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9 Ways to Manage Stress (Besides Meditation!)

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Stress management is an important part of being well, but it can often take a backburner to the usual wellness-oriented tips like eating well, working out, and taking your vitamins.  It’s such an important part of wellness that many of the strategies to manage stress coincide with the usual verbiage about how to be as healthy as possible, but there are some other ways to reduce stress we don’t usually spend a lot of time investigating.

If you talk to someone about managing stress, they will likely bring up meditation.  If you’re like me and haven’t mastered meditation, here are some practical strategies you can incorporate easily (because there’s nothing more stressful than realizing you’re not even able to adequately use the technique you’re trying to manage stress with in the first place!).  Here are 9 ways you can manage your stress and improve your wellness that don’t involve meditation:

Music

Listening to music is one of the fastest ways that you can reduce stress.  It’s easily accessible, and you don’t have to learn or remember any instructions for it.  Not all music is created equally though; listening to heavy metal will not likely reduce your heart rate as well as easy listening or smooth jazz.  Music is a great way to relieve stress because it’s highly individualized—there are some people who will find listening to scream metal more relaxing than classical.  Your favorite music might not be your body’s favorite, however.  Though, if it’s working for you and you feel the tension leaving your body, keep listening to that genre.  Most people will find that listening to calming music or nature sounds is the easiest way to push the reset button on their brains and bodies.

The effect of music was recently studied regarding reducing the stress after a heart attack.    Listening for 30 minutes a day reduced stress and promoted a more relaxed mood by a third. For that study, the researchers assessed what type of music relaxed each participant on an individual basis based on factors like pupil dilation or the narrowing of pupils which reflected if their sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) was calming down.

You could investigate the effects of different types of music on your heart rate in an at-home experiment to find which type of music helps your mind and body relax the most.

Being outdoors

It’s not really a surprise that being outside and doing outside activities like hiking, biking, or even just sitting under a tree are already ingrained in us as stress-relieving tools.  The science behind being outdoors is truly fascinating; take, for instance, the practice of “forest bathing.”

“Forest bathing” is the practice of finding a green space, park, or forest and exposing yourself to not only the open, fresh air but the colors all around you. A trial with young male adults spent 3 days and 2 nights in the forest, and their cortisol (stress hormone) levels were measured along with their pulse rate (both are markers for stress).  The analysis of their measured data found that the forest environment reduced the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response).  Based on the psychological tests administered after they returned from the forest experiment, the young adults had significantly higher scores of positive feelings and decreased negative feelings.

It can also be described as “green exercise,” and being outside gently exercising in a green space has been known to improve self-esteem and mood.

Being outside is also a great way to get out of your head and stop thinking and re-playing things over and over (also known as rumination).  A study found that just a 90-minute walk in nature reduces the activity in the brain region associated with mental illness—this same 90-minute walk in an urban environment did not reduce the neural activity whatsoever.

Recreation

Taking time to pursue leisurely activities and recreation is sorely overlooked in today’s fast-paced society.  We are primed to feel like if we aren’t being productive, we are being wasteful of our time.  However, taking time to engage in activities that are enjoyed for their sake alone is a powerful way to reduce stress.

Being active in social activities, hobbies, and taking time to vacation improve well-being on psychological and biological fronts.  It is associated with an improvement in physiological function, lower risk of disease, and a greater life span.

People who enjoy more leisure activities have greater life satisfaction, social support, life engagement, lower rates of mood imbalances, healthier blood pressure, lower BMI levels, better cortisol levels, and subjectively feel their bodies are physically functioning better.

Cooking (a.k.a. culinary arts therapy)

Cooking for yourself or your family can actually be a stress reliever—but some people find they don’t have the time or resources to enjoy it.

However, studies have shown that cooking is a psychosocial tool that can be used to reduce stress.  It’s being called “culinary arts therapy” in the counseling world, and it has some definite truth.  Aside from being able to create more nutritious meals, cooking or baking at home can offer a lot of benefits.  Cooking can engross someone to the point where they are unknowingly practicing mindfulness:  only focusing on the task at hand.  It’s hard to focus on everything else going on in your life when you’re working with measurements and timing components to a meal.  Multi-tasking during cooking requires the executive functions of your brain and can actually take your mind off other things as you cook.

Additionally, cooking is an act of creating.  You are creating something with a high reward (eating the delicious food), so you’re more likely to feel that it’s worth your time.  Cooking meals also takes pressure off feeling like you have no control or meal insecurity, which is why meal planning can take so much stress off a busy person’s mind.

The power of cooking has been applied to so-called “cooking interventions” where therapists invite their patients to cook meals in cooking environments with everything they need.  Sometimes people aren’t likely to feel that cooking is a stress reliever because they lack the tools, resources, or ingredients to truly enjoy the process.  Cooking is finding its place in many occupational therapy settings.

Creating

Whether you’re creating a meal, a piece of artwork, a craft, a poem, or a sewing project, if you’re trying to reduce your stress, it’s time well-spent.

Studies have shown that if you invest some time in creating something, you’ll find yourself feeling the positive effects in the following days.

Cleaning

This is perhaps the most misunderstood of all stress-reduction techniques.  Most people dread cleaning; but if you understand the psychology behind it, you might feel more motivated to complete those cleaning tasks you’ve been putting off.

Having a clean environment has been known to reduce low mood scores and improve feelings of restoration in your home environment—possibly even reducing your cortisol levels. Though you may be turning a blind eye to the pile of dishes or mail that’s built up on your foyer table, it’s definitely affecting your well-being.  Clutter is associated with psychological feelings of unfinished business and actually raises your cortisol levels, as demonstrated by this study.

