Being overly stressed out is bad for you. How bad? Well, really bad. Like, shave-years-off-your-life bad, cruelly-aging-you-inside-and-out bad. And yes, our collective stress is only getting worse. An American Psychological Association survey found that one out of five Americans reported feeling “extremely” stressed out.
While there’s no evidence to suggest that the world in which we inhabit is will get any less stressful anytime soon, you can feel heartened by the fact that stress can be managed in a variety of small and easy ways. Below are 30 techniques for fighting those gnarly stressed out feelings, suggested by experts, which are guaranteed to help you lighten your load. And for more great advice beating back your stress, it’s important to know the 20 Mistakes That Will Only Compound Your Stress.
Don’t Snooze—You’ll Lose
If you smack the snooze button first thing you’re starting your day stressed out. “For most of us, that’s counterproductive to waking refreshed,” says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and Technology. “People set their alarms to go off an hour in advance, and it wakes them every 10 minutes, fragmenting their sleep. It’s silly to chop up the last hour.”
The relationship between stress and sleep is reciprocal, Rosenberg says, and fatigue makes coping with even minor stresses harder. “You won’t think as clearly, and decisions will come slower,” he says. Instead, sleep in as late as you can manage, but allow yourself a 15-minute buffer. Then use those minutes to let your mind wander, instead of dozing off.” If you’re having trouble getting up in the morning consider the coffee nap. Our writer tried it every morning for a week and it changed his life.
Lace up and get out
Think of a brief morning run or strength circuit as rocket fuel to power you through the day. Researchers in Denmark found that people who exercise just two hours a week—that’s just 17 minutes a day—are 61 percent less likely to feel stressed out. “People who exercise prior to stressful encounters report lower spikes in blood pressure during the events because their blood vessels are relaxed,” says Rod Dishman, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia. Sweating before work can mean less sweating—and less feelings of being overly stressed out—once you’ve clocked in. Need inspiration? Try our exclusive How to Stay Lean for Life: The Workout.
Make a list
Making a long list of stuff that you need to get done might seem stressful in the short term, but not having an agenda may end up being more costly down the line. “Having a lot to do creates a healthy sense of pressure to achieve more focus,” says Don Wetmore, J.D., founder of the Productivity Institute. Wetmore suggests over-planning your day by 50 percent.
“A project tends to expand with the time allocated to it,” he says. “Give yourself one thing to do, and it’ll take all day. But give yourself 12 things, and you’ll get nine done.” And for more small ways to relieve stress, try Saying This One Word That Will Boost Your Mood by 25 Percent.
Use delays and hiccups to your advantage
Sometimes things don’t work out how you imagine, and it’s enough to make you totally stressed out. “Stress is caused by expectations on one level and reality on the other,” says Wetmore. “When your expectations fall short of reality, you feel stress.” You can let that hiccup derail your day, or you can look at something like a delayed train or canceled flight as an opportunity to check off something on your list. “We all have a list of secondarily important things to take care of,” says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “Delays like these are a great time to make that call to your mother you’ve been putting off.” For more secrets of business success, follow these 20 New Rules for Successful Entrepeneurs.
Do workload triage
Not all the tasks ahead of you require the same amount of time and effort. So what should get done first? The little things that you can swat away in short order, or some heavy lifting? “If you can complete the task in two minutes or less, do it right away,” says Allen. If it’s a little more time-intensive, save it until you’ve had a chance to get urgent assignments out of the way. All the while, throw on Spotify and create a playlist. Researchers at the University of Windsor found that people who listened to their favorite music felt more positive and did better on tasks that required creative input.
Get comfortable with discomfort
Most of us think of anxiety as something to avoid, but it can actually fuel positive change—if you know how to use it. “Anxiety is a natural emotion that lives in the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” says Robert Rosen, Ph.D., founder of Healthy Companies International and author of Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success. “We need to reframe how we look at anxiety. It’s not something to run away from, but something that can be used as productive energy.” That’s just one of these 25 Ways to be Happier Now!
