It’s the end of the day, your stomach is in knots, your neck is cramped, and your jaw is sore from clenching your teeth. It’s safe to say stress has taken hold, and it seems there’s nothing you can do at this point to take the edge off other than waking up to a new day.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to reduce stress, many of which require only five minutes a day. All are research-backed, and some have even been used for thousands of years. Continue reading to take the first step toward stress-relief.
1. Belly Breathing
You’ve probably heard someone tell you to “take a breather” or “just breathe” during moments of high stress and anxiety. At first glance this might seem like superficial advice with no real effect (i.e. they’re just saying anything to calm you down), but in fact, research shows that breathing a certain way actually has a profound impact on your stress hormones.
In particular, “belly” or diaphragmatic breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system—the one in charge of making you feel relaxed. The reason this type of breathing is called belly breathing is because when you’re doing it correctly, your diaphragm should expand completely, pushing your belly outward.
Studies show that breathing this way helps to: (1)
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce heart rate
- Boost the immune system
- Resets the entire nervous system
How to Belly Breathe
- Find a quiet, comfortable space to sit or lie down.
- Rest one hand on your belly (this helps you feel your stomach rise so that you know you’re expanding your diaphragm fully) and take a deep breath through your nose.
- Breath deep into your lower belly.
- Once your lungs are full, breathe out completely until your stomach is completely flat.
- Repeat this cycle for as long as you like, or until you start to feel more relaxed.
Eventually, your goal will be to breathe this way often throughout your day.
2. Progressive Relaxation
Do you ever feel like your shoulders are up to your ears with tension by the time you get off work? You’re not alone. Most people store the majority of their tension in various locations in their bodies, from their stomachs to their necks. The body reacts to fear and anxiety like this due to the fight-or-flight response. In essence, it’s gearing up for movement away from danger, whether or not that “danger” is purely emotional or psychological.
Progressive relaxation is a technique that focuses on these areas of tension one by one to help unravel and loosen them, while easing your body back into a normal state.
How to Use Progressive Relaxation
- Begin by sitting or laying in a comfortable position, perhaps taking a few deep belly breaths using the technique above.
- Now, focus on a particular area of tension, such as your shoulders. Tense the area, making sure you can really feel it (but not so much that it’s causing you pain) and hold the tension for roughly five seconds.
- Let the tension go and focus on completely relaxing the muscles, visualizing them turning as soft as jelly.
- Go through your entire body this way, following these steps on any areas of tension. You may have to repeat it a few times in certain areas in order to fully relax the muscles.
Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of your thoughts and reactions to stressful situations as they’re happening, so that you can essentially take a step back from them. This allows you to not only react with less stress to events that have already occurred, but also builds your emotional and mental strength so that stressful situations have less impact on you in the future.
How to Practice Mindfulness
To begin, think about a recent stressful situation. Notice how your stomach might immediately flutter or knot up, or your throat will become tight. Notice also the emotions that come up and try to identify them as precisely as you can. Do you feel anger? Fear? Anxiety? Really tune into them.
Now, focus on bringing positive emotions into these negative emotions. Bring curiosity along with them. Ask why this situation is causing such a profound reaction, as well as how you can see it in a different, more positive light. Reach out with acceptance to the negative emotions and give yourself permission to let them go. You can even smile outwardly to help reinforce the positive feelings.
In the future, instead of immediately reacting to a stressful situation, go through this process first to temper the initial tense reaction.
For many people around the world, meditation is considered the holy grail of stress-managements techniques, and for good reason: studies show it can actually reverse molecular reactions within our DNA that cause stress. Essentially, it does this by training your brain to steer your DNA reactions in a direction that improves your wellbeing, rather than letting the stress alter your DNA in a negative way. (2)
How to Start a Meditation Practice
While there are many, many different meditation techniques out there, the most basic of them all (and the one recommended for beginners) is simply focusing on the breath in stillness for as long as you can. For some this may mean five minutes, while others might be able to jump in and do 30 minutes right away. The key is to not focus on the time passing by, but to focus solely on your breath, letting thoughts slide away as they come.
- To begin a simple meditation, find a quiet space and sit or lie down comfortably.
- Close your eyes and rest your hands in whatever position they’re comfortable in.
- Breathe normally, bringing your attention to the rise and fall of your breath.
- Focus on the inhale, then the exhale. If other thoughts jump in (and they will!) simply let them slide away and bring your attention back to the rise and fall of your breath.
- Continue for as long as you can, and gradually work on increasing how much time you spend in stillness.
Yoga is another amazing way to greatly reduce your stress levels. It is particularly great for those who would love to start a meditation practice but have trouble sitting still, as yoga has been likened to “moving meditation.”
