Stress. It really should be a four-letter word. Here in the 21st century, it’s as pervasive as the everyday air that we breathe and is as contagious as the common cold. Because stress is so difficult to avoid, why not make it work for you instead of against you? Stress is a force you can turn to your advantage. You don’t have to run from it, and you don’t have to go to a stress-management seminar to find out how to manage it.
The following doctor-tested stress management tips show you how to reduce and combat stress—and win. For relief when the world has you in a headlock, read on.
Get A New Attitude
It’s not what’s out there that’s the problem, it’s how you react to it. How you react is determined by how you perceive a particular stress. Changing the way you think—viewing a difficult assignment at work as a chance to improve your skills, for example—can change a life of stress and discomfort into a life filled with challenge and excitement.
Thinking about a success or a past achievement is excellent when you’re feeling uncertain—before a presentation, for example, or a meeting with your boss.
Take A Mental Vacation
“Taking a mini vacation in your mind is a very good way to relieve or manage stress,” says Ronald Nathan, PhD. “Imagine yourself lying in warm sand on a beach in the Bahamas, a gentle breeze coming off the ocean, the surf rolling in quietly in the background. It’s amazing what this can do to relax you.”
Have a list of affirmations ready that you can start repeating when you feel stressed. They don’t have to be complicated. Just chanting “I can handle this” to yourself or, “I know more about this than anyone here,” will work. It pulls you away from the animal reflex to stress—the quick breathing, the cold hands—and toward the reasoned response, the intellect, the part of you that really can handle it. The result? You calm down.
Count To 10
Refusing to respond to a stress immediately can help defuse it, Nathan says. Making a habit of pausing and relaxing just for a few seconds before responding to the routine interruptions of your day can make a clear difference in the sense of stress you experience. When the phone rings, for example, breathe in deeply. Then as you breathe out, imagine you are as loose and limp as an old rag doll.
“One of the things pausing like this does is give you a feeling of control,” Nathan says. “Feeling in control is generally less stressful than feeling out of control. Make a habit of using rapid relaxation during the pause before you answer the phone. Deliberately pausing can become an instant tranquilizer.”
“If you look through a window at a far-distant view for a moment, away from the problem that’s producing the stress, the eyes relax. And if the eyes relax, the tendency is for you to do the same,” Nathan says.
Get Up And Leave
“Take a pot off the burner and it quits boiling,” says Nathan. “Leaving the scene can also give you a fresh new perspective.”
Take Several Deep Breaths
Belly breathing is what some people call it. It’s an old and useful method for reducing temporary anxiety and nervousness. The correct way to breathe? Abdominally—feeling your stomach expand as you inhale, collapse as you exhale. While there are many different breathing techniques to calm the mind, the simple “So Hum” meditation breathing is best for starters. Inhale deeply and say “soooooo,” then slowly exhale with “hummmm.” Pull your stomach in tight.
Breathing slowly, fully, and calmly at the first signs of stress will change your attitude and life forever. The basic idea is to stay calm. When you’re experiencing stress, your pulse races and you start breathing very quickly. “If you can’t fight and you can’t flee, then relax and flow,” says Nathan.
Get A Workout
Exercise is one of nature’s best tranquilizers. It burns off the by-products of stress and uses the fight-or-flight response much the way it was intended, says Nathan. And stretching after a workout is especially helpful for releasing tight jaw and shoulder muscles. (Try these 7 stress-busting yoga poses.)
Massage Your Target Muscles
Most of us have particular muscles that knot up under stress. It’s sort of a vicious circle: Stress produces adrenaline, which produces muscle tension, which produces more adrenaline, and so on. A good way to break the circle is to find out what your target muscles are—the ones that get tense under pressure, usually in the back of your neck and upper back—and massage them for a couple of minutes whenever you feel tense.
Press On Your Temples
This application of acupressure—the system that uses pressure points to relieve pain and treat a variety of ailments—works indirectly as a stress management technique. Massaging nerves in your temples relaxes muscles elsewhere, chiefly in your neck.
Drop And Roll Your Jaw
People under pressure have a tendency to clench their teeth. Dropping the jaw and rolling it helps make those muscles relax, and if you relax the muscles, you reduce the sensation of tension.
Stretch Your Chest For Better Breathing
The tense musculature of a person under stress can make breathing difficult, and impaired breathing can aggravate the anxiety you already feel. To relax your breathing, roll your shoulders up and back, then relax. The first time, inhale deeply as they go back and exhale as they relax. You may do this at the same time you are doing So Hum breathing. Repeat 4 or 5 more times, then inhale deeply again. Repeat the entire sequence 4 times.
Relax All Over
Easier said than done? Not if you know how. A technique called progressive relaxation can produce immediate and dramatic reductions in your sense of stress by reducing physical tension. Starting at top or bottom, tense one set of muscles in your body at a time, hold for a few seconds, then let them relax. Work your way through all major body parts—feet, legs, chest and arms, head and neck—and then enjoy the sense of release it provides. Fifteen minutes of meditation can give the body the rest of 1 hour of sleep.
