30 Science-Backed Ways to Relax When You're Totally Stressed Out
These stress-relief tips backed by studies and scientists will help you out in minutes.
Stress is everywhere. Even in normal times, when we're not all huddled in our homes during lockdown, it's hiding in the dozens of unread emails in our inboxes, in the accusatory tone of our boss when he asks why those reports haven't been filed yet, and in the dirty pile of unwashed dishes in the sink. Throw in the worries associated with a global pandemic, and you can bet that our cortisol levels are at an all-time high.
But it doesn't mean you're doomed to a life of 24/7 anxiety. To help you out, we've compiled the most effective ways to de-stress when life becomes too much to handle. So relax, center yourself, and read on.
Smile—even if it's forced.
It sounds crazy, but when it comes to de-stressing, it's often helpful to fake it 'til you make it. In fact, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Psychological Science, forcing a fake smile actually helps reduce stress.
For the study, subjects were asked to plunge their hands into a bucket of ice water—some while smiling, and others reacting naturally. The researchers monitored the subjects' heart rates throughout the exercise and it turned out, those who smiled during the icy experiment had lower heart rates. What's more, the smilers reported less anxiety than those who showed neutral or distressed expressions.
Sit up straight.
One 2015 study published in the journal Health Psychology found that sitting upright in the face of stress can boost self-esteem and fend off further angst. The idea is based on the concept of "embodied cognition," which maintains that our bodies impact our emotions (and vice versa). So the next time you're stressed, remember to plant both feet on the ground, look straight ahead, straighten your back, and feel your shoulder blades pull back and down.
Sniff some flowers.
Taking a moment to stop and smell the roses might just be the thing that helps you de-stress. One 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that when people touched and smelled plants, they were subsequently less stressed and less anxious.
Or sniff a sweet-smelling essential oil.
If you really want to relax, then consider investing in a few essential oils. In a 2016 study from the University of Montana, researchers found that when college students were told to sniff essential oils—specifically chamomile, clary sage, or lavender—they reported lower levels of anxiety and stress and improvements in sleep quality and energy levels.
Watch a funny movie.
It might sound cliché, but laughter really is the best medicine when it comes to combatting stress. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that mirth actually can be effective at treating a range of maladies, stress among them. So next time you're feeling wound up, do yourself a favor and chuckle yourself back to calmness.
Being the president of the United States is a pretty stressful gig—and, according to an article in The Atlantic, many heads of state used drawing as a solution. "Dwight Eisenhower drew sturdy, 1950s images: tables, pencils, nuclear weapons. Herbert Hoover's scrawl provided the pattern for a line of rompers. Ronald Reagan dispensed cheery cartoons to aides," the article explains. So next time you're feeling stressed out, grab a pen and paper and see if the same technique works for you.
Take a quick bath.
One of the easiest ways to de-stress is in the tub. In a 2018 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers found that subjects who bathed for just 10 minutes a day for two weeks in hot water saw improved mental and emotional health.
Chew some gum.
Here's something to chew on: One 2009 study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that chewing gum helped reduce cortisol levels and perceived anxiety among study participants.
Do something kind for someone else.
When we're feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, many of us feel unable to allot time or energy to anyone else's problems. However, research has shown that the act of giving can activate the area of the brain associated with positive feelings, which will both lift your spirits and alleviate stress.
Whether you help someone lift a stroller up a flight of stairs or pay a toll for the person driving behind you, doing something good for someone else can go a long way in the fight against anxiety.
Hit the gym.
According to the Mayo Clinic, virtually any type of exercise can be an effective stress reliever. That's because breaking a sweat increases the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, which in turn improves your mood and takes your mind off of whatever it is that's stressing you out.
Listen to some soothing music.
Unsurprisingly, one of the easiest ways to de-stress is with some soothing music. One 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One found that when subjects were exposed to stress-inducing tests, listening to calming sounds like classical music and recorded rippling waters helped them keep their cortisol levels down and return to a state of equilibrium post-stressor.
Play with your pet.
Add stress relief to the list of benefits of owning a pet. A 2002 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that, when compared to people without pets, pet owners had overall lower heart rates and blood pressure levels, reacted less intensely in stressful situations, and were better able to recover following anxiety-inducing encounters.
Take a boxing class.
If you're desperate for a quick fix, consider taking your aggression out on a punching bag. Not only has boxing in the face of stress been shown to alleviate anxiety, but it's also a great total body workout!
Yoga has been shown countless times to have just as many mental health benefits as it does physical health benefits. And while most yoga practices are 60 to 90 minutes long, holding a single pose for a short period of time can yield great stress-busting benefits.
Don't forget to stretch!
A little bit of stretching goes a long way in the fight against stress. When researchers from Spain's Universidad de Zaragoza had subjects stretch for 10 minutes every day for three months in 2013, they found that they were less anxious, happier, and more flexible than those who didn't partake in stretch breaks. So even just a few minutes of stretching every day is enough to significantly soothe your stress.
