33 Ways to Make Managing Stress Much Easier
Health experts weigh in on the simple ways to improve stress management for relief, from calling a friend to practicing self care
The importance of stress relief
Stress is a fact of life, but being stressed out is not. We don't always have control over what happens to us, says Allen Elkin, PhD, director of the Stress Management Counseling Center in New York City. Yet, that doesn't mean we have to react to a difficult situation by becoming frazzled or feeling overwhelmed or distraught. Being overly anxious is not just a mental hazard; it's a physical one too, with damaging effects on the brain and the rest of the body. The more stressed out we are, the more vulnerable we are to colds, flu, and a host of chronic or life-threatening illnesses—and the less open we are to the beauty and pleasure of life. Find out 8 that get way harder when you're stressed.
Breathing is so innate that most of us don’t even pay attention to how we do it, but there is a way to breathe for better health and for stress management. "Breathing from your diaphragm oxygenates your blood, which helps you relax almost instantly," says Robert Cooper, PhD, coauthor of The Power of 5, a book of five-second and five-minute health tips. Shallow chest breathing, by contrast, can cause your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up, exacerbating feelings of stress. To breathe deeply, begin by putting your hand on your abdomen just below the navel. Inhale slowly through your nose and watch your hand move out as your belly expands. Hold the breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat several times.
Make time for a mini self-massage
Simply massage the palm of one hand by making a circular motion with the thumb of the other can alleviate stress, says Maria Hernandez-Reif, PhD, of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, recommends simply massaging the palm of one hand by making a circular motion with the thumb of the other. Or use a massage gadget. The SelfCare catalog offers several, such as the S-shaped Tamm unit, that allows you to massage hard-to-reach spots on your back. Work in these self-massage tricks for soothing full-body relaxation and help with stress management.
Smiling is a two-way mechanism. We do it when we're relaxed and happy, but doing it can also make us feel relaxed and happy. "Smiling transmits nerve impulses from the facial muscles to the limbic system, a key emotional center in the brain, tilting the neurochemical balance toward calm," Cooper explains. Go ahead and grin.
Do some math
Using a scale of one to 10, with one being the equivalent of a minor hassle and 10 being a true catastrophe, assign a number to whatever it is that's making you feel anxious. "You'll find that most problems we encounter rate somewhere in the two to five range—in other words, they're really not such a big deal," says Elkin. Make sure you know these scary things that happen to your brain when you're stressed.
Stop grinding your teeth
Stress tends to settle in certain parts of our bodies, the jaw being one of them. When things get hectic, try this tip from Cooper: Place your index fingertips on your jaw joints, just in front of your ears; clench your teeth and inhale deeply. Hold the breath for a moment, and as you exhale say, "Ah-h-h-h," then unclench your teeth. Repeat a few times and you'll be managing stress better in no time.
Compose a mantra
Devise an affirmation—a short, clear, positive statement that focuses on your coping abilities. "Affirmations are a good way to silence the self-critical voice we all carry with us that only adds to our stress," Elkin says. The next time you feel as if your life is one disaster after another, repeat 10 times, "I feel calm. I can handle this." If you can’t come up with your own, try one of these morning mantras for a brighter day.
Check your chi
Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) is a 5,000-year-old Chinese practice designed to promote the flow of chi, the vital life force that flows throughout the body, regulating its functions. Qigong master Ching-Tse Lee, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College in New York, recommends this calming exercise for stress management: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel. Bend your knees to a quarter-squat position (about 45 degrees) while keeping your upper body straight. Observe your breathing for a couple of breaths. Inhale and bring your arms slowly up in front of you to shoulder height with your elbows slightly bent. Exhale, stretching your arms straight out. Inhale again, bend your elbows slightly and drop your arms down slowly until your thumbs touch the sides of your legs. Exhale one more time, then stand up straight. If you think this sounds similar to yoga, you’d be right.
Be a fighter
"At the first sign of stress, you often hear people complain, 'What did I do to deserve this?'" says Cooper. The trouble is, feeling like a victim only increases feelings of stress and helplessness. Instead, focus on being proactive. If something gets canceled, don't wallow in self-pity. If your space is too hot or too cold, don't suffer in silence. See what can be done to make things more comfortable. Look out for these signs you’re more stressed than you realize.
