Sometimes stress gets a bad rap. In reasonable doses, stress can enhance our performance, focus our attention on trouble spots, and motivate us to take worthwhile action.
But when we have too much of it without relief, stress can be unhealthy and counterproductive. So we all need to have some go-to techniques that we know we can rely on to relieve stress when it threatens to get the best of us.
Here are some of the techniques that studies have shown to be the most effective. Different things work for different people; what matters is that you find some techniques that are effective for you and remind yourself to use them when you need them.
Why not choose one or two and give them a try right now?
I’d always thought that the important thing about breathing was inhaling – after all, our bodies need oxygen, and we’ve all been told to “take a breath” when we’re stressed out. But research shows that for stress relief, the real key is in releasing our breath – in other words, the magic is in the exhale, not the inhale. In fact, people who have trouble breathing are now told to focus not on getting a good breath in, but on exhaling completely, which then naturally stimulates a fuller inhale.
And that is the key to one of the simplest and most effective techniques you’ll ever find for stress relief – the 8 count exhale. Here’s how to do it.
Breathe in to a count of 4.
Breathe out to a count of 8.
Repeat in a comfortable rhythm for a minute or two.
And if you don’t like counting over and over again, just try to exhale for about twice as long as you’re inhaling. Exhaling more slowly than we inhale is remarkably effective at relaxing us, both physically and emotionally.
2. Gain Psychological Distance
A more cognitive way to cope with stress is to gain psychological distance by imagining yourself far away from your current circumstances. This technique actually engages areas of our brains that aren’t so caught up in our current worries, relieving our stress and opening us up to new approaches to problem solving.
Just create a vivid mental picture of yourself five years in the future – or 500 miles away right now. Dream up a detailed picture of yourself in the future or far away – what you’re doing, who you’re with, and what’s around you. You’ll be engaging brain circuitry that isn’t involved with your current stress, and you’ll be able to feel yourself relax.
3. Work Up a Sweat
Exercise stimulates our brains to release endorphins, chemicals commonly referred to as pleasure hormones. These are the same hormones that are released when we do something we love to do, and they make us feel calmer and happier. Exercise also burns cortisol, a chemical often referred to as the stress hormone. Our bodies produce cortisol when we’re angry, anxious, or afraid, and exercise is one of the most effective ways to overcome the effects of cortisol and calm back down.
So do your brain a favor (and the rest of your body along with it) – by getting out there and working up a sweat.
4. Look for the Good
Stress is often a response to a real or perceived threat. And when we feel threatened, our brains’ automatic threat response takes over, narrowing our focus so that it becomes very difficult to see anything other than the threat itself. This can be very helpful in those rare cases when our life or safety is actually at risk, but it can really be a burden when the threat is less dire or more chronic. So we need to consciously choose to expand our vision to include reasons for hope, gratitude, and pleasure.
One of my favorite examples of looking for the good comes from the wonderful Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.
5. Be Part of the Good
It’s simply true that what we put into the world affects what we get back from it. People who go out of their way to help others consistently rate other people as kinder, their communities as more supportive, and the world as a better place to live, than people who don’t.
So if you’re feeling stressed, isolated, or unhappy, find someone who could use your help, and give it. You won’t only feel less stressed; you’ll also feel better about yourself and the world around you.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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