Stress is a normal part of being a human. It occurs in response to challenging or demanding stimulus and results in changes to the way you think, feel, and behave. Sometimes stress is adaptive, motivating you to get shit done, put effort and energy into an event, and alerting you to avoid danger. Other times overwhelming or chronic stress can wear you down and interfere with functioning.
It is important to note that not all of these strategies will work for everyone or every situation. The best thing is that you can pick and choose from the list of strategies and learn which one(s) work best for you. Our recommendation is that you incorporate the long-acting, lifestyle based strategies into your daily routine, as well as using the fast acting strategies.
ON THE SPOT
These strategies are fast acting and can help you get immediate relief. Some of these can be used as long acting strategies as well and get better with practice.
progressive muscle relaxation
This involves tightening and then relaxing each muscle group usually starting with the muscles your forehead and working down to your toes. You can add breathing in when tightening and breathing out when relaxing for an added potency to this exercise. The beauty of this technique is that you do not have to go through the sequence in any particular order and you do not have to cover every muscle group. Sometimes just clenching and relaxing your jaw or shoulders can bring relief.
Most often during periods of stress people tend to breath shallow and rapid. By focusing on and changing your breathing you can make a quick difference to your stress response. There are many different breathing techniques, here are some of our favourite: 1. Breathe in – as big as possible, hold, then breathe out pushing all the air out, repeat. 2. Breathe out, hold for as long as safety possible, and then you will naturally gasp a breathe in. follow with some steady breaths. 3. Breathe in and as you do imagine that you can inhaling calming and serene air which flows through your whole body. Then as you exhale, imagine you are breathing out the tension and worry.
No, not a beer (although hey that is a fasting acting strategy), water. If you are in a particularly hot and sticky situation, try and source some chilled water, otherwise room temperature tap works fine. You can even incorporate some mindfulness (what does the water taste like, what temperature is it, what does it feel like on your teeth) and take the time to slow your breathing down as well.
If you can have a little dance (add your favourite music to increase the potency), stretch, and go for a walk. A change of action and even better change of scenery can reduce your stress and rejuvenate your body and mind. Again, if you can, try and add mindfulness (take notice of the colour of the trees, sounds of the wind rustling through the leaves) or imagery.
This isn’t for everyone and not appropriate for every situation. Hugging someone you love can release oxytocin which results in lower stress and increases sense of relaxation. There have been some really great experiments about hugging strangers but we cannot recommend this is always going to be safe or appropriate. If there is no one around to hug, then you can wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze!
Smells can also be a good way of reducing stress. Certain teas, perfumes, candles, or essential oils can evoke a sense of serenity, calm, happiness, or joy and reduce stress and tension. A discrete way is to place a few drops of your favourite essential oil on your wrist (mix with base oil if needed) and inhale as your wrist passes your nose.
Even if you don’t have anything to be happy about and you are stressed out of your mind, try a smile. Even a little half smile.
A LITTLE MORE TIME
If you have a little more time such as your lunch break or half and hour or so in the evening these strategies can be used. If you can, perhaps try carving out some regular time in your routine for these.
This strategy requires as much or little equipment as suits you best. Some people can get creative with making shapes from their hands which requires zero equipment. If you have a pen or pencil, you can try drawing. Other creative ideas include colouring in, painting, playing an instrument, pottery, knitting, remodelling a car, computer graphics, or putting together a jungle gym.
This can include exercising and or stretching for any amount of time. For some people, sweating it out with a HIIT session is the best stress reliever whereas others enjoy weight training, yoga, swimming, or playing sports. Even a 30 minute walk around the block after dinner can be a good way to reduce stress levels.
While getting regular massages is ideal this may not be achievable due to time (typically 60 – 90 minutes is a standard session) and budget. But many places are offering 20 or 30 minute chair massages which may be more suitable. Alternatively, self-massages are free and can be done in whatever amount of time you have spare. You can always incorporate aromatherapy into the massage to make this strategy more effective.
progressive muscle relaxation and body scanning
Being aware of how your body is feeling is the first step to addressing stress. Body scanning involves you taking note of your whole body, usually staring from the top of your head and working your way down much like a scanner on a slow operating printer. As you take notice of each section of your body, you can make actions with progressive muscle relaxation and slow breathing. Many people opt to do this when they are in bed however you can always do this when you have just finished exercise or in the shower. Again, this does not need take too much time and often doing the sections of your body you hold stress is just as beneficial as they whole body.