Research shows that yoga also protects DNA from the damaging effects of stress, and can also lower inflammation, boost the immune system, and keep cortisol levels in check. (3,4) Yogis are also reported in studies to have reduced levels of anxiety and less depression, as well as better responses to stress.
How to Get Started with Yoga
Getting started with a yoga practice is as easy as seeking out a local studio, or even trying out free videos available online on blogs, or even via smartphone apps. Aim for two to three days a week of yoga practice, and increase from there. You can start with Hatha yoga, which is a gentler form, and then begin to explore the other varieties like power yoga and Ashtanga.
It can be intimidating to start yoga if it’s brand new, but you don’t already have to be flexible or in shape to begin a yoga practice, you just have to be willing.
Certain scents like lavender, frankincense, and rose have been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and stress. Lavender in particular has been studied for its amazing sedative, mood stabilizing, and antispasmodic properties. It also helps protect the brain from the damaging effects of stress. (5)
How to Get Started with Aromatherapy
There are several ways you can use aromatherapy in your home and while you’re at work or traveling.
To use in your home, try adding a few drops of essential oils to a hot bath or a home essential oil diffuser. Alternatively, if you’re out and about, you can invest in roll-on essential oils that linger on your skin, or purchase certain necklaces that hold essential oil fragrance so that you get whiffs of it throughout the day.
7. Sip On Tea
Traditionally, tea time has been associated with relaxation throughout many cultures. It is considered a time to slow down and indulge in the moment, letting the worries of the day fall aside. Interestingly, it seems there is some scientific backing to the idea that tea reduces stress: studies have found that tea consumption significantly reduces cortisol levels and increases relaxation, with black tea in particular being a great aid to stress recovery. (6)
8. Guided Visualization
Guided visualization is similar to meditation. The main difference is that while meditation focuses on the breath, guided visualization takes you on a visual journey in your mind. This type of visualization has repeatedly shown in studies to improve stress management, reduce amounts of perceived stress, and reduce psychological symptoms related to stress. (7)
How to Start with Guided Visualization
Typically, guided visualization exercises lead your imagination through scenes and images that are encoded with positive messages and symbols. These help nurture positivity and healthy stress responses, as well as encourage your brain to send your body relaxation cues.
The best way to get started with guided visualization is to try a free guided imagery video on Youtube or another platform. Typically, these last for only 10 to 15 minutes, making them great for those short on time.
9. Get A Massage
No one can deny the bliss felt during and after a good massage. Research shows that just five minutes of touch massage is able to significantly decrease heart rate, cortisol levels, and even insulin levels, while also reducing sympathetic nervous system activity. (8)
Considering it only take five minutes to see these changes, try making a five to ten minute (or more!) massage with your partner a nightly ritual to wind down before bed. Or you could even indulge in a mini massage at a local spa after work a couple days a week.
10. Get Creative
The next time you’re stressed, whip out your art brushes and prepare to paint a masterpiece. A masterpiece of relaxation, that is.
Research shows that art therapy, the practice of simply painting or drawing to manage stress, has potent anti-stress effects. These effects are so strong that some centers for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients have replaced behavior and anxiety-controlling drugs with art therapy with great success. (9)
Don’t worry if you aren’t an artist—art therapy is about becoming immersed in the process, rather than in trying to produce a perfect work of art. Paint what you feel, or what you want to feel, and see where it leads. You can also explore other artistic outlets, like writing, pottery, or playing music.
Hypnosis is often used by therapists to make patients more suggestible to therapies and healing, as well as for fleshing out repressed memories or feelings. But did you know you can also use this technique on yourself?
In fact, you probably enter a hypnotic state several times a day without even realizing it. For instance, when you’re driving, or when you get lost in your thoughts staring out at the ocean or the sky. Self-hypnosis simply allows you to go into this state on-demand, which has been shown to have a remarkable ability to reduce anxiety levels. (10)
How to Do Simple Self-Hypnosis
Below is a simple self-hypnosis script you can use whenever you’re feeling stressed. Aside from this, there are tons of MP3s and online videos you can download that will guide you through a self-hypnosis session.
- Sit in a comfortable position with your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap.
- Take three deep breaths in through your nose, and out through your mouth.
- On your third breath, close your eyes and continue breathing, focusing intently on your breath.
- Now slowly count from ten to one with each breath. After each number, think the word “deeper” to nudge you into a deeper state of relaxation.
- Once you reach one, repeat a positive, affirming statement to that you decided on before the hypnosis.
- Repeat the statement to yourself for as long as you wish, usually a few minutes.
- When you’re done, sit quietly for a moment, then slowly count from one to five, feeling the energy returning to your body.
- Open your eyes. You’re finished!
As you can see, many of the stress techniques that are the most powerful are also the most simple. Just a few minutes out of your day practicing any of these methods can go a long way in not only recovering from a stressful situation, but also toward preventing excess stress or anxiety in the future.