Spend some time away from your phone.
Constant cellphone vibrations and email alerts keep us in fight-or-flight mode by stimulating bursts of adrenaline. Sure, adrenaline served our ancestors well when they ran into lions and tigers—but these days, it only serves to stress us out unnecessarily.
So, the next time you're feeling overly stressed, make sure to power down your phone for a little while. You may miss a few texts and Twitter alerts, but at the end of the day, your mental health and mood will thank you for the break.
Meditation is one of the greatest stress relief tools there is—and you needn't do it for hours on end to experience its mind-cooling benefits. According to a 2014 meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, mindfulness meditation can improve anxiety levels, improve mental health, and help with depression. Ready to meditate until you're feeling mellow? Download an app like Headspace, which will walk you through guided stress-busting meditation sessions.
Get it on.
Feeling stressed? Sex might just be the solution! "Sex is a powerful, powerful stress-buster," says Daniel Kirsch, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Stress. "It releases endorphins and induces deep relaxation."
Kiss your partner.
A faster way to de-stress that's just as fun as having sex? Kissing your partner. Research published in 2009 in the Western Journal of Communication found that locking lips unleashed chemicals that ease stress hormones in both sexes.
Write down the things you're grateful for.
Research has shown that taking a little time to be grateful for what you've got is a potent stress buster. One 2015 study published by the American Psychology Association looked at approximately 185 people with heart failure and found that being grateful and writing down feelings of gratitude helped them feel less anxious and less depressed.
"Journaling about gratitude is a reliable exercise," study author Paul Mills, Ph.D., said in a press release. "The more things you can identify, the more your perception of wellbeing begins to change."
Squeeze a stress ball.
Stress balls, fidget spinners, and other tactile playthings can recenter your drifting focus away from stressful thoughts and toward something more tangible. Plus, who doesn't love squeezing a squishy stress ball?
Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing—which encourages the full exchange of oxygen in the body—activates your body's calming parasympathetic response and lowers levels of inflammatory compounds linked to stress.
Do it right by pushing your belly out on your inhale and contracting it in when you exhale. (In other words, your stomach should rise when you breathe in and shrink when you breathe out.) Pro tip: Hold your hand on your stomach as you breathe to ensure you've nailed it.
Phone a friend.
A strong support system is one of the best weapons in the face of stress. In fact, a 2011 study in the journal Developmental Psychology found that simply being around one close friend kept subjects' cortisol levels down during stressful situations. If your bestie isn't in close range, simply giving them a call or shooting them a text should do the trick.
Get some sun.
Exposure to sunlight increases the brain's release of a hormone called serotonin, which is associated with boosting one's mood. If you don't have time to spend the entire afternoon in the park, even just taking a few minutes to walk outside and soak up some rays could turn your stressful day around.
Spend some time in nature.
In a 2018 study published in the journal Health & Place, researchers concluded that there is a direct link between time spent in green space and reduced stress levels. (The Japanese call it "forest bathing.") Our bodies were designed to be in and near green spaces, forests, or bodies of water, the researchers note, and that's why we find a bucolic milieu so agreeable.
Can't get to greenery in the middle of the day? Some research suggests that even looking at photos of nature can calm stressed minds.
Shout your favorite curse word.
When in doubt, swear your stress out. When researchers at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, asked a group of volunteers submerge their hands in freezing cold water in 2017, they found that using strong language helped participants keep their hands in for longer. The researchers' conclusion? Foul language can be a useful way to tolerate pain and duress.
Eat your greens.
One of the easiest (and healthiest!) ways to de-stress is with more fruits and veggies. A 2012 study from the University of Otago found that students who ate more fruits and vegetables also tended to feel calmer and happier—and conversely, those who didn't consume enough greens were more stressed.
Drink tea instead of coffee.
Highly caffeinated cups of coffee can give you much-needed energy boosts—but if you consume too much, you can end up elevating your stress levels and the hormones associated with them. So, instead of coffee, try tea. In a 2007 British study published in Psychopharmacology, people who drank black tea throughout the day experienced a 47 percent drop in their cortisol levels 50 minutes after performing stressful tasks compared to just a 27 percent drop in the placebo group who received fake tea.
Bust a move.
We know that both exercise and music are surefire ways to de-stress, so combining these into one activity—dancing—is a great way to calm down even faster.
Look at a happy photo.
With Facebook and Instagram, it's never been easier to find and enjoy images that you associate with your own happiness. So, next time you're feeling out of sorts and stressed out, revisit pictures from a great vacation, a fun wedding, or a night on the town, and remind yourself just how fun life can be. You'll be hard-pressed to stay stressed when you're staring at some of the best moments of your life!