In fact, people who live in extremely squalid conditions actually have decreased activity in the insular cortex and amygdala of their brain.  They often suffer from frontal lobe dysfunction.

Like the saying goes, as within, so without.  Spending time making sure your environment is tidy and clean can help your mental and emotional states while giving you a chance to burn some calories and raise your endorphin levels, creating both short-term and long-term effects on managing stress.

Exercise

A compiled list of stress-management techniques wouldn’t be complete without exercise, but it doesn’t have to mean exhaustive cross-fit workouts or waking up at 4 am to get all your steps in.

Exercising for mental health and relaxation changes your brain’s neurochemical levels.  Aerobic exercise is exercise which requires oxygen going to your muscles that you can sustain for long time periods, such as jogging, which may reduce adrenaline and cortisol.  You don’t have to focus only on aerobic exercise to get the effects; even yoga (while not strictly aerobic unless it’s power yoga) can be just as beneficial as aerobic exercises.

The reason you don’t have to focus on extreme exercise to gain its stress-reducing benefits is based on rhythm.  Moving large muscle groups, such as walking, creates a repetitive rhythm that can be especially soothing.  A 20-minute walk will reduce your stress levels as effectively as any sweat-it-out session on the elliptical can.

Breathing

The benefits of breathing to reduce stress can be practiced anywhere, at any time.  Though meditation uses breathing techniques, you don’t have to be good at meditation to reap the benefits of relaxing breathing techniques.

Belly-breathing, deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing is the type of breathing you should aim for.  It’s a type of integrative body-mind training that contracts the diaphragm and expands the belly.  This deep breathing makes both your inhale and exhale deeper and supplies more oxygen and blood gases to your system.

Breathing also changes your brain:  dedicated sessions of breathing significantly deactivate the limbic system (the region of the brain associated with emotions, memory, and reinforced behaviors), increases cortical thickness, reduces age-related gray matter decline, and much more.  Breathing practices may reduce cortisol levels after just 20 sessions.

Start with the 4-7-8 breathing technique, or the “relaxing breath” technique.  Begin by inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds.  You can repeat this as many times as you like or is necessary.

Sleep

Sleep and stress are closely intertwined.  If you have more of one than the other, the other suffers, and it creates a viscous cycle.  It goes beyond mere habits and stress keeping you up at night:  the brain chemicals that your body needs to activate to get to sleep are the same chemicals that stop your body from producing stress hormones.  So if you’re not sleeping well, your body doesn’t tell itself to turn off the stress hormones, and you keep producing the stress hormones.  This makes it harder for you to sleep on subsequent nights, and it just makes matters worse.  Your body even produces most of its stress hormones later in the day towards the early evening, which can set you on a pattern of not being able to unwind properly for sleep.

Some ways you can help yourself get a better night’s sleep include creating a schedule, turning off your phone or tv, using guided sleeping tracks, avoiding caffeine, and generally improving your sleep hygiene.  Sleep hygiene is anything related to the sleep, such as maybe your bedroom being painted red is too stimulating, or maybe you need to change the position of your bed so you don’t see the door and worry someone (or your pet) is going to come through it when you’re trying to unwind.

Choose soft textures, neutral colors, and create rituals for yourself that help your body and mind realize it’s time to sleep.  Set aside dedicated time to transition between being active for unwinding before you put pressure on yourself to be completely asleep by dimming the lights in your house, enforcing quiet time, and turning off your screens.

Remember to reduce your stress as much as you can, and if you have the time, look into meditation practices.  You can start using any of these 10 techniques right away to help your body and mind feel less stressed.

References

  1. Music as Medicine? 30 Minutes a Day Shows Benefits After Heart Attack.” American College of Cardiology Annual Scientific Session, 18 Mar. 2020, www.acc.org.
  2. Lee, J., et al. “Effect of Forest Bathing on Physiological and Psychological Responses in Young Japanese Male Subjects.” Public Health, vol. 125, no. 2, Feb. 2011, pp. 93–100., doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2010.09.005.
  3. Barton, J., and J. Pretty. “What Is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis.” Environ Sci Technol., vol. 44, no. 10, May 2010, pp. 3947–55., doi:10.1021/es903183r.
  4. Bratman, Gregory N., et al. “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 29 June 2015, doi:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
  5. Pressman, Sarah D et al. “Association of enjoyable leisure activities with psychological and physical well-being.” Psychosomatic medicine vol. 71,7 (2009): 725-32. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181ad7978
  6. Farmer, Nicole et al. “Psychosocial Benefits of Cooking Interventions: A Systematic Review.” Health education & behavior : the official publication of the Society for Public Health Education vol. 45,2 (2018): 167-180. doi:10.1177/1090198117736352
  7. Conner, Tamlin S., et al. “Everyday Creative Activity as a Path to Flourishing.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 13, no. 2, 17 Nov. 2016, pp. 181–189., doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1257049.
  8. Saxbe, DE, and R. Repetti. “No Place like Home: Home Tours Correlate with Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol.” Pers Soc Psychol Bull., vol. 36, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 71–83., doi:10.1177/0146167209352864.
  9. Gupta, M., et al. “Neurobiological Mediators of Squalor-Dwelling Behavior.” J Psychiatr Pract., vol. 23, no. 5, Sept. 2017, pp. 375–381., doi:10.1097/PRA.0000000000000253.
  10. Exercising to Relax.” Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax.
  11. Ma, Xiao et al. “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in psychologyvol. 8 874. 6 Jun. 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
  12. Fletcher, Jenna. “How to Use 4-7-8 Breathing for Anxiety.” Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324417#about.

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