table of contents
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
We all experience stress from time to time. We may be late for work, anxious about a project, or worried about a family member or friend with health problems. Stress levels may range from minor to extreme, but how the body responds relies on the same chemical cascade.
The body’s stress response sends adrenaline and cortisol through the body to activate the muscles, heart, and other systems required for a physical reaction, also known as the classic fight-or-flight response (Chu, 2020).
The problem is we typically don’t need a physical response when we react to everyday stressors. In the long run, stress hormones can boost the risk for anxiety, depression, and many diseases such as heart disease and cancer (Mariotti, 2015, Yaribeygi, 2017). That’s why de-stressing has become a constant goal for many.
The good news: there are some fun ways to turn off the stress response.
Identify what causes stress
To lower stress, it’s helpful to start making a list and ask yourself which stressors you can control and which ones you can’t.
Before letting a stressor take over your thoughts, healthcare professionals suggest asking the following: Is the cause of stress based on a fact or perception? Is this thought helpful?
For instance, if you don’t hear from a friend for a while, you may assume they don’t like you anymore. In reality, they may be managing a family crisis you don’t know about. Some thoughts are not true and not helpful and can lead to a vicious cycle that can be draining. Experts point out that analyzing a stressor or negative thought can help you determine if it’s worth the stress (Miller, 2001).
Choose your coping style
If you have some control over a stressor, taking action may help lower stress by solving the issue that’s generating the stress to begin with. This is called problem-focused coping. For example, if you’re worried about a test, spend extra time studying for it (APA, 2020a; Sirois, 2016).
If a stressor is out of your control, experts suggest emotion-focused coping. This is changing your emotional reaction to a stressor. An example would be tuning out a negative colleague to take a meditation break (APA, 2020b).
Pick a stress-reducing technique
Whatever coping style you use, there are many stress-reducing techniques to try. Some can bring down your cortisol levels quickly. The following approaches have been shown to reduce stress and, in many cases, boost mood:
Reframe and reach out
‘Glass half full’ thinking, laughing, and connecting with people and pets have all been shown to alleviate stress.
Embrace positive thinking
If something doesn’t go well, how do you react? Positive reframing steers away from self-blame. It involves thinking of a situation more positively and can improve mood and self-esteem (Stoeber, 2011).
Re-thinking negative thought patterns is a mainstay of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been shown to be effective for reducing stress. CBT is a proven approach you can combine with relaxation techniques (Hofmann, 2012).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): what is it and what does it work for?
Try gratitude journaling
Keeping a gratitude journal can be an effective way to stay positive (Kelly, 2016). Gratitude journaling—jotting down what you are grateful for each day—has been shown to improve mood, happiness, and life satisfaction, while reducing depression symptoms (Cunha, 2019).
Laugh away stress
Laughter has been shown to reduce blood pressure and the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine while boosting dopamine—the chemical that makes us feel happier. Laughter also helps form social bonds and may help boost immunity (Savage, 2017; Louie, 2016; Bennett, 2003).
Boost social bonds
Spending time with a loved one and expanding social connections can be one of the best ways to reduce stress. Studies show that perceived social support and hugs lower the risk of infections, even if there are conflicts between people (Cohen, 2015). The hormone oxytocin increases when couples kiss or hug. Oxytocin reduces the stress hormone cortisol, lowers blood pressure, and protects brain cells during stress (Moberg, 2020; Matsushita, 2019).
Seek pet support
Human-animal bonding has been shown to reduce cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure while improving mood and interactions with people (Beetz, 2012). A broad review of various studies concludes that pet therapy is an effective stress buffer (Ein, 2018).
Social anxiety disorder: signs, causes, how to overcome
Build daily stress resilience
Have you ever woken up after a great night of sleep and felt like you could take on the world? Sleep, exercise, and diet help boost resiliency by keeping your body and brain in peak shape. Here are daily activities that can help you set the stage for stress resistance:
You don’t have to be at the gym every day to reap the benefits of exercise. Even a moderate amount of daily physical activity can improve physical and mental well-being, including lowering stress levels. Researchers say you can reduce stress within hours of exercise and that exercise can break the cycle’ of inactivity, stress, and negative emotions (Schultchen, 2019).
Exercise ultimately has several beneficial effects on the body. It helps you sleep better. Sleep boosts endorphins—the body’s natural pain killers. Endorphins, in turn, boost dopamine levels, which increase feelings of pleasure (Anderson, 2013).
Sleep to recharge
Stress and worrying can lead to sleep problems like insomnia (Kalmbach, 2018). A lack of sleep can make it harder to cope with daily life stressors, making bigger stressors extremely challenging (Han, 2012). Healthcare providers suggest creating good sleep habits that involve regular sleep times, exercise, and reduced caffeine intake, and seeking help if you’re struggling with sleep (Karna, 2021).
