Stress is a natural part of our daily lives, and is actually an important physiological response to prepare us for dangerous or risky situations.
But if left unchecked, stress can accumulate, resulting in lower quality of life, mental health issues, greater susceptibility to certain illnesses, and even higher mortality. Yikes.
The good news is, while stress can never be eliminated, it can be managed. And in this guide, we’ll walk you through 21 of the most important stress management techniques to keep you in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and physical bodily responses.
Stress Management Techniques for Instant Relief
It’s useful to think of stress as having both a short-term and long-term impact. In the short-term, a stressful event or tense situation can leave you feeling short of breath, anxious, and uncomfortable. In the long-term, stress can gradually hurt your mental health and lower your quality of life.
These stress management techniques can be called upon immediately for short-term relief whether you’re at work, at home, or somewhere in between.
1. Identify what’s stressing you out.
If you know what’s stressing you out, you’ll have far greater control over the situation. You might be able to reduce the impact of the stressor, either by mitigating or eliminating it, or by proactively preparing for the stress you’ll likely encounter with it. While some sources of stress may be obvious (like a micromanaging boss) others may be sneakier (like constant email notifications).
2. Take deep breaths.
Sometimes, the best methods of short-term stress relief are the easiest. If you feel overwhelmed with a crisis you just can’t get control of, take a moment to practice deep breathing. Breathe in slowly and fully, hold your breath for a few seconds, then slowly release that breath fully. A few iterations of this will instantly reduce your stress.
3. Go outside.
Even if you don’t consider yourself “outdoorsy,” spending time in nature can improve your mood. Plus, a change in scenery can help “reset” your stressed mind. If you’re overwhelmed with work, take a break and go outside, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
4. Drink water.
When was the last time you drank water? Even slight dehydration can decrease your performance and make you feel more stressed. If you’re in a bad mood or if you feel a headache coming on, take a big drink of water and see if that helps.
5. Get a snack.
It can also help to get a snack—especially if it’s been a while since your last meal. If you do this, focus on healthy foods; a candy bar or bag of chips might sound enjoyable, but the sugar crash and fatigue you face afterward make them inadvisable. Instead, look for fruits, vegetables, nuts, or whole grains.
Yoga, or any type of stretch-based exercise gives you a break from work, increases blood circulation, and can reduce your stress. It also keeps you limber, which can improve your feelings of wellbeing.
7. Use guided imagery.
Guided imagery is similar to meditation in the sense that it distracts you and forces you to center your attention. You may find this preferable to meditation, since it relies more heavily on narration.
8. Try progressive muscle relaxation.
Start by concentrating on your toes, and focus on relaxing every muscle in them. Next, focus on your feet; relax every muscle in them. Work your way up through your ankles, calves, thighs, and so on up your body, including your face and forehead. Don’t move on from one body part until you achieve relaxation in that body part. Take your time; there’s no need to rush through this process. The waves of stress relief you feel in this process are hard to beat. This technique is used in the U.S. military, where 96% of fighter pilots found it helpful to fall asleep within 2 minutes—even within combat zones.
9. Get or give a hug.
Hugs release a number of feel-good chemicals in the brain, including oxytocin, which helps us develop bonds. Find someone you love (or at least someone you can tolerate) and ask for a hug.
10. Talk to a loved one.
You can stimulate the release of the same chemicals just by talking to someone you love. Consider calling or sending a text to a spouse, a relative, or a close friend when you feel overwhelmed during the day. Hearing back from them can immediately make you feel better.
11. Use aromatherapy.
The evidence of aromatherapy as a cure-all is mixed, but if you genuinely like certain scents (like peppermint, lavender, or cinnamon), aromatherapy is undoubtedly beneficial. Keep candles, incense, or air fresheners in your workspace so you can call upon them as needed.
Stress Management Techniques to Reduce Stress Over Time
The following stress management techniques not only offer fast relief from stress, but if you can get into the habit of doing them regularly, you’ll notice your stress levels reduce dramatically over time – and stay that way.
