David Jaewon Oh
None of us are immune to stress, especially on or around race day, holidays, and other big events. While big solutions, like going on a vacation or getting a massage, might help you relax in these times, we often need a quick solution that doesn’t require a big financial commitment.
For that, we found out how to relieve stress fast, according to research and experts, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, frazzled, and/or under appreciated. Consider one or maybe all of them (we’ve all had that kind of day!) to chill out in the moment.
1. Take a Deep Breath
There’s a reason this advice is given so often: It works. Conscious, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn slows your heart rate, according to Henry Emmons, M.D., author of The Chemistry of Calm.
A plethora of research backs up the power of deep breathing, demonstrating its effects on the parasympathetic nervous system and psychological stress levels. And you can try several different breathing exercises to see what works for you, too.
2. Put Your Hand on Your Heart
Don’t save this super valuable tactic only for national anthem moments. This is a self-soothing action that your body recognizes as a calming technique, Emmons says. It also allows you to feel your heartbeat, another signal to your brain to slow down the panic.
3. Recall a De-Stress Success
One of the biggest parts of a high-pressure situation is feeling like you won’t get past it, according to Michelle Gielan, author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change. But you’ve done it before, and she suggests writing down a list of stressful situations you’ve conquered—from a huge presentation to overcoming an injury—as a quick reminder that you have the skills you need to power through. Turn back to this list when times feel tough.
4. Visualize Better Times
Your brain is wired to anticipate threats, says Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., author of Habits of a Happy Brain. Create a visualization exercise that’s geared toward de-escalation. For example, as stress ramps up, imagine that you just unlocked an escape room door. Or, if thoughts of your race have you in a stress spinal, picture yourself conquering hills, staying positive, and pushing through tough stretches—and crossing that finish line strong.
5. Tell Yourself It Will Be Okay
Sounds almost too simple, and yet, comforting yourself as you would a friend actually works, says Breuning. That’s because your brain believes what you tell it, she says. It’s the same tactic that keeps you running a few extra miles or jogging past your bonk point.
6. Practice Affirmations
Once you give yourself the initial pep-talk moment, follow it up with a major language change, suggests Jen Sincero, author of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. For example, instead of saying, “I’m so stressed by this deadline,” switch it to, “I’m excited to get past this deadline.”
The more you practice these simple positive switches in your internal dialogue, the more likely they become default mode.
7. Text One Friend
While it’s tempting to crowdsource your way out of stress, that may actually make you feel worse since you have to navigate an array of opinions, says Gielan. Instead, choose your best chill-out friend—the one who always talks you off the ledge the fastest—and send an SOS.
8. Get Mouthy
Many people, when they stress, get tension in the face and jaw, says Emmons. You can tell when that’s happening because you often press your tongue up to the roof of your mouth. Take a moment to peel it off, and your jaw will usually unclench as a result.
Being mindful of the physical symptoms of stress can also help you relax those tense muscles and feel better mentally and physically.
9. Carry a Chill-Out Item
Objects have the power that we assign to them, says Sincero. So, power up an everyday item that’s easily slipped into your pocket—maybe your kid’s Lego, or a small rock from your favorite running route, or a safety pin from your first race bib. Keep it handy and grab it when you’re getting frazzled. The point is to choose some kind of talisman that reminds you of what’s really important.
10. Skip, Jump, or Hop on One Leg
Basically, if it makes you feel like a kid and a little silly, you’ve got it right. Play can trigger positive neurochemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, according to Breuning. Even just a minute of child-like activity can cause a good-chemicals surge.
11. Change Your Password
File this under the “positive affirmation” tactic, but in a way your IT department will appreciate. Change your email or laptop password into something meaningful but still security-minded. For example, if this is your year for your best PR ever, try something like: 20PR&BeAst#18.c. Then, every time you type in your password, you have a little reminder of a positive in your life.
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12. Stand Up or Sit Down
Getting overwhelmed often happens when you’re in go-go-go mode, and your brain can start to spin out. Changing your body position is a helpful way to take a break, says Breuning. Even if it’s just for 30 seconds, your mind will recognize that something has changed, giving you an opportunity to take that deep breath and reset yourself. (Not to mention moving around more often throughout the day can have real benefits for your overall health!)
13. Turn on Some Tunes
A study published in JAMA Network Open suggests listening to music may lower stress levels and improve mood, especially if you perceive the music as “happy.”
What’s more, several studies have suggested that music you consider “relaxing” can have a direct effect on functions in in the body, including reducing levels of stress hormones in the body.
