“What I need in my life is more stress,” said no one, ever. But we do need it.
The stress of driving in heavy traffic keeps us energized and focused long enough to navigate well. Grade stress makes students actually read their textbooks.
Being “in the zone” is an extremely enjoyable state of full engagement in some activity. It’s also an example of the remarkable concentration, mental sharpness, and confidence that comes from responding positively to performance stress.
Then there’s bad stress—the kind that can make you sick. Telling yourself to just calm down is not likely to help. Fortunately, there are other well-researched, tested and proven ways to reduce this kind of stress. Each of these is easy to use and can make an immediate change for the better.
1. Put It In Time Perspective. Some (not all) stress is temporary. Recognizing that a stressful situation is coming to an end can cause an immediate drop in the pressure you feel.
That’s because our self-talk is powerful. When stressed we are apt to make the situation worse by using language that makes the situation seem eternal and all encompassing. This kind of language makes minor to moderate problems seem gigantic.
Think about how you might feel after making these two statements:
- “It’s too much, I can’t cope!”
- “I said yes to too many things before Christmas, but it’s only for a couple of weeks.”
Learning positive self-talk is a big job. But learning to recognize that some events are temporary is a stress-reducing tactic any of us can manage.
2. Walk It Into Submission. This one is so easy to perform is surprising that it’s so effective. If you’re a walker, you understand the mental value of a good walk. If you’re not in the habit, it will be a treat to discover what a walk can do for your poor overloaded brain.
A long walk is ideal. But short walks can let off steam quite effectively, too.
If you’re at work and nothing is going right, for instance, don’t keep pushing. Take a moment to step back… leave the office. Walk around the block, or take the elevator, walk around the lobby a bit, then go to the little cafe and get some water.
Walking releases endorphins. These are natural analgesics that reduce pain and act as sedatives. So they improve your mood and ease the feelings of stress.
Walking works because it changes your chemistry and that changes your mood. It’s even more effective when you take your walk in nature. University of Michigan researchers asked a group of volunteers to give themselves a “nature pill,” going for a walk outdoors on their own schedule. They had to walk at least 10 minutes at a time and do it at least three times a week. The best results came with a 20-30 minute walk, but even 10 minutes helped.
The improvement was significant. Cortisol, a stress hormone, dropped 21% in the hour after the walk. The calming effect lasted; cortisol stayed almost 12% lower for the whole day after a walk.
A chemical called alpha-amylase, which shows up in your saliva, is an even better measure for stress. This chemical fell 28% after walking.
3. Leave It Behind When You Take an Imaginary Trip. Guided imagery is the practice of sitting still, closing your eyes, and taking a trip in your head. You can envision your own journey—say a moonlight walk on the beach or floating through a forest on a peaceful river. During this mental tour, you concentrate on seeing, feeling, tasting and mentally experiencing pleasant aspects of what you envision. You can guide yourself, or you can listen to a recorded script.
If you’re not used to doing guided imagery on your own, an audio script is the best way to start. You can download one on your phone through many meditation apps. Another good way to do this is borrow a guided imagery script from a book. A quick Internet or Amazon search for “guided imagery” will give you choices.
Guided imagery is highly effective because it interrupts those buzzing thoughts in your head that keep you stirred up. Research has found that guided imagery can also significantly reduce feelings of anxiety.
4. Turn to Your Calmest Friends. Your bestie may be a fireball who’s always in a flutter and more fun than a pack of monkeys. When you are stressed, though, spend as much time as you can around the calmest people you know.
“Emotional contagion” is a real thing. The tendency to pick up on other people’s moods is probably regulated by mirror neurons in your brain. Some scientists think your vagus nerve is involved in picking up emotional weather from the people around us because it crosses near the network that controls body language as well as influencing physical systems like the heart, lungs, and digestive system.
Whatever the explanation, when you find your calm friends, don’t rush to tell them how awful your stress is. Let them influence you.
5. Soothe the Body, Tame the Mind by Getting a Massage. We probably don’t need to spend much time convincing you that massages feel great. But if you need some justification to get yourself on the table, here it is.
Massages relieves stress in multiple ways. The pleasurable sensation of a message causes your body to release serotonin. Serotonin evokes a relaxation response. As that happens, your heart rate slows and blood pressure drops. Your mind feels this calming effect as well.
Physically, a massage can loosen some of those muscles that became tight from tension. That may have a surprising secondary effect. Your posture and your emotions are related, and it works in both directions. You may slump because you’re tired or sad. Then again, if you purposely adopt a tired and sad posture, you will start to feel less energized. So after a massage releases some muscle tension and pain, you are likely to have a looser, better posture. That can increase your energy as well as your mood and sense of wellbeing.
Good Luck on All This
There’s one common thread in all these strategies. When you are overwhelmed by stress, taking some time to focus on what you need and giving yourself that treat is the first step in quickly reducing your stress. Whether it’s a long walk, time with a good friend, or a massage, it’s about you for a change.
These five strategies really work, but you may need more help. It’s not easy for some people to move their own needs to the top of the list. And you may need more help more if your stress is serious and ongoing. Talk to your doctor if that’s the case.