Resist the urge to compare yourself
A preoccupation with comparing ourselves against our friends and rivals is often a losing proposition. “People who have a problem with anxiety get lost in judging themselves,” says Mel Schwartz, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Westport, Connecticut. Schwartz says we measure to create order in our lives, but by doing so, we lose our humanity. “The critical voice is enslaving,” he says. “To escape, you need to accept yourself and like who you are.”
Get comfortable with saying no
Although we don’t want to get a reputation for being less than a team player, agreeing to take on too much could be a recipe for disaster. “Don’t give a quick ‘yes’ to anything,” says Marty Seldman, Ph.D., author of Survival of the Savvy. “People always lowball the time a task will take. Suddenly you’re overcommitted.” Instead, practice the art of the “soft no,” says Seldman. “Say, ‘I don’t have time to commit to this, but let’s grab lunch and I’ll tell you what I’d do.” By approaching an ask like this, you’ll come across as supportive and keep your schedule realistic. While you’re at it, work these 8 Game-Changing Strategies Every Boss Should Know into your daily routine.
Don’t max out on caffeine
Caffeine is great for getting over the hump, but consume too much and you could elevate your stress levels and the hormones associated with them. Instead of coffee, try tea. In a British study, people who drank four cups of black tea throughout the day experienced a 47 percent decrease in cortisol, a hormone linked to stress.
Befriend Your Archnemesis
Having acrimony toward someone you work with is, to put it lightly, not ideal. Unless you’re a real masochist, you’ll probably avoid that person, detaching yourself from a situation that you wish would go away. No bueno. ”Avoidance adds to stress in the long run. It may lower stress initially, but eventually things left unattended catch up with you,” says Mario Alonso, Ph.D. “By facing problems and acting on them, you are taking control. That feeling of empowerment will reduce stress.” That’s just one of the 30 Life Skills Every Man Should Know.
According to a University of California study, an interruption costs you an average of 23 minutes before you return to the original task. In fact, the researchers say, temporarily cutting yourself off from e-mail can significantly reduce stress and hone your focus. Your best bet is to walk way for a bit. “Work somewhere else,” says Allen. “Sit in an empty conference room where you can disconnect, and people will have a harder time hunting you down. Changing your environment may be the best thing you can do.”
Don’t fuel stress with bad food
They call it comfort food, but the thought of heading into a meeting as you curse yourself for inhaling a giant cheeseburger and fries is the very antithesis of comfortable. When it comes to food, go with a lighter option. And although it’s good to control your carbs, don’t eliminate them completely. “Carbohydrates cause the brain to release the anti-anxiety elixir serotonin,” says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The Six Pillars of Nutrition. Roussell recommends combining whole grain, fiber-rich carbs—brown rice or beans, for example—with lean protein like turkey, shrimp, or a tri-tip steak. “The protein helps stabilize your blood sugar, ensuring that you cruise through the rest of the day with ample energy.” Those aren’t the only foods with surprising medicinal properties — stock your kitchen with these 20 Amazing Healing Foods!
Don’t sneak a cig
Quitting the butts was the No. 1 lifestyle change mentioned by every doctor and researcher we spoke with. But even casual smokers need to beware: Research shows that with the first cigarette of the day, heart rate will increase by 10 to 20 beats per minute. Blood pressure will go up 5 to 10 points. All this to say: if you’re a nicotine junky, you can expect to remain really, really stressed out.
Chat it out
Let’s face it: The daily grind can be an isolating and even dehumanizing experience at times. What’s more, studies show that social support is a key factor in reducing stress. When it comes to work pressure, simply sharing thoughts with a coworker will do the trick. In fact, researchers suggest the mere presence of a friendly face eases stress. In a study at the University of Tokyo, researchers found that rats given an electric shock had lower body temperatures and stress hormone levels when they were accompanied by another rat that didn’t get zapped. The rats that were shocked in solitary went crazy. If you give a rat’s ass about your stress levels, be ready with a smile. Find a reason to grin with these 25 Ways to be Happier Now!
