“It’s all about finding the calm in the chaos” – Donna Karan
With the everyday hazards of job, family, love life, finances, and so many other things, stress relief is more necessary than ever.
Stress reduction is a major concern for us these days. Although we’re all aware of the dos and don’ts of stress and the best stress relieving activities to follow, we somehow fail to implement them in the face of stressful events.
That’s because most of us tend to look at this problem the wrong way. More specifically, instead of investing in healthy coping mechanisms, we focus heavily on avoiding stressors, hoping we’ll never have to deal with this problem.
With the risk of bursting your bubble, allow me to share the harsh truth – It’s impossible to avoid or eliminate stress.
No matter how rich, smart, healthy, or happy you might be, stress will always find its way into your day-to-day life. In other words, you will always come across events or situations that prove to be challenging to manage, and there’s simply no way around this.
Just as in the case of any other health-related issue, prevention is the best approach when it comes to keeping stress in check. In other words, you need to take an active stance and build resilience in the face of stressful events. Otherwise, chances are you might end up dealing with bigger problems such as anxiety, depression or panic attacks.
Before I move on to our carefully-selected list of best activities for stress relief, let’s go over some of the most modern and practical approaches to stress.Truth is, no matter how rich, smart, healthy, or happy you might be, stress will always find its way into your day-to-day life. Click To Tweet
Exercise, Exercise, and Exercise Some More
Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to achieve stress relief. In fact, this approach can help you both manage stress and prevent it.
But how exactly does exercise impact our stress levels?
To answer this question, first, we need to look at what stress is.
In a few words, stress is a state of physical and mental arousal. It’s what puts your mind and body on full alert. In theory, this state of alertness should help you tackle stressful situations successfully.
The only problem is that on many occasions, you tend to remain in this state of readiness for hours on end, feeling tired and worn out.
This is where exercise comes into play, allowing you to burn the extra energy and achieve a state of mental calm.
According to ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), indulging in physical activities such as jogging, weightlifting or any other form of exercise is vital for maintaining mental fitness and managing the stress in your life.
Don’t let stress burn you out ‘til exhaustion. Use that extra energy to burn some calories and stay in great shape.
The ‘Here and Now’ Movement
Ever since Jon Kabat-Zinn launched his groundbreaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), this middle-eastern-inspired approach has gained massive popularity. The reason for that is the incredibly positive effects that meditation can have on stress.
In fact, the evidence is overwhelming. Take this study on meditation programs for stress and well-being as an example. This systematic review was conducted using roughly 18.000 studies on meditation and mindfulness. As the authors concluded:
“meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.”
In broad lines:
Mindfulness is a practice and mental state you consciously choose to live in; to observe your emotions and thoughts, and to be in contact with your body. You can practice it in various ways, the most well-known method being meditation.
For me, this approach has proved to be extremely useful for managing anxiety and the stress that came with it. In other words, being mindful allowed me to take a break from that constant stream of worrying thoughts.
But the best part is that mindfulness – though it seems complicated – is ridiculously easy to practice. You don’t need years of practice to enjoy its benefits. You don’t even need to sit in God-knows-what position. All you have to do is focus on yourself (and surroundings) in a curious and non-judgmental manner.
If what you’ve read so far got you interested in mindfulness and meditation, you should know there are plenty of apps that can teach you the basics of this revolutionary approach to stress relief.
In fact, I’m going to share with you two of my favorite apps for meditation and mindfulness. But first, let’s talk about stress management in the digital era.
There’s an App for Everything. Even Stress!
Although many of us believe technology has given rise to new problems, there’s no denying that the digital era we’re living in has also brought tons of benefits. For example, technology allowed us to combine the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness with the accessibility of mobile apps.
When it comes to stress relief, current research examining the use of mobile smartphone apps for stress management suggests that apps which focus on evidence-based content, transparency, and functionality have the potential to supplement medical care effectively.
Right now, I want to show you two apps that I found extremely useful in managing stress and anxiety:
– #1 Headspace
The first one is called Headspace. This project was co-founded by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk. His philosophy is that ten mindful minutes each day is enough to help you regain serenity and keep stress in check.
