Learn to focus on the present moment of your life. Most of our waking moment, our minds are wandering in a state of mindlessness. This wandering takes us to our past or future and often results in unhelpful thought patterns as regretting or worrying.
Mindfulness brings us to the here-and-now experience, relieving us of stress arising from past or present life-events. Mindfulness helps us let go of the stresses related to events that have happened or are yet to happen.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, involves becoming an impartial witness to one’s own experience and acceptance of things as they actually are in the present moment. Researchers have shown MBSR can reduce anxiety levels by 58% and stress by 40%.
According to Kabat-Zinn, the basis of MBSR is mindfulness, which is “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.”
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“Few of us ever life in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” – Louis L’Amour
“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” – Mother Teresa
If you need some help with mindfulness, we have a popular, nifty guide: 7 Steps To Mindfulness Meditation.
7. Do at least one thing you enjoy
Indulge in a healthy behavior you enjoy. Simply doing something you love doing can reduce the stress of your day-to-day life.
Take a walk in the park with your loved one. Go to a show at the planetarium to feel the awe of seeing the creation of the universe. Thank a person you haven’t thanked in years. Help someone get a little more out of their life. Meet a person a few levels below you to tell them how much their work means to the company.
Want to make funny faces in the mirror? Go ahead. Want to dance like no one’s watching you? Then perform for yourself. By the way, you can increase your happiness with a smile on your face, even if it’s a fake one.
Do something that is pure fun. You would do it for no other reason than you would enjoy it (without harassing or harming others). Stop stopping yourself from having fun. And do at least one thing today that you would genuinely enjoy!
8. Show empathy towards others
Empathize with people who you think are causing you stress. Remember, everyone is fighting their own battles. When you see them with compassion, you no longer believe they are stressing you out. You rather find they are doing their best to relieve their own stress.
Empathy takes the stress out of a confrontation. Empathy produces oxytocin, “the love hormone.” Psychologist Arthur Ciaramicoli in his book The Stress Solution argues empathic listening may be the key to reducing stress in our lives. He says, “Empathy means seeing human beings as always changing and evolving; so you don’t want to judge and shut the person down.”
Remember, change begins with you. Change your paradigms. Your paradigms are the “lenses” through which you see the world. Start the change in you by treating others with more empathy.
[Find out more on Empathy in Positive Psychology.]
9. Put down your burden and rest
Keep down your heavy bag of stress and give yourself a break.
If it seems too difficult to put away your worries and anxieties, assure yourself it is only for a little while that you are putting it down. Tell yourself you can pick it up again whenever you want to.
Coping with constant stress can get unbearable. It is more so when you handle multiple stressful challenges at home and work. In such times, your body screams for a break. Are you listening to it, or are you ignoring it because you are too much attached to your worries?
Listen to your body and take a break. Taking breaks refreshes your mind and re-energizes your body. Frequent breaks can help reduce and even prevent musculoskeletal pains and eyestrain. Regular breaks also help to improve your relationships.
Choose a way to let your mind move away from a stressful state, like doing some stretches, exercising for a while, visualizing taking a warm bath, watching a relaxing movie, recalling joyful memories, playing a sport you love.
Do you know the story of the psychologist who held out a glass of water to his class and asked, “How heavy is this?”
Of course, the answers were many numbers in ounces and pounds.
In the end, the psychologist explained it does not matter how much the glass or the water weighs. What actually matters, and determines how heavy it is, is how long the person holds it.
If I hold it for an hour, my arm will ache. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. The weight of the glass stays the same, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.
So, stop holding your “total stress load” for a while. Permit yourself to ease your mind of the burden by taking a break, a rest. Remember to put down your glass.
10. Connect with people who care
Staying connected with your friends, family, and community is the biggest and the best predictor of our happiness.
Robert Sapolsky, the world-famous neurologist, says:
The single best predictor of an ability to deal well with stress is how socially connected you are.
So, reconnect with your friends if you find you have drifted apart. Keep them in the loop about what new things are happening in your life. Plan a get-together with your old friends. Stay connected to each other via social media, email, and messengers.
Connect with your family and relatives without work pressures. Arrange a picnic or a party exclusively for them. As you connect, remind yourself to talk openly and honestly. Tell them of your unspoken expectations from the relationship and urge them to do the same.
Another part of successful connections is accepting other people as they are. And not forcing them to conform to your standards and judgments of what they should be. Instead of trying to improve them, or make them someone different, try valuing and loving them.
Studies prove if we have close social relationships, then we tend to have happier lives. Follow the science on this and keep your stress at bay.
Stress In Psychology
In psychology, stress is usually the process of interaction between a person and their environment. There are three broad perspectives in studying the stress process:
- Response-based: When a person says, ‘I feel a lot of stress,’ they are usually referring to their response to an unpleasant situation. This response to a stimulus follows a three-stage pattern, which Selye called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). Initially, the body defends itself against stressors by activating the sympathetic nervous system and mobilizing the body for the fight-or-flight response. When stress is longer, the person adapts more or less successfully to the stressor. Finally, the person’s adaptation resources deplete, and a breakdown occurs that leads to illness, burnout, depression, or even death.
- Stimulus-based: When a person says, ‘I have a stressful marriage,’ they are referring to a trying situation, not to their response to that situation. This perspective argues that each crisis has its unique demands that uniquely tax the person’s coping resources and trigger an exceptional stress response.
- Cognitive-transactional: Theis paradigm views stress as a continuous process, started and maintained by the cognitive appraisal of demands and resistance resources. This theory emphasizes the ongoing, reciprocal nature of the interaction between the person and the environment. It is the standard paradigm in psychology.
Is Stress Always Bad?
Stress is not always bad. A bit of stress is good for us. Not only good, but some stress is necessary for us to live normally. Stress in itself is not a disease. And not all stress has a negative effect.
Eustress (Good Stress): We cannot live long without some amount of stress in our lives. Scientists call it eustress or good stress. They help us grow. Studies show that short-term stress can boost the immune system.
As kings of our lives, they are our small kingdoms to conquer. We do not have to see them as stresses but rather as challenges.
Distress (Bad Stress): However, when stress becomes chronic and lingers for months, but we cannot find ways to get over it, it turns toxic. Then it is distress. It suppresses the immune system and ultimately shows up as various physical and mental illnesses.
Distress, as psychologists find, is more usual in those who think situations are outside their control. Such people are likely to say, “I can’t do anything about my problem.”
Epictetus, the slave who became a respected Stoic teacher, philosophized thus:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but the views which they take of them.
And nearly 2300 years later, Selye noted:
It’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you take it.
So, we see our stress results from the interpretation and reaction to a threat, not from the threat itself. As scientists Smith, Everly, and Johns say,
Stressors, like beauty, lie in the eye of the beholder.
[Stress makes us eat more comfort foods, as we all know. But, can you eat yourself happier?]
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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