Take A Hot Soak
Water is an enormous help when you’re under stress, says G. Frank Lawlis, PhD. When we’re tense and anxious, bloodflow to our extremities is reduced. Hot water restores circulation, convincing the body it’s safe and that it is okay to relax. Add Epson salts or lemon juice for an even more relaxing experience, says Lawlis.
If you have no time for a bath, try placing warm washcloths on your feet, hands, and forehead. Cold water is a no-no; it mimics the stress response, driving blood away from the extremities, and the result is that tension increases. An alternative at the workplace: Run hot water over your hands until you feel tension start to drain away. (Here’s 5 reasons why you need to take a bath tonight—even if you think you don’t have time.)
Regular exercise, of course, builds stamina that can help anyone battle stress. But even something as casual as a walk around the block can help you throw off some of the tension that a rough business meeting or a family squabble leaves you carrying around.
Whenever you use the action of chewing, you flood the temporal lobe in the front of your brain with chemicals that help you de-stress, says Lawlis. (Chew on one of these chemical-free gums.)
Stress Eat (The Right Way)
Really, it’s okay, as long as you eat the right foods. Chomping a few almonds, for example, helps relieve stress and anxiety, says Lawlis. So does eating strawberries and other fruits. “What we found in the research is that strawberries increase pain endorphins, especially when you eat the leaves along with the berry. And bananas contain tryptophan, which promotes muscle relaxation,” he adds. (Here’s 13 foods that fight stress.)
Listen To Relaxation
Relaxation is the opposite of tension—the antidote for stress. And relaxation CDs or apps with soothing sounds can be very effective at easing tension. Options come in voice only, voice with music, or nature sounds—wind in the trees, surf on the sand, says Nathan.
Tune In The Music
Of course, relaxation CDs and MP3s work, but they aren’t your only option. The right music soothes as perhaps nothing else does. Music by itself is a very great stress reducer, says Lawlis.
Find The Rhythm
Rhythmic movement stimulates neural chemicals in your system that help you relax, says Lawlis. Listening to music with repetitive drumming accomplishes a similar effect. “Something about rhythm trains the brain toward lower stress levels and balances the various parts of the brain that seem to be excited during a stress response,” says Lawlis.
Stop And Smell The Roses—Or Any Flower
Breathing in pleasant aromas is an easy way to change your mental state, especially when combined with breathing techniques, says Lawlis. “When you smell scents like lavender, lilac, honeysuckle, or cedar, you change your brain chemistry,” he explains. There’s some scientific evidence of this, but we know it on a basic level.
“When we get in trouble and want to change the mental state of the person who’s mad at us, we bring flowers, and we also send flowers to people in the hospital. Why? Probably to diminish their stress,” he says. You can buy essential oils at the health food store. But Lawlis recommends the real thing, fresh flowers.
The Way To Inner Peace
Transcendental meditation, yoga, Zen meditation—they all work by inducing something called the relaxation response, a body state first identified and named by Herbert Benson, MD. “This phenomenon shuts off the distracting, stressful, anxiety-producing aspects of what is commonly called the fight-or-flight response,” Benson writes in his book Your Maximum Mind.
In primitive situations, where dangers from wild animals might have been the order of the day, the fight-or-flight response was quite useful. In our own time, however, this response tends to make us more nervous, uncomfortable, and even unhealthy. A person experiencing the relaxation response turns off all the hormones and behaviors that make him nervous. Basically any kind of meditation produces it, though most traditional forms require some degree of training and a good amount of self-discipline.
Benson suggests the following basic program for eliciting the response. One, pick a focus word, phrase, or prayer (“peace,” or “the Lord is my shepherd,” for example) that is firmly rooted in your personal belief system. Two, sit quietly, close your eyes, and relax. And three, repeat your focus word each time you exhale. Continue this for 10 to 20 minutes.
Tips: Practice at least once a day, and don’t worry about how you’re doing. If you realize that you’ve been distracted by thoughts, this is normal and should be expected. Simply say, “Oh, well,” and return to your focus.
When To Visit A Doctor
Too much stress can directly threaten your health. If your stress symptoms are new and have no obvious cause, especially if they interfere with your quality of life, see a doctor. Any of the following stress-related symptoms may indicate that you should seek medical help promptly:
- Frequent headaches, jaw clenching, or pain
- Gritting or grinding teeth
- Stuttering or stammering
- Tremors, trembling of lips or hands
- Neck ache, back pain, or muscle spasms
- Light-headedness, faintness, or dizziness
- Ringing, buzzing, or “popping sounds”
- Frequent blushing or sweating
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth or problems swallowing
Panel Of Advisors
Herbert Benson, MD, is doctor emeritus at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and associate professor of medicine at the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School.
G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, is a psychologist, researcher, and cofounder of the Lawlis and Peavey Centers for Psychoneurological Changes in Lewisville, Texas. He is the chief content officer for the Dr. Phil Show and author of The Stress Answer, The ADD Answer, and The IQ Answer.
Ronald Nathan, PhD, is a clinical professor at Albany Medical College in New York and author of The Fast Technique for Stress Relief.