Breathe through one nostril
It’s called the Nadishudhi alternate-nostril breathing method, and it has a profound and immediate effect on the body, says Kavita Chandwani, M.D., M.PH. She describes the technique: Hold your right nostril closed with your thumb; breathe in through your left nostril. Without letting out your breath, cover your left nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, then inhale through that nostril with the left nostril covered. Close your right nostril, and exhale through the left. Do this for one minute. The longer the breaths, the better. Shutting off one of the air passageways causes you to take longer, deeper breaths (it essentially forces you to belly-breathe), which calms nerves, slows heart rate, and reduces blood pressure.
The boss wants you to improve on your targets. But after crunching the numbers, you realize that what he’s asking for is going to be a reach. The competitor in you might be quick to rally—but check your enthusiasm. A more modest target might help you in the long run. “Manage expectations early on. That way you won’t overcommit, do tons of work and still wind up with disappointing results,” Seldman says. It’s better to exceed modest goals than to fall short of overly aggressive ones. People are happier with unexpected good news than with predictable success, say researchers at the University of Florida. Take stock of these 25 Life-Changing Lessons from Super-Successful Men.
Plan the week’s meals
After making decisions all day, the last thing you want to do is figure out what to eat on the fly. “Making decisions in the grocery store is incredibly stressful, especially when you’re unprepared and hungry,” says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert and the author of Making Work Work. So decide what’s for dinner in advance. First, pick one night of the week to do your shopping. (Wednesday is the least crowded, according to the National Supermarket Association.) Then create one list of essentials, such as eggs, milk and butter. Then make a second list of all the items you need for any actual cooking you or your family plans to do that week. “That’s the list you update and rotate,” Morgenstern says. “You can plan it in 15 minutes when you have the template set.” If you live in a place services by a grocery delivery company like FreshDirect, even better. Make use of the handy app and have the week’s sustenance waiting for you when you get home.
Transition from work you to home you
How you handle this transition is crucial. You can start by doing one thing to signal the end of the workday, subconsciously putting the conference calls, interminable meetings and email volleys to bed. Pour yourself a drink, put on some Miles Davis, do whatever brings you out of work mode. “One of my patients immediately changes clothes,” Mogel says. “It signals that ‘businessperson’ has retired for the evening and it’s time for family.” Being able to step back and do more things you love is only one of the 40 Best Things About Being in Your 40s!
Agree on who does what
Like most family-related issues, chores are a collaboration, one that revolves less around efficiency than emotion. “Begin with her,” says Audrey Nelson, Ph.D., coauthor of The Gender Communication Handbook. “Ask for her thoughts, feelings and ideas about how these chores should go. The more mutual and shared the decision-making process, the better.” Even if you each have established chores, there are times when one of you has more pressing tasks—extra work from the office, critical calls to make. So check in with her to see if there’s anything more she needs you to take on. “You might ask her which chore she hates the most,” says Nelson, “and trade with her every few weeks.”
If it feels good, do it
Once you get home, get out in your yard or some other greenery close by. In a recent study, researchers in England found a direct link between time spent in green space and reduced stress levels. (The Japanese call it “forest bathing.”) If you’re a city slicker or it’s too cold/hot/rainy/whatever out, take 15 minutes to do one thing you love instead. Play with the dog, watch YouTube clips of people falling over, whatever floats your boat. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that study participants who engaged in pleasurable activities showed reductions in blood pressure and cortisol levels. To make the most of every day, start checking off these incredible 50 Things You Must Do Before You Die.
Establish a place for everything
“Cleanup takes a fraction of the time if you have an organized infrastructure,” says Morgenstern. The more you can declutter, the better. “You might need three saucepans, not six,” she says. “When it’s clear where everything goes, no room should take longer than eight minutes to clean.”