14. Try Alternate-Nostril Breathing
If a few deep breaths aren’t working, it’s time to get funky with this shortcut. First, exhale completely, then inhale deeply. On your next exhale, gently place an index finger against your right nostril to close it off. Inhale, then release that nostril and close off the left. Exhale, then inhale, through that side. Repeat until people move away from you on public transit.
15. Exhale Longer Than You Inhale
Sometimes called the 1:2 breathing practice, this is another nervous-system soother. Place a hand on your belly and take a few relaxed breaths, and then begin counting each inhale and exhale. Eventually, work up to exhaling for twice as long as your inhale.
16. Eat One Blueberry
Or a single bite of anything, really. Chew very, very slowly and notice the texture, advises New York-based registered dietitian, Vanessa Rissetto, RD. This mindful eating exercise helps bring you into the present more easily, she says, and that can de-frazzle you.
Bonus: This kind of chewing aids digestion, and having better digestion reduces your stress response.
17. Eavesdrop for a Moment
Just as mindful eating can cause you to let go a little more, mindful listening can also be helpful, says Emmons. Take a few seconds and sit back, and really listen to everything around you. Hey, when did those birds start singing?
18. Smell or Eat Something Lemony
Aromatherapy might sound woo woo, but many people find it works like a (non-magic) charm. And this one has some science behind it. A small study of 46 individuals, published in Explore suggests smelling lemon-scented essential oil can help reduce anxiety levels.
Another study, published in Nutrients, suggests lemon balm, eaten or in essential oil form, can improve mood and even cognitive performance. Other calming scents include lavender, clary sage, lemongrass, and jasmine.
19. Make a Specific Request
If there’s one thing your brain and the universe loves, it’s specifics, says Sincero. Saying you want to “be calm” is often too vague to be useful. Instead, she suggests something like, “I want to arrive at work feeling like this commute was a breeze, and that will let me start the check-in meeting like a hero.” Even if that doesn’t happen, your brain will respond as if it’s already occurring, Sincero says.
20. Stop Scrolling
Step away from social media for a bit, suggests Breuning. If your feed makes you feel energized, then keep up your digital consumption (though maybe take a more critical look at it to ensure it’s really making you feel good). But if it’s making you anxious or feeding your stress, go offline until you can come back refreshed. This is especially smart to do before a run and before bed.
21. Drink a Glass of Water
As if you need another reason to hydrate, drinking water can reduce your response to stress, according to Mithu Storoni, M.D., author of Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Building a More Resilient Brain and Life. That’s because even a bit of dehydration can raise levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for your fight-or flight response, she says.
22. Eat Some Protein
When your blood sugar gets low, your body responds by releasing stress hormones in an effort to get you back into balance. Cue the blood sugar surge, and even more stress. Stay on an even keel by eating regularly, and pay particular attention to including protein at every meal, since that can keep blood sugar steadier, advises Rissetto.
23. Pet an Animal
Note to employers: Letting your employees bring animals to work is a great way to keep your office on chill-out mode. But even if you can’t bring Peaches in as a colleague, petting a dog or cat has been shown to ease stress and get you feeling calmer fast.
24. Go Outside
All it takes is a 20-minute walk outside to reduce stress levels, according to one study published in Frontiers in Psychology. If you can’t get outdoors for one reason or another, research suggests even looking at photos of outdoor scenes can bring some level of de-stressing.
25. Run Up Some Stairs
Or down the hallway, or across the parking lot. Maybe do a few jumping jacks or squats. Just move, because exercise has tons of stress-lowering effects. Physical activity increases production of your feel-good endorphins, making you more relaxed.
26. Use a Mantra
Originally used as a word or sound meant to deepen meditation practice, “mantra” has evolved to be any statement that’s repeated frequently and has meaning for whomever is saying it—or even just thinking it. For example, that assurance of “I’m okay, everything will be fine” becomes a mantra when you repeat it strategically. Breuning says that your brain craves this kind of repetition and instruction.
Find the words that work best for you to bring you into the moment and feel good, then keep repeating them to yourself when you feel stress levels rise.
27. Dance It Out
This strategy is a multi-layer chill-out tactic, because it combines the stress relief of music, play, and physical activity. And research shows that getting up and dancing can help reduce anxiety and depression.
Plus, dancing itself has such beneficial effects on the brain that it’s now being used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease.
28. Say Thanks
Gratitude is hot these days as a stress reliever, and that’s no surprise. Research suggests showing gratitude led to higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression.
So say thanks, even if it’s to the universe for getting you that primo parking spot or to your barista for the perfect froth or to your body for getting you through five, 10, or 20 miles. And who knows, maybe saying thanks more often and doing a bunch of other items on this list will make you so chill that it will cut down on your need to de-stress in the first place.