Health experts will tell you in this article the best ways to improve stress management for relief, from calling a friend to practicing self-care. Stress is a part of our everyday lives, but being stressed out is not, especially now, with everything that’s going on in the world, the isolation and social-distancing can lead to anxiety and depression.
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. However, that doesn’t mean we have to react to a difficult situation by becoming stressed or feeling overwhelmed or mad.
Being overly anxious is not only dangerous for our minds, but it can affect our physical too, with damaging effects on the brain and the rest of the body. The more stressed out you are, the more vulnerable you become to colds, flu, and other chronic or life-threatening illnesses, plus, the less open we are to the beauty and pleasure of life.
Breathing is so normal and natural for us that most people don’t even pay attention to how we do it, but there is a way to breathe that helps your overall health and it is good 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 can cause your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up, making you feel more stressed out. In order to breathe deeply, begin by putting your hand on your abdomen just below the navel, then 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 this breathing exercise several times, and you’ll feel more relaxed.
Smiling works as a two-way mechanism. We tend to smile more 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.
Make time for a mini self-massage
A simple message on 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.
She recommends massaging the palm of one hand by making a circular motion with the thumb of the other. Or if you want, you can 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.
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 stressed and anxious during these hard times.
“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.
Stop gritting your teeth
Stress tends to settle in certain parts of our bodies, and the jaw is definitely one of them. When things get crazy, 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 this simple exercise a few times every day and you’ll be managing stress better in no time.
Compose a mantra
Invent 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 stressed and anxious repeat this 10 times, “I feel calm. I can handle this.”
Be a fighter
“At the first sign of stress, you often hear people complain, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’” says Cooper. If we’re being honest here, feeling like a victim only makes you feel more stressed and increases feelings of helplessness.
Instead, you should focus on being proactive. If you’re going through a hard time, don’t wallow in self-pity. Find reasons to be thankful.
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 deep breaths, stretch, or repeat 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. If you can let go of your regular coffee that makes you feel more anxious and switch to a decaf one, it’s perfect.
If not, subtract a little regular coffee and add some decaf to your morning cup. Over the next couple of weeks, gradually increase the quantity of decaf to regular until you’re drinking all decaf.
Say yes to pressure
Acupressure stimulates the same points as acupuncture, but you can do it with your 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.
Additionally, try to breathe deeply and apply firm and steady pressure on each point for a few minutes. The pressure should cause a mild aching sensation, but no pain.
Schedule worry time
Some stressors require immediate attention, like a smoke alarm siren or a police car’s whirling red light. But many low-grade stressors can be dealt with later, when it’s more convenient for you.
“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
Take a few minutes each day only for yourself. Stand up and stretch your arms out from your sides, and shake your hands vigorously for about a few seconds. This exercise makes you feel more relaxed by loosening the muscles in your neck and upper back. If your muscles are strained, they can cause a lot of pain. Combine this short exercise 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. Snacks like crackers, pretzels, or a bagel should do the trick. However, you should be careful and not eat too many carbs, because they can just increase your appetite instead of managing stress.
Boost your vitamin intake
Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food and Mood, recommends that every woman should 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.
Moreover, try to stay away from stress formulas, which often contain large amounts of randomly formulated nutrients, like the B vitamins, but little or nothing else, Somer says.
I guess by now everybody’s aware of the calming properties of chamomile tea. But a steaming cup of catnip, passionflower, skullcap or kava kava also work, according to Duke. It is your choice if you use tea bags or loose tea (one teaspoon of tea per cup of boiling water), but make sure to steep for about 10 minutes to get the full benefits of the herbs.
Take a walk
Walking makes you breathe more deeply and improves circulation, says Cooper. Step outside if you can (in your backyard now because of the new quarantine measures). If that’s not possible because you’re living in an apartment, 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.”
“Looking forward to something provides a calming perspective,” Elkin says. Buying concert tickets, scheduling a future vacation, or making an appointment for a massage are all great ways of managing stress.
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 on your body. It promotes circulation, as well as increasing the oxygen levels in your blood and helps lessen muscle tension, all of which lead to a state of relaxation.
Goofing off is another great way of managing stress, just like smiling. It temporarily removes you from a potentially stressful situation, making you feel more relaxed and happy. 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.
Our muscles tighten during the course of the day, and when we feel stressed out, the process accelerates. Stretching helps the muscles to loosen and encourages deep breathing. Plus, you can stretch pretty much everywhere, and it is time-effective and easy to do, even if you’re not an active person.
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.
Call a friend
Last but not least, sharing your troubles and emotions with a dear friend can give you perspective, help in managing stress, make you feel cared for, and relieve a burden off your chest. If your friend is comforting and offers advice, that’s a sign you have a true friend.