Count to 10
Before you do something you’ll regret or say something that makes the situation worse, step away from the stressor and collect yourself, advises Cooper. You can also look away for a moment or put the caller on hold. Use your time-out to take a few deep breaths, stretch, or recite an affirmation to make managing stress easier.
Switch to decaf
Wean yourself off slowly, or you might get a caffeine-withdrawal headache that could last for several days, cautions James Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy. Subtract a little regular coffee and add some decaf to your morning cup. Over the next couple of weeks, gradually increase the proportion of decaf to regular until you're drinking all decaf. You should also consider switching from regular soft drinks to caffeine-free ones or sparkling mineral water.
Just say no
Trying to do everything is a one-way ticket to serious stress. Be clear about your limits, and stop trying to please everyone all the time. The first step to stop doing everything at once? Managing stress and your time well.
Take a whiff
Oils of anise, basil, bay, chamomile, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, rose, and thyme are all soothing, say Kathy Keville and Mindy Green, coauthors of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. Place a few pieces of rock salt in a small vial, then add a couple of drops of the oil of your choice (the rock salt absorbs the oil and is much less risky to carry around in your purse than a bottle of oil). Open the vial and breathe in the scent whenever you need a quick stress release. Look for the oils in your local health food store, or try a mail-order company like Aroma-Vera or Leydet Aromatics. Be mindful that the science on aromatherapy is limited. Here are more home remedies for natural stress and anxiety relief.
Try this tip from David Sobel, MD, author of The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook: Rub your hands together vigorously until they feel warm. Then cup them over your closed eyes for five seconds while you breathe deeply. The warmth and darkness are comforting.
Say yes to pressure
Acupressure stimulates the same points as acupuncture, but with fingers instead of needles. Michael Reed Gach, PhD, director of the Acupressure Institute in Berkeley, California, recommends pressing on the following three points:
- The Third Eye, located between the eyebrows, in the indentation where the bridge of the nose meets the forehead.
- The Heavenly Pillar, on the back of the neck slightly below the base of the skull, about half an inch to the left or right of the spine.
- The Heavenly Rejuvenation, half an inch below the top of each shoulder, midway between the base of the neck and the outside of the shoulder blade.
Breathe deeply and apply firm, steady pressure on each point for two to three minutes. The pressure should cause a mild aching sensation, but not pain. Here are some more pressure points to try for stress relief.
Schedule worry time
Some stressors demand immediate attention—a smoke alarm siren or a police car's whirling red light. But many low-grade stressors can be dealt with at a later time, when it's more convenient. "File them away in a little mental compartment, or make a note," Elkin says, "then deal with them when the time is right. Don't let them control you."
Shake it up
Stand or sit, stretch your arms out from your sides, and shake your hands vigorously for about 10 seconds. This exercise loosens the muscles in your neck and upper back; if they're strained, they can cause a lot of pain. Combine it with a little deep breathing, Dr. Sobel says, and you'll do yourself twice as much good while still managing stress.
Munch some snacks
Foods that are high in carbohydrates stimulate the release of serotonin, feel-good brain chemicals that help induce calm, says Cooper. Crackers, pretzels, or a bagel should do the trick. Be careful not to eat too many carbs, though. They can just increase your appetite instead of managing stress. These are the 14 best foods to eat when you're stressed.
Boost your vitamin intake
Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food and Mood, recommends that women take a daily multivitamin and mineral formula that contains between 100 percent and 300 percent of the recommended dietary allowances of vitamin B, as well as calcium, magnesium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and zinc. Stay away from stress formulas, which often contain large amounts of randomly formulated nutrients, such as the B vitamins, but little or nothing else, Somer says. Stress keeping you up at night? Try the best vitamins for a good night's sleep.
If sex has been on the bottom of your to-do list for too long, move it to the top. Sex increases levels of endorphins, those mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, and it's one of the best total-body relaxers around, says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a sex therapist in Sacramento, California. Make a date with your mate, and don't let anything get in the way.
Look out the window and find something natural that captures your imagination, advises Dr. Sobel. Notice the clouds rolling by or the wind in the trees. Who knew spacing out could be so beneficial to managing stress?