Eat to boost mood
Data consistently shows the importance of a balanced diet for peak mental health (Muscaritoli, 2021). Eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day has been linked to lower psychological distress, and some studies link higher antioxidant levels with lower levels of depression and anxiety (Abshirini, 2019; Guatam, 2012). Additional research is underway.
13 foods that help reduce anxiety
Tap the mind-body connection
Mind-body approaches to wellness have been shown to help alleviate stress, improve mood and sleep, and have other benefits. Meditation and mindfulness often go hand-in-hand but can also be done separately.
Change your breathing
Deep breathing exercises can serve as an antidote to the rapid breathing the stress response triggers. Long deep breaths signal to the body’s nervous system that it’s time to reverse the fight-or-flight response and move to what is referred to as the rest-and-digest mode (Perciavalle, 2017; Zaccaro, 2018). Some deep breathing techniques have been shown to reduce cortisol and improve cognition (Ma, 2017).
A practice known as 2:1 breathing is among those used to reverse the stress response. It involves exhaling and inhaling through your nose using a 2-to-1 ratio. For example, you would count to two while inhaling and four while exhaling (Adhana, 2013).
Meditate and let go
Letting go of stressful thoughts is not easy. Letting go of racing thoughts is the goal of many forms of meditation and takes some practice. Studies show meditation has a number of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure and stress hormones (Pascoe, 2017). Serious practitioners can even increase the size of some parts of their brains (Kang, 2012). There are a wide variety of meditations to try. Many involve focusing on a word or image to keep daily thoughts from entering the mind. Some are as simple as counting your breaths (Roca, 2021).
Try moving meditation
Countless practices combine movement and meditation. Among the most popular: yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and walking meditation. All have shown benefits in reducing stress and have the added bonus of improving balance and flexibility (Maddux, 2018; Zheng, 2018; Wang, 2014; Polsgrove, 2018; Huang, 2015; Stahl, 2020).
Walking meditation: what is it, benefits, techniques
A core element of many meditations is the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment. Like meditation, the practice pushes away daily thoughts that can create stress. Studies show it reduces stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is frequently a component of meditation, stress management programs, and some cognitive behavioral therapy approaches (Worthen, 2020).
Relax through repetition
Repetitive tasks like coloring mandalas can be calming. A study showed coloring a complex geometric pattern rather than a blank sheet of paper induced a meditative state and led to lower anxiety levels. Researchers theorize that repetitive, structured tasks or movements that don’t take a lot of thought can let the mind relax (Curry, 2005).
Engage the senses
Want to get out in nature? It can help reduce stress, even if you visualize it with the help of a recording. Many stress relievers rely on our senses:
Hearing a calming voice navigating you through amazing terrain is a stress-reducing option that can be done seated at your desk. Guided imagery means taking a short vacation in your mind. It typically involves a recording that walks you through a relaxing scene. You can also practice guided imagery on your own. The key is to imagine all the sensory experiences you would feel if you were there. Research supports using guided imagery to reduce stress and anxiety, boost the immune system and enhance well-being (Giacobbi, 2017; Krau, 2020).
Various studies show aromatherapy can improve sleep and reduce anxiety (Freeman, 2019; Ramsey, 2020a). Aromatherapy involves inhaling essential oils that are heated to form vapors. Essential oils are plant-based oils that come in a variety of types, have different properties, and can be either inhaled or placed on the skin. Some types can be ingested. Essential oils have been used for thousands of years, and studies show a range of health benefits if used correctly (Elshafie, 2017; Peterfalvi, 2019).
Natural remedies for anxiety: what works?
Caution: There have been adverse effects linked to essential oils, including allergic reactions, burns to the skin, and some essential oils contain endocrine disruptors (Ramsey, 2019; Henley, 2007). Research showing hormone disruption in adolescents has prompted a government warning about using products containing lavender and tea tree oils. If trying aromatherapy, review instructions and precautionary materials, and keep essential oils out of the reach of children. It’s best to check with your healthcare provider if you have any questions (Posadzki, 2012).
Calm stress with water
For those who enjoy a hot or warm bath to de-stress, there may be a reason. Hot baths may reduce cortisol levels (An, 2019; Kojima, 2018). Even the sound of water has a relaxing effect. Rippling water sounds are also shown to reduce levels of cortisol (Thoma, 2013).
Find a forest
If you’re sensing a ‘back to nature’ theme, there’s more. Forest bathing—getting out into nature—has been linked to a broad range of positive health benefits and can help ease stress. Studies show leaving an urban area and relaxing and exploring in a forested natural area lowers cortisol, adrenaline, and heart rate while improving mood (Wen, 2019; Ochiai, 2015a, Ochiai, 2015b; Jia, 2016; Li, 2016).
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.