No, it’s not just you — people are actually more stressed out now than ever before. A 2022 poll by the American Psychological Association found that 87% of people feel like there has been a constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years. The poll also found that everything from rising inflation to political issues is stressing people out.
Although it's impossible to control every stressful thing, it's possible to control how you cope. Lifeforce Physician Leah Johansen, MD, ABFM, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner, adds that people often stress about reducing their stress. So, here are the best ways to build and adopt stress-relieving tactics that can actually help you keep calm and carry on.
1. Make Mindfulness and Meditation a Consistent Part of Your Day
Mindfulness is a great tactic for stress management and relief because you can practice it any time of day. "A typical practice involves paying attention to your breathing, and when your attention wanders off, you bring your attention back to your breathing," says Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Practicing mindfulness reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reducing the stress response, according to Winston. "It also impacts and helps prevent our thoughts from taking us into the past or future, which is where a lot of stress lies," Winston says.
One study found that consistently meditating mindfully for even short periods may boost your mood and decrease stress. Winston notes that the researchers thought four weeks of mindful meditation would make a difference, but it took eight weeks of consistently meditating for folks to see benefits. So keep going if mindful meditation isn't a quick fix — the benefits might be just one body scan away.
How to practice it:
Start with just five minutes a day and opt for guided meditations if you need help. You can also do everyday activities mindfully, like washing the dishes. "Bring your attention to your feet on the floor, or notice your breath or what's happening in your mind," Winston says.
Remember that mindfulness is a practice and takes time. "People often get discouraged when they notice their wandering thoughts, but over time you develop more focus and also realize thoughts are not a problem, just keep returning to the present moment," Winston says.
2. Practice Deep Breathing Before, During, and After Stressful Times
If you've ever had a friend or family member tell you to relax and take a deep breath during a stressful moment, know that they're onto something. And you don't need to wait for a stressful moment to happen — regularly taking deep breaths is also a great way to reduce stress.
Breathing is one of Dr. Johansen's favorite ways to reduce stress because it's simple and effective. "Your breath will directly influence the autonomic nervous system, by the stimulation of the vagus nerve via expansion of the diaphragm causing you to relax," she says.
Dr. Johansen notes that deep breathing exercises allow the nervous system to get in formation and help relax your body after a period of stress, according to research.
Other research also found that learning and practicing diaphragm breathing (or deep belly breathing) decreases your blood pressure and heart rate, helping people relax and lower cortisol levels. They also found that even a single breathing practice significantly reduces blood pressure, ultimately reducing stress and allowing the body to relax.
How to practice it:
Box breathing is one technique that Navy Seals rely on to stay calm under pressure. Just imagine each side of a box and do the following: Inhale for four, hold that breath for four, exhale for four, and hold it for four.
3. Get Your Heart Rate Up Regularly, Ideally Outdoors
Dr. Johansen is a fan of exercise for stress reduction because, like mindfulness and breathing, it requires nothing more than practice, time, and attention.
"Any type of cardiovascular activity will increase your heart rate, which will filter out the neurotransmitters responsible for elevated stress response, including cortisol and epinephrine," Dr. Johansen notes.
Another study found that those participating in low to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like walking or swimming, two days per week reported feeling less stressed. Other research backs this up as it found people experience lower levels of cortisol after physical activity and experience a boost in the production of feel-good neurotransmitters. Low-intensity exercise may even increase proteins associated with alleviating anxiety and depression.
How to practice it:
Think of exercise as meditation in motion. Make exercise part of your routine at least twice a week. You don't need to do HIIT to see the stress-busting benefits, but do try to take things outside if you can. Research has found that a 60-minute walk, run, or hike in nature decreases activity in the area of the brain that's responsible for stress.
4. Optimize Your Nutrient Intake, Including Magnesium and B Vitamins
It’s time to stock up on foods with nutrients that could lower stress levels, including magnesium and b vitamins, according to research. These vitamins and minerals regulate serotonin and norepinephrine, which impact mood and the ability to cope with stress.
Research and clinical trials have found that supplementing with magnesium improves stress in chronically stressed people. Another eight-week study found that people with low magnesium taking daily 300 mg supplements reported lower stress levels. Plus, those who combined magnesium with vitamin B6 saw an even more significant impact on their stress levels. And research on supplementing with B vitamins alone has also been found to reduce stress, according to Nutrients.
How to practice it:
Consider upping your intake of foods that are good sources of magnesium and B vitamins, including pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, whole grain bread, bananas, and oranges. Supplementing is always an option to make sure you're sufficient in this crucial mineral. Here are a few more reasons why magnesium could be one of the best supplements you're not taking.
5. Turn on the Music to Tune Out Stress
One easy way to bust stress is to use the power of sound. According to Dr. Johansen, listening to certain music frequencies — regardless of genre — can uplift, calm, and inspire. In fact, research from the Health Psychology Review suggests that the right tunes can do everything from lower cortisol levels and heart rate to release endorphins and improve a sense of well-being.
How to practice it:
It's as simple as pressing play. Research has found that listening to music reduces cortisol levels regardless of the type of music. Still, one study found that people listening to upbeat music saw a boost in their mood and happiness in just two weeks. But it's not all bad news for people who like the blues. Other research has found that even listeners of sad music experience pleasure and comfort.
What did we miss? Reach out to us on social at @golifeforce to share your top stress-busting techniques.
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This article was medically reviewed by:
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism
Leah Johansen, MD, Board Certified Family Practice Doctor, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner
Originally published on December 19, 2022. Updated on May 8, 2023.