The app is comprised of short audio scripts that teach you the basics of mindfulness through constant practice.
All you need to do is find a comfortable position, put on your headphones, and enjoy 10 minutes of mindful awareness.
– #2 Calm
The second one is Calm, and as the name suggests, this app can help you reach a state of mental calm and tranquility.
What I love about this app is that you can choose the ‘Scenario’ (e.g., Mountain Lake, Fireplace, Thunderstorm, and many more) in which you want to meditate your stress away.
On top of that, the app also offers sleep stories to help you fall asleep calmly and effortlessly.
I suggest you try both (most of the features are FREE) and see which one is most helpful in managing stress. In fact, why not keep both apps!? For example, I use Headspace to get my ten mindful minutes and Calm before I go to bed.
And now … to our list …
The List of Stress Reducing Activities
#1 Look Around
Take some time off your busy schedule and go out into the wilderness. Look around and notice all the natural wonders that surround you. The majestic trees, the colorful flowers and everything that you love about nature.
This activity has soothing effects and often makes us realize how insignificant our problems are compared to the breathtaking beauty of nature.
According to a 2014 study on the influence of green environment on stress relief, a short visit to your local park, a nearby forest, or any other urban nature area can do wonders for your stress levels. Another surprising finding was that spending time in the city center (which is typically the busiest area of the city) leads to a decrease in positive feelings.
This goes to show that frequent nature breaks are a must if you want to keep stress in check.
#2 Look Inside
Although this strategy isn’t directly related to sight, it does employ your ability to use visual stimuli as a means of generating positive emotions that act as a buffer against stress.
Close your eyes and imagine anything that makes you happy. Anything. No matter how silly it may seem. Just let your mind wander wherever it pleases and enjoy the positive emotions that you experience. Notice how it changes your mood almost instantly. That’s because your brain can’t always tell the difference between reality and fiction. If you choose to ‘infuse’ it with positive imagery, it will generate positive emotions.
The fact that your brain can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality can be a blessing or a curse. It all comes down to how you use this technique. Or, better said, how often you use it. If you spend too much time daydreaming your problems away, you might end up losing touch with reality. In other words, daydreaming becomes an escape route, rather than a strategy for stress relief.
#3 Listen to Music
Music is ideal for stress relief. Take a break from the daily hassles and spend some time listening to your favorite tunes. Play some soft music or any music that soothes you. Keep the volume moderate and allow yourself to flow with the ups and downs of the beats.
Countless studies have proved the positive effects of music on physical and mental health. For example, one 2015 study on music for stress reduction concluded that listening to music on a daily basis is a cheap and effective way to lower your stress levels.
In fact, music has such a powerful effect that it can even affect the endocrine and autonomic stress system. In case you didn’t know, these structures regulate the level of stress we experience in our daily hassles
Aside from validating music as an effective strategy for stress relief, this study has also revealed an interesting fact. It appears that when you listen with the specific purpose of ‘relaxing,’ music has an even greater positive effect on stress. To put it another way, the meaning that you attribute to a certain action will dictate its outcome. This goes to show that you’re more in control of your well-being than you imagined.Did You Know: Music has such a powerful effect that it can even affect the endocrine and autonomic stress system, which regulate the level of stress we experience on a daily basis! Click To Tweet
#4 Mindful Listening
This is something I love to do; just being aware of the everyday sounds. The ones that you are so habituated to. For example, the sound of your doorbell. Every time it buzzes, you become alert that there’s someone at the door and you act accordingly. Notice how these sounds are attached to your daily functions.
Not that it will wipe away all your stress immediately, but it will tell your consciousness that ‘nothing has changed.’
Once you finish reading this piece, go to the nearest window, open it, and listen to whatever sound comes through. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a busy city or a secluded forest.
There’s always something you can listen to; a sound that will anchor you in the present moment and provide a well-deserved break from the stress of everyday life.
Aromatherapy is a complementary remedy that promises to alleviate the symptoms of various physical or emotional problems. It involves the use of essential oils on the skin or olfactory system. From a scientific standpoint, the use of aromatherapy as a stress relief technique is somewhat debatable.