Give and receive support
Use dinner prep time to ask your wife or spouse about their day. New research from Florida State University on more than 400 working couples found that men and women with supportive spouses concentrated better at work, were less likely to come home fatigued and reported more satisfaction with the amount of time they spent with their kids. To keep the home fires burning, check out our exclusive guide to the Secrets of the Best Relationships!
Designate a cleanup time
Find a weekly block: “Batch as many of your errands and chores into that hour or two,” Morgenstern says. “The routine compartmentalizes the chores, and they stop consuming your time. The routine frees you from stress.”
It would be tempting to turn off your brain after dinner’s done, the countertops are cleaned off and the kids are in bed, but before you do, take 15 minutes to think about tomorrow’s to-dos. Most people put that little detail off for morning, and it never works. “It’s the biggest productivity error of all,” Morgenstern says. “The day is already crashing down on you.” Plan tomorrow plus two: The three-day arc will keep you focused on the bigger picture, you’ll become better about delegating work, and you’ll instantly feel less stressed out. For more success tips from people who know, follow these 25 Things Rich People Always Do!
“Sex is a powerful stress-buster,” says Daniel Kirsch, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Stress. “It releases endorphins and induces deep relaxation.” First step? Wind down. Being stressed out stifles women’s orgasms and men’s erections. Suggest taking a shower together or offer her a massage, says Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., the author of Because It Feels Good. (And if you really want to kick things up a notch, consider trying out some of the 30 Best Sex Toys That Will Enhance Your Love Life.)
But if you’re still not in the mood, don’t sweat it. “Too many men have sex when they’re not really in the mood,” she says. “And then they have issues they freak out about, and that anxiety freaks them out the next time. Take a rain check. Women do it all the time—men can too.”
Get your 8 hours
Sound sleep allows the body to recuperate and more ably regulate blood pressure, says Ka-Kit Hui, M.D., a professor and the director of the Center for East-West Medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. With that in mind, follow the remaining tips to ensure that you give your stress absorbers a fighting chance of processing everything you put yourself through in a day. Getting enough sleep is only one of these 50 Ways to Look Younger in Your 50s.
Pre-game for sleepytime
Are you a creature of habit? You ought to be. By doing the same thing every night for at least an hour before bedtime, you program sleep triggers. These triggers could include writing in your sleep diary, having a cottage cheese snack or doing anything else on this list. Over time, your brain will begin to associate those things with bedtime and will fast-track you into slumber. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling less stressed out.
Look at your devices differently
Your late-night Netflix habit might make it more difficult to get a good night’s rest. According to recent research by the National Academy of Sciences, the blue light emitted from electronic devices like your computer, iPad, or LED television can impair the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, which negatively affects sleep quality and leads to your feeling stressed out. If you can’t kick your late-night tech habit altogether, download a free program called F.lux. Throughout the day, the software gradually changes light emissions from your electronic devices from blue to a warm red, a hue that minimizes blue light’s stimulating effects. Unfortunately, it can’t do the same for your television, so you’ll just have to flip that off. Or wear blu-blockers.
Institute a wakeup time and a bedtime
Sure, it’ll take some getting used to, but following a consistent sleep schedule reinforces the body’s sleep-wake cycle, promoting better shuteye. Similarly, setting your alarm clock to go off at the same time each day helps you sleep better too. According to Kansas State University psychologists, occasionally sleeping in—even just once a week—can reset your body’s internal clock to a different sleep cycle, making it more difficult to nod off after you’ve crawled into bed.
Stop trying to fall asleep
Do you ever “try” to make yourself hungry at lunchtime? Of course not. You’re either hungry or you’re not. It’s the same with sleep. To help eliminate those stressed out feelings, focus on the present. Quiet your mind by stretching your arms and legs. Focus on slow, purposeful movements. Repeat. It’s important to remind yourself that, while sleeping is the best way to rejuvenate body and mind, you can console with yourself with the idea that a concerted rest is better than tossing, turning and checking the clock. And try these 10 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight—they’ll help you get the best shuteye of your life.
(Top photo: Joshua Earle)