This is where you make some real long-lasting changes to manage stress and involves incorporating cognitive and practical strategies into your day to day life.
Regular physical activity is a must for both physical and mental health. While you do not have to engage in formal exercise at a big box gym, getting active and achieving at least 300 minutes of moderate intensity (or 150 minutes of vigorous intensity) exercise each week is a must (unless you have contraindications prescribed by your medical professional). The benefits of engaging in regular exercise are not to be overlooked and studies have shown exercise is an antidepressant. If you want support for exercise click here.
What do you like to do for fun? Often hobbies and fun activities get pushed to the way side in favour of life’s perceived other essentials such as grocery shopping, running around like headless chooks, working, etc. But you know what? If you are not taking time for fun then you really need to consider what you are doing in your life. Chronic burnout can result from not taking breaks and being highly stressed. While your commitments to work, family, friends etc are important so is your commitment to yourself. Doing something fun does not have to be elaborate or take too much time, it can be as quick and simple as a 5 minute ocean swim on the way to work or reading a book while you eat your lunch.
Eating foods that are high in nutrients and in portions and intervals that support your health goals is key for stress management not to mention optimal health. But did you know that when it comes to stress, some foods have been shown to be extra helpful. While simple carbs (lollies) boost serotonin quickly complex carbs promote sustained serotonin release and can also help with balanced blood sugar levels. Additionally, foods high in vitamin C (oranges, capsicum), vitamin B (chicken), magnesium (spinach, dark chocolate), and omega 3 (salmon) all help with stressing less as does protein (eggs, meat) and fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut). See a Dietitian for more.
Sleep. Getting a good night sleep is essential to help manage the day to day stressors of life as well as the more challenging or unexpected situations. But it is difficult to get quality sleep when tossing and turning due to work demands, worries, relationship difficulties etc. Enter sleep hygiene. Establishing good sleep hygiene goes a long way to supporting sleep. While it may take some trials to work out exactly what works best for you, people commonly find benefit from having a cool (not freezing) bedroom, limiting alcohol, reading a book rather than watching TV, limiting or not using their phones or laptops an hour or two before bedtime, switching to non-caffeinated drinks after lunchtime, using lavender, and getting exercise and sun exposure during the day.
change your thoughts
Cognitive strategies can work to change your relationship with stress. How we evaluate and think about ourselves, others, and events has an impact on our mood and stress levels. Restructuring or modifying our unhelpful thoughts is one way to support health and reduce stress. Cognitive restructuring works to first gather evidence about a thought, recognise how the thought may be misinterpreted or distorted, and replacing the thought with a realistic or alternative thought. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is one style (or modality) of psychological therapy that can help with stress management.
Establishing a supportive social network can help with stress even if you are introverted and prefer to be alone. You absolutely do not have to be a social butterfly to benefit from social connectedness. Formal (organised groups or professional networks) and informal (friends and family) social support can reduce stress and assist with wellbeing by providing emotional (affirming your worth, validating feelings), tangible (cooking your dinner, minding your pets), and informational (offering advice, sharing resources) support.
Living in the present moment as much as possible rather than living in the past (which can elicit depressive symptoms) or in the future (which can elicit anxiety symptoms) promotes connectedness and contentedness. Mindful practices can include meditation, visualisation, focusing on the senses, non-judgemental thinking, and intentional breathing to help support responsiveness rather than reactiveness, emotional regulation, awareness, and acceptance. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are two psychological interventions that have mindfulness at their core.
Consider what you are consuming in terms of what you watch on the TV, who you follow on social media, the articles you read in the newspaper or digital news, what you listen to on the radio, and the people you surround yourself with. Exposure to doom and gloom messages (rising cost of living, human rights abuse, pandemic, unemployment, war, health crisis, floods, fires, toxic air, lack of food, etc), other peoples highlight reel rather than their reality, or toxic positivity can create increased stress due to eliciting worries, social comparison, distorted thinking patterns, social pressures, fatigue, and so forth. If certain social media accounts, television shows, etc are unhelpful or hurtful to your mental wellbeing and elicit stressful, you may want to take a break, unfollow, or switch off.
This is our big list of stress reduction strategies and considerations. If you need a quick strategy you can choose something from our on-the-spot list, if you have more time you can consider a strategy from our a little more time list, while if you want to make lifestyle changes you can incorporate ideas from our lifestyle list. Ultimately, a range of strategies is what we think will be beneficial.
Remember, stress reduction strategies will not eliminate stress and some stress is normal and actually helps optimal functioning. Strategies also may not address the cause of stress.
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