15 Stress Management Techniques That Work Well … and Fast

15 Stress Management Techniques That Work Well … and Fast

You can’t avoid all stress, nor would you want to. A little stress is actually a good thing. It temporarily boosts motivation and concentration, plus it keeps life interesting. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, anxious, forgetful, or exhausted, you may be burdened with too much stress. And that can make you sick — 90% of all doctors’ visits are stress-related. Stress can make you unhappy, increasing your risk for anxiety and depression. There are many stress management techniques but some, like counseling or biofeedback, require a long-term commitment and you might not feel the effects for weeks. If stress is a problem for you right now, here are some things you can do today. These techniques will not only have you feeling more relaxed within minutes, but they are powerful enough that regular practice can help you reduce your stress levels permanently.

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Stress reduction doesn’t get any easier, or more fundamental, than learning how to breathe properly. When you’re under stress, your chest feels tight and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This is a hardwired response to danger that is supposed to be temporary. But most adults breathe this way all the time which unfortunately keeps us in a “flight or fight” mode. The most basic breathing exercise is to consciously breathe from your diaphragm. As you slowly inhale and exhale, concentrate on keeping your chest still while expanding and contracting your stomach. A few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing will lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to evoke a state of calm.

2. Meditation

Meditation is undoubtedly one of the best stress management techniques known. Meditation makes you more resilient and less reactive to stress by decreasing the number of neurons in your amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress. It increases levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA puts the brakes on brain activity, letting you relax. Meditation helps you quiet your mind and master negative thought patterns which are often the root cause of stress.

Until you’re experienced at meditation, I recommend listening to guided meditations or audio files that incorporate binaural beats or brainwave entrainment. These approaches will help induce a relaxed state very quickly. 

3. Mindfulness Meditation

There are many kinds of meditation, and one that stands out for stress relief is mindfulness meditation. It’s the meditation of choice among those facing unusual levels of on-the-job stress such as Wall Street brokers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and US military personnel.

Mindfulness actually builds a bigger and better brain. It increases the amount of gray matter, the volume of the hippocampus, and the thickness of the cortex while it decreases the size of the amygdala, the fear center of your brain. It also improves connectivity between various regions of the brain. 

4. Yoga

It’s estimated that more than 15 million Americans practice yoga regularly. One reason for the explosion in interest in this 5,000-year-old practice is that people are looking for a way to de-stress. Any kind of physical exercise will reduce stress, but yoga excels at it. Yoga slows your breathing and heart rates, lowers blood pressure, and increases heart rate variability. Just a single one-hour session of yoga can increase GABA by 27%. If you want to target feelings of stress or anxiety, you’ll find yoga poses specifically for stress at Yoga Journal. If you’re concerned you aren’t flexible enough, give the ancient martial arts tai chi or qi gong a try instead. They offer similar relaxation benefits but flexibility is not required. 

5. Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a powerful technique that uses your innate power of visualization to achieve goals and improve performance. It’s most commonly used for stress reduction, healing, and changing behaviors. Legendary sports figures and Olympic teams use it to achieve peak performance. Over 200 studies have proven its many health benefits. It’s so beneficial, it’s even covered by some insurance plans! But there’s no reason you can’t use guided imagery on your own. 

6. Self-Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a trance-like state characterized by extreme relaxation, increased suggestibility, and heightened imagination. Self-hypnosis occurs when you intentionally put yourself in this state without the help of a hypnotherapist. If you’ve ever found yourself entranced by a crackling fire or ocean waves, you’ve experienced self-hypnosis.A huge volume of research confirms the benefits of hypnosis for anxiety and other disorders with a stress-related component. There are self-hypnosis scripts that you can perform from memory or record and follow along to your own voice. 

7. Autogenic Training

Autogenic training is a little known but highly effective type of self-hypnosis that teaches you to regulate functions that are normally under subconscious control, such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. It works by calming down your overactive stress response. It puts you in a relaxed brain wave state similar to meditation. More than 60 studies have found autogenic training beneficial for stress-related disorders including anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure. 

8. Personal Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a powerful technique that teaches you how to manage your breathing, heart rate and blood flow to stop the stress response in its tracks. It enables you to monitor what your body is doing in real time by measuring functions like heart rate, blood pressure, brain wave state, skin temperature and muscle tension. Besides stress relief, biofeedback can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health and brain-related disorders including anxiety, ADHD, memory loss, and depression. Traditional biofeedback is expensive and time-consuming, but now there are effective personal biofeedback devices that work by measuring various functions such as blood pressure (RESPeRATE), heart rate variablity (HeartMath emWave2), or galvanic skin response (Mindplace ThoughtStream). Biofeedback devices that measure brain waves are called neurofeedback devices and require you to wear a headset (brand names include Melon, Muse, NeuroSky, Thync). With the assistance of a personal biofeedback device allows, you can relax anytime, anywhere. 

9. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

When you get stressed, your muscles get tight. You may be feeling it in your back, neck, or shoulders as you read this. And these tight muscles are not only caused by stress, they contribute to stress. Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple technique that involves tensing and relaxing specific groups of muscles in a systematic way to break the vicious cycle of stress and muscle tension. 

10. Emotional Freedom Technique (Tapping)

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), generally known as tapping, is a form of acupressure that works by stimulating meridian points with your fingertips. Tapping can be used for pretty much anything that ails you — physically or emotionally — including instant stress relief. One session of tapping can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol by up to 50%. 

11. Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a healing and relaxation technique that makes use of the scent of essential oils. According to the US National Library of Medicine, more than 15,000 scientific research studies have been done on essential oils. Dozens of essential oils deliver stress relief, but you can’t go wrong with lavender. Lavender is the most studied and possibly the most versatile of all essential oils. Put a few drops on your wrists, dab some under your nose, or diffuse it into the air for instant stress relief. Besides being generally relaxing, lavender also has anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and mood stabilizing properties. If you aren’t keen on the fragrance of lavender, two other top essential oils for stress relief are bergamot and chamomile. 

12. Enjoyable Pastimes

You almost certainly already have your own favorite stress reduction strategy. I’m not talking plopping down in front of the TV with a beer. What is it you love to do in your spare time that gets you in the zone and makes time fade away? Creating art, listening to music, or getting absorbed in your favorite hobby are all legitimate stress management techniques. Hobbies as diverse as knitting, woodworking, gardening, or home repair reduce stress and put you in a relaxed state. Anti-stress coloring books — a recent trend — can significantly reduce stress and depression. Engaging in these activities before going to bed can help you relax and fall asleep faster than using your laptop or tablet which emit sleep-disruptive blue light.

13. Nature

Go outside and spend some time in nature. It will lower your cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate while increasing heart rate variability. It doesn’t have to be a major outing — simply spending a few minutes at a park on your lunch break can help. And when you go, leave your smartphone behind or at least turned off. Research has confirmed what most of us suspect anyway — that trying to do more than one thing at once is stressful. Heart rate and cortisol levels go up when you constantly check your email. And if you can’t get outdoors, take a few minutes to look at pictures of nature. Even that can help reduce your stress levels, anger, and fear and put you in a better mood. 

14. Gratitude

Expressing gratitude creates a surge of feel-good brain chemicals that will make you feel happier and more relaxed. expressing gratitude relieves stressA common way of expressing gratitude is by journaling — writing about things you are grateful for — but I find sharing grateful thoughts with others even better. This benefits both you and the recipient. You can thank a friend by phone, text, email, or (gasp!) put pen to paper and write a genuine thank you note for words of encouragement, act of kindness, or any other “gift” you’ve received. (Can you guess which kind of “thank you” your friend will appreciate the most?) Feeling and expressing gratitude reduces stress and increases emotional resilience. And it will help you relax and sleep better if you do it right before you go to bed.

15. Green Tea (Instead of Coffee)

This one is a little different that all the other stress reduction techniques listed here. But caffeine is such an integral part of our always-on-the-go society, its role deserves special consideration. Millions of people get through the day not on naturally generated energy but on the artificial boost they get from caffeinated beverages. While caffeine can be part of a healthy lifestyle, it also increases stress hormones and reduces calming brain chemicals, while restricting blood flow to the brain. Caffeine is even linked to four recognized psychiatric disorders. So if you are feeling stressed, grabbing a caffeine-laden cup of coffee, a soda or an energy drink is the totally wrong thing to do! Instead, make your next drink a cup of green tea. Green tea contains a little caffeine — about 25 mg per 8-ounce serving — which should be enough to keep you from full-blown caffeine withdrawal. But green tea provides focus and energy while it relaxes you, thanks to l-theanine and EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). L-theanine is an amino acid that increases your resilience to stress. It causes an increase in alpha brainwave activity that’s similar to that experienced during meditation. EGCG is a polyphenol that normalizes activity of the calming neurotransmitter GABA. Like theanine, EGCG also changes brain wave patterns to put you in a “relaxed yet attentive state.” 

Stress Management Techniques: The Bottom Line

Stress is a necessary part of life, but too much stress can make you sick and unhappy. Fortunately, there’s a wide variety of stress management techniques that can bring relief quickly and, if practiced regularly, permanently. Almost all of them can be started right now, be done anytime, and require little or no investment. And all can be done on your own. 


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