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Sneak in a workout.
Exercise does just as much for your mind as it does for your muscles. “Blend or alternate aerobics with strength training, stretching, flexibility and agility exercises for an endorphin boost,” suggests Kathleen Hall, PhD, founder and CEO of The Mindful Living Network & The Stress Institute. Up the ante by making your sweat session social. One study found that people who participated in group exercise saw greater improvements in mental, physical and emotional health than those who worked out solo.
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Walk through the park.
About to lose it at the office? A short, 15-minute stroll is enough to lower levels of stress and fatigue, finds a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. (You can thank both a release of feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, and exposure to nature for the benefits.)
PHOTO: Jose Vazquez / EyeEm
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Why? “The vagus nerve is the long, wandering nerve that facilitates the relaxation response, or parasympathetic nervous system,” explains Heidi Hanna, PhD, executive director of the American Institute of Stress. “When we are stuck in chronic stress, we can get hijacked by our stress response, or sympathetic nervous system, and similar to muscles that go unused for a long period of time, the vagus nerve can lose its strength or tone.” Gargling stimulates the nerve, increasing your ability to shift to a state of calm, she says.
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Listen to the waves (even fake ones).
Beach days are relaxing — science shows as much! Sunshine and much needed vitamin D boost your mood and ocean air even has negative ions which can act like airborne antioxidants and may have anti-inflammatory effects in the body, says Hanna. But just listening to the sounds of waves (there’s an app for that) has a rhythmic, meditative effect, too, she notes.
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Make yourself laugh.
Watch a stand-up comedian you love on Netflix, send memes back and forth in your group text, or meet up with your funniest friend. “Laughter is great medicine,” says Nicole Issa, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Providence, RI and New York City, and founder of PVD Psychological Associates.
“It helps you relax your body, lowers cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone), and increases endorphins.”
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Act like a kid.
Kind of. “Our mind, body and soul are renewed when we play,” explains Hall. So go outside for a game of tag with your child or run around with your pup — doctor’s orders!
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Do a mindfulness exercise.
“I often teach clients a 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise,” says Sari Chait, PhD, a clinical psychologist and owner of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Newton, MA. How it works: Start by focusing on slow, deep breaths then find five things you can see around you; four things you can touch or feel; three things you can hear; two things you can smell; and one thing you can taste.
“This mindfulness technique, like others, helps ground you where you are,” she says. Doing so can not only calm the stress, but give you a clear mind to be able to problem-solve and focus on what you need to focus on to move forward, she says.
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Let your mind wander.
“It’s important to allow our brains to just explore on their own sometimes, free from the constraints of our task-focused intentions,” says Hanna. This helps you make connections that aren’t always obvious in your day-to-day grind, ultimately making you a better problem-solver (important when stress hits). To get started, doodle, zone out for a few minutes or rock back and forth while listening to some music.
PHOTO: Kathrin Ziegler
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Focus on someone else.
Volunteer, call your mom or pick your significant other up their favorite dessert: Those who help others are less likely to die after experiencing stressful events, according to research in the American Journal of Public Health. When you divert your own attention to someone else, it sinks your stress levels, curbing the cumulative effects stress can have on your health, experts say.
PHOTO: Hero Images
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Take a nap.
When you’re stressed, you likely just want to get one more thing done to finally feel relaxed. The reality, though? There’s always more to do. “If we’re not careful, we’ll get so amped up on stress hormones trying to keep pushing through feeling tired that we won’t be able to fall or stay asleep at night,” Hanna says. A short 10- to 15-minute nap (or even resting your eyes for this amount of time) can help both brain and body recharge, which means when you wake up you can get more done in less time with a, well, clearer mind.
PHOTO: PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson
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Take a break from booze.
A glass of wine might sound nice after a long, stressful day at the office but substances such as alcohol can intensify stress and anxiety in the long run, says Issa. Plus, it’s easy for alcohol to become an escape from stress.
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…and hydrate instead.
Even mild dehydration (which crops up before you’re even thirsty) can negatively impact cognitive processes and mood, research finds. Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day, suggests Hall— incorporating in water, seltzer and even herbal tea (especially green tea) which has an added antioxidant bonus of potentially reducing the effects of environmental stressors on the body, she says.
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Plan a fun outing with friends.
Heaps and heaps of research find that people with strong social connections experience less stress, less disease and live longer than those without close ties, says Hall. Not to mention that loneliness is actually a risk factor for earlier death. It’s easy to pull away when you’re wound up, but try to set up a coffee with a coworker or plan a weekend away with your best friend when you need to de-stress.
PHOTO: Image Source
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Take a deep breath.
‘Diaphragmatic breathing’ isn’t just a buzzword — it’s a scientifically-sound way to sink stress levels. “Breathe deeply into your stomach so that you feel it and then exhale,” explains Issa. You want your belly to be filling with air and rising on your inhale. Try to make the exhalation longer than your inhalation, she suggests. “When you engage in deep belly breathing, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system and your body starts to relax.”
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Quit checking Instagram.
Constantly checking your devices isn’t doing anything for lowering your stress levels. In fact, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), constant “checkers” are far more stressed than their less connected peers. At least 10 minutes twice a day to completely unplug from tech, suggests Hall, who notes that this can lower blood pressure, your heart rate and give you an immune boost.
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…and check your email less frequently.
When adults were asked to only check their email three times a day they were significantly less stressed than when they could check it an unlimited number of times a day, according to one study. While you might not be able to back off email that much, consider keeping your phone away from you when honing in on a task or closing out of your email entirely when working on a project so that your brain can, well, focus on one thing.
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Sign up for a few yoga classes.
By now it likely comes as no surprise that yoga — with its feels-so-good stretches and poses and strong focus on the mind-body connection — can work to relieve stress. But that’s not where the benefits stop: The ancient practice can also build stress resilience by increasing levels of a brain chemical called BDNF, which plays a role in everything from inflammation and mood regulation to stress response, meaning you’ll be stronger next time you come face-to-face with stress.
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Be your own cheerleader.
Make a list of positive statements or affirmations about yourself, suggests Issa. (You could also make the list when you’re feeling good and review it in times of need.) “You’ll boost self-esteem and feel more competent by reviewing some positive self-talk instead of tuning into the negative self-talk and doubt that usually accompanies stress or anxiety.”
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Smile — even if you’re faking it.
If your muscles form a smile, your brain doesn’t quite know the difference between a real one and a fake one, which is, perhaps, why both smiling people and those who held chopsticks in their mouths to form a smile both reported lower heart rates during a stressful task, one study found.
PHOTO: Hero Images
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Spend some time barefoot.
A dose of nature can help you recover from stress, face future stressors with more ease and think more clearly, many studies show. But to amp up the benefits, take your shoes off. ‘Grounding’ or ‘earthing,’ as it’s called, may help normalize cortisol levels, lowering your stress. Plus, how often are you really barefoot anymore?
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It’s a vicious cycle: You’re stressed, so you can’t sleep — and not getting enough sleep leads to more stress, since it causes your body to pump out more cortisol, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you’re having trouble clocking in at least 7 to 9 hours a night, try keeping your phone out of bed, refreshing your bedding, or these other expert-backed strategies for sleeping better every night.
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Confront the stressor itself.
“Stress, like any emotion, is fueled by ‘playing into it’ by doing what comes naturally,” says Issa. For sadness, that means withdrawing. For stress or anxiety, it’s avoidance. “If you find yourself avoiding opening a bill or procrastinating with work, the most effective way to reduce your stress around this is to confront what you are avoiding.” You’ll put the issue behind you and learn that you will be OK after facing the stressor, she says.