The benefits of meditation are extraordinary, and it’s easy to get started. There are many varieties of meditation, but mindfulness meditation may be one of the best entry-level forms for stress management. The idea is to clear your mind, observing your own thoughts and allowing them to pass; you may also be instructed to focus your attention on something stable, like the sound of your own deep breathing. In any case, meditation can clear your head and reduce your subjective feelings of stress—especially if you practice regularly.
Any form of physical exercise can reduce stress, so work exercise into your daily schedule. Choose something you genuinely enjoy, whether it’s biking, swimming, boxing, lifting weights, or just walking around the block. If you feel stressed during the workday, take a break and go for a walk, or head to the gym or the break room and do some pushups. The endorphins released during physical activity help you feel better both physically and mentally.
Journaling is one of the best ways to relieve stress. Oftentimes, just being aware of our feelings and describing them can make them less intense. For example, if you’re feeling exceptionally angry, just saying out loud “I’m angry,” can make you less angry. It’s bizarre, but it works. Journaling forces you to not only describe your feelings, but also articulate how those feelings arose—and what you’re doing to manage them. This process makes you feel less stressed immediately, and can prove valuable in the long-term by providing you information on how your feelings and responses change over time.
15. Create art.
Creating art, in almost any form, can relieve your stress as well. Depending on your skill level, personal preferences, and available materials, you could play a song on a musical instrument, create a sculpture out of a medium like clay, or simply make a doodle on a sticky note. It’s a form of personal expression that allows you to channel your feelings—and focus on something other than work, for a change.
Stress Management Tips for Long-Term Relief
If you suffer from chronic stress, you might need to follow more long-term stress management techniques like these:
16. Reframe how you see stress.
Studies suggest that our perception of stress may play a bigger role in health outcomes than the actual physical stress we feel. Instead of seeing stress as some terrible feeling to be avoided at all costs, learn to see it as a natural part of life that has advantages and disadvantages, and remember that it can be actively controlled and managed. Adopting this mentality can take some time, but it can help you enormously.
17. Restructure your life to avoid stressors.
Once you understand the things that stress you the most, you can rearrange your life to avoid or downplay those stressors. For example, if most of your stress is associated with a specific client, it may be time to consider firing that client. If you’re stressed because you’re overwhelmed with tasks to do, consider delegating those tasks or asking for more help from your team.
18. Give yourself more leisure time.
Leisure time is vital to any long-term health management strategy. You’ll need to take breaks from work throughout the day, and vacations from your career on a periodic basis. Too many people fight stress by burying themselves in more work, which is counterproductive. You have to schedule your leisure time and make it a priority if you want to see the benefits.
19. Express gratitude more often.
Multiples studies have confirmed that expressing gratitude, whether it’s publicly, in writing, or even just to yourself, can improve your mood and reduce stress. Get in the habit of thinking about or talking about all the things you’re grateful for, whether it’s in your personal or professional life. Even in the most stressful or high-pressure situation, there’s something you can find to be grateful for.
20. Focus on improving your self-talk.
Self-talk has enormous power over us. If you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts, you’re going to feel more stressed and less satisfied. Unfortunately, changing your self-talk patterns is difficult; it takes tremendous self-awareness to identify when you’re practicing self-talk, discipline to change your thinking, and an investment of time and patience to make those new habits stick. Still, if you make a concentrated effort to make your internal dialogue more positive and optimistic, you’ll find yourself less stressed in almost any situation.
21. Get social support.
If you’re struggling with acute or chronic stress, one of the best things you can do is get social support. Tell the people in your life, including your coworkers, supervisors, friends, and family members, about your struggles with stress, and if there’s anything they can do to help you, let them know. If you’re still having difficulty after making positive changes, consider talking to a professional therapist and/or your family doctor.
Are you feeling more stressed than you should? Are you interested in improving your stress levels on a daily basis? Everything starts with a better understanding of the things that stress you out. I hope these stress management techniques help you identify what’s causing you stress, and take steps toward feeling better fast.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.