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7 Science-Based Ways to Reduce Stress

Stress has been called the scourge of the modern age, with a majority of adults experiencing the symptoms of chronic stress. But what can you do to fight it? Here are 7 ways backed by science.

Longer working hours, greater ​job demands, more complex tasks, the ability to be constantly on call, uncooperative colleagues... High levels of stress are an everyday experience for most working people. In a recent survey, the number of US adults who report regularly feeling the physiological symptoms of stress stood at a staggering 77%. And most of those same respondents cite their work as their number one cause of stress.

So what actually causes stress? The most validated theory of stress is the demands-resources model. According to this model, stress occurs when the demands placed on an individual exceed the time and resources available to them. A classic example of this is when you have a tight work deadline without the necessary support available.

The symptoms that ensue are those associated with chronic activation of the fight-or-flight system – which is triggered by perception of danger. What you might experience are things like muscle tension, being inexplicably short of breath, having trouble concentrating, feeling ‘wired’, sleeping poorly and being more fatigued than usual.

Two common responses to stress are to:

  • overwork to resolve the stressful situation as quickly as possible;

  • procrastinate and avoid the stressor.

Both these strategies can be pretty toxic. If you overwork you risk burning out; procrastinating might reduce stress in the short term, but it eventually catches up with you, as you have progressively less time to manage the situation.

There are better ways of handling stress – and here are X of them, shown to be effective in research studies.

1. Face the problem

When you’re stressed, it’s often easy to switch into a mode of passive coping. This can often involve endless cycles of rumination about how terrible the situation is and how you can’t cope. Passive coping also encompasses various forms of avoidance, such as procrastinating, numbing your emotions with alcohol or mindless entertainment, and just hoping the problem will go away. A more effective way of dealing with a stressor is though active coping. This means doing something proactive to solve the problem, increase your resources to solve it or support yourself to handle the stress. This isn’t just about solving the problem – after all, some problems can’t be solved. It’s about facing up to the problem and taking effective action, rather than running away.

2. Schedule some downtime

Stress can become a chronic condition if you don’t take time off to do things you enjoy. This can be tough. But numerous studies have shown that people who take breaks focus better and are actually more productive. A study from the University of Stanford found that walks in nature are particularly effective at reducing stress. A study from Florida State University found that even taking time off to do household chores like can be relaxing, especially repetitive activities such as washing the dishes.

3. Breathe

When you’re stressed out, your body is in a state of chronic, low-level autonomic arousal. This gives rise to muscle tension, insomnia, difficulty concentrating – and a host of other stress-related woes. One simple way of reducing arousal is to slow down your breathing. You can think of your breath as like a remote control for your body, and slow breathing as the ‘slow-motion’ button. One simple way of doing this is the 3-3-3 exercise. Breathe in for a count of 3, then out for a count of 3, and continue for 3 minutes. If any stressful thoughts appear in your mind, just let them come. This is enough time for your sympathetic nervous system to reset and for you to physically de-stress.

4. Get in a good workout

Exercise not only provides a distraction from stressors, it also triggers a bunch of physiological processes that mute the stress response. Cardiovascular exercise, such as jogging, reduce the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and boosts endorphins, which increase positive mood. But exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. A study from Curtin University found that a half-hour walk at lunchtime made employees feel both more energised and more relaxed for the rest of the day.

5. Limit email checking

According to the Radicati Group, the average office worker in 2019 receives 96 emails per day. If an email is popping into your inbox every few minutes, capturing your attention away from more important tasks, stress seems almost inevitable. However, there is an easy fix you can implement to neutralise email stress. This study from the University of British Columbia showed that checking your email only three times per day resulted in lower stress than unregulated checking. One way to do this is to set your email server to deliver messages at specific times. Another is to check once when you get to work, once after lunch and once before leaving the office.

6. Do something for others

People who are stressed out tend to be highly self-focussed and less inclined to helping others. This is understandable: when you’re overwhelmed, it feels like you don’t have much to give. However, performing altruistic acts can switch off the stress response by shifting focus away from the stressors, and on to the problems of others –which are often more manageable. Little acts of giving have been shown to activate areas of the brain associated with positive emotions, and which are inactive during stress. This can start from small things, like buying a coffee for a co-worker, or flowers for a loved one. This might also have the side effect of boosting your social connectedness, which also buffers against stress.

7. Engage in therapy

Stress is an individual reaction to a situation in the world. And while we may not be able to change the situation, it is within our power to change how we react. The stress response can be triggered by certain kinds of catastrophic thinking about outcomes. “This is all too hard… I can’t cope… My life is out of control… This is going to be terrible… I’m running out of time… ” Thoughts like these are what keep the stress response going. Engaging in a form of therapy such as CBT can help you identify the negative thought patterns that are driving stress, and teach you to respond to triggers more calmly. A good therapist will also be able to tailor stress-management techniques (such as those listed above) to your personal situation.

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