By now most of us know about the calming properties of chamomile tea. But a steaming cup of catnip, passionflower, skullcap or kava kava also work, according to Duke. Whether you use tea bags or loose tea (one teaspoon of tea per cup of boiling water), steep for about 10 minutes to get the full benefits of the herbs. Make sure you know these 11 foods to reduce stress.
Take a walk
Walking forces you to breathe more deeply and improves circulation, says Cooper. Step outside if you can; if that's not possible, you can gain many of the same benefits simply by walking to the bathroom or water cooler, or by pacing back and forth. "The key is to get up and move," Cooper says.
Soak it up
"When I have the time, nothing is more stress-relieving for me than a hot bath," Weston says. "But when I don't have time, I do the next best thing: I wash my face or even just my hands and arms with hot water. The key is to imagine that I'm taking a hot bath. It's basically a visualization exercise, but the hot water makes it feel real." Don't miss these other ways to unwind that don't involve cocktails or cookies.
Play a few bars
Listening to classical music is more than just a pleasant experience; it’s a healthy one. A number of recent studies have shown that music can do everything from slow heart rate to increase endorphins. Good bets: Bach's Air on the G-String, Beethoven's Pastorale symphony, Chopin's Nocturne in G, Handel's Water Music, or pianist George Winston's CDs Autumn or December.
Mindfulness is all about living attentively in the moment, and it leads to relaxation. Heighten your awareness of the moment by focusing intently on an object. Notice a pencil's shape, color, weight, and feel. Slowly savor a piece of fruit or chocolate. To start your day mindfully, practice these simple morning mindfulness exercises.
Call a friend
Sharing your troubles can give you perspective, help in managing stress, help you feel cared for, and relieve your burden. If your friend is comforting and offers advice, that’s a sign you have a true friend. Watch out for these ways to reduce stress that backfire.
Muscles tighten during the course of the day, and when we feel stressed out, the process accelerates. Stretching loosens muscles and encourages deep breathing. Molly Fox, creative fitness director at the Equinox Fitness Center in New York City, says one of the greatest stress-relieving stretches is a yoga position called the child pose, which stretches the back muscles. On a rug or mat, kneel, sit back on your heels, then lean forward and put your forehead on the floor and your arms alongside your legs, palms up. Hold for one to three minutes.
Say a little prayer
Organized religion may be losing members, but prayer is more popular than ever. Studies show that compared with those who profess no faith, religious and spiritual people are calmer and healthier. Make sure you know the 7 types of stress and how to ease them.
"Looking forward to something provides calming perspective," Elkin says. Buying concert tickets, scheduling a weekend getaway, or making an appointment for a massage are all great ways of managing stress. Need more ideas? Check out these tips, ideas, and activities to practice self care.
Goofing off is another great way of managing stress. It temporarily removes you from a potentially stressful situation. Esther Orioli, president of Essi Systems, a San Francisco consultant company that organizes stress-management programs, keeps a harmonica in the drawer for when she's feeling stressed out. Bonus: Playing it promotes deep breathing.
When people are under stress, they slump over as if they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. "Slumping restricts breathing and reduces blood and oxygen flow to the brain, adding to muscle tension and magnifying feelings of panic and helplessness," Cooper explains. Straightening your spine has just the opposite effect. It promotes circulation, increases oxygen levels in your blood and helps lessen muscle tension, all of which promote relaxation.
Tiptoe through the tulips
Tending your garden helps get you out of your head and lets you commune with nature, a known way of managing stress. If you're not a gardener, tend to a houseplant. Plants equals growth equals cycle of life, a nice reminder that stress, too, will pass. Next, check out these 12 "facts" about stress that you need to stop believing.
- Allen Elkin, PhD, director of the Stress Management Counseling Center in New York City
- Robert Cooper, PhD, coauthor of The Power of 5
- Gerald Epstein, MD, author of Healing Visualizations
- Maria Hernandez-Reif, PhD, of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine
- Ching-Tse Lee, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College in New York
- James Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy
- Kathy Keville and Mindy Green, coauthors of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art
- David Sobel, MD, author of The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook
- Michael Reed Gach, PhD, director of the Acupressure Institute in Berkeley, California
- Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food and Mood, Portland
- Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a sex therapist in Sacramento, California
- Esther Orioli, president of Essi Systems, a San Francisco consultant company that organizes stress-management programs