A meta-analysis published in 2014 investigating aromatherapy for stress-reduction on adults, revealed that aromatherapy doesn’t seem to have that much of a positive effect on your stress. As the authors put it:
“there is limited evidence suggesting that aroma inhalation may be effective in controlling stress.”
This conclusion put me in a difficult position. On the one hand, it’s difficult to ignore a conclusion derived from several studies, and on the other, I can’t disprove those who’ve found aromatherapy helpful.
This dilemma got me thinking. Maybe it’s not aromatherapy per se, but the act of immersing yourself in an olfactory experience that provides relief from stress. Which brings us to our next strategy …Could be the act of immersing yourself in an olfactory experience is the real reason behind why aromatherapy works really well on reducing stress for some people. Click To Tweet
#6 Mindful Smelling
Just like mindful listening, the purpose of this strategy is to help you take a break from stress by focusing on the ‘here and now.’ Nothing fancy about it. Just a simple yet effective trick to anchor yourself in the present moment and enjoy an olfactory experience.
Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose deeply. Do you notice any particular scent? Maybe there’s a room freshener somewhere on your desk or a vase of freshly-cut flowers. Or perhaps it’s just the smell of fresh air coming through the window. The scent doesn’t matter; your sense of awareness does!
What I like to do is spray a bit of my favorite perfume on my wrist and smell it whenever I feel the need to connect to the present moment and take a break from everyday stress.
#7 Healthy Eating
The word ‘healthy eating’ has been thrown around a fair bit in recent years, especially in topics like ‘health’ and ‘well-being.’ But are there any “superfoods” that are guaranteed to help you manage stress?
Based on the research I did, there isn’t a significant body of scientific literature indicating that certain foods might have a direct positive effect on stress. What science does confirm is that you should avoid substances such as caffeine or alcohol during stressful situations.
That annoying and exhausting restlessness associated with stress is nothing more than the body’s way of ‘kicking it into high gear’ and preparing for a ‘tough’ situation. This means that having a coffee or energy drink will most likely make you feel more restless and agitated.
What science does confirm is that stress can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Since food is often a source of pleasure, you might be tempted to use it as a way to ‘cover’ the discomfort associated with stress. I’m sure many of us enjoy sitting in front of the TV with a large tub of ice cream after a stressful day at the office. Unfortunately, this habit prevents you from seeking healthy ways to relieve stress. Why would you try a different strategy when you’ve already found something so ‘comfortable’ and enjoyable!?
In a nutshell, healthy eating doesn’t necessarily help you get rid of stress, but it does help you prevent it from becoming worse than it already is.
It’s more about how you eat, rather than what you eat!
#8 Cheat Meals
It might sound a bit crazy but ‘cheat meals’ are a form of mindful eating. Why? Because unlike a random impulse-based culinary feast, a cheat meal is something you plan and are entirely in control of. In other words, you are fully aware of the process.
Choose any day of the week when you allow yourself to eat whatever you want. Go out and grab the foods you like. Keep the calorie count aside and just bring out the foodie in you. It is fun and revitalizing. But remember, JUST ONE DAY.
As for the rest of your meals, make sure you always know exactly why you want to eat before you start eating. Is it because you’re hungry or because you want to cope with a stressful situation?
#9 Stress Balls, Cubes, and Fidget Spinners
Although they may seem like children’s toys, fidget spinners and cubes can have a surprisingly positive effect on your stress levels. By keeping your mind (and hands) busy, you can maintain your focus by distracting yourself from nervousness associated with stress.
#10 Making Love
We know that constant exposure to stress can suppress neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the area of your brain responsible for anxiety. Long story short, stress can quickly lead to anxiety and depression. So, what can you do to prevent this
According to a study published in PlosOne, you should have sex on a regular basis. Why? Because sex, like any other rewarding experience, promotes neurogenesis thus keeping your brain in tip-top shape. A healthier brain is a resilient brain that withstands the harmful effects of stress.
A gentle touch from your significant other can do what no medicine can ever do. From a pat on the shoulder to a hug or a gentle kiss, the power of touch can provide that much-needed stress relief. Be intimate with your partner and allow yourself to experience love both physically and mentally. You will be surprised to see how quickly this activity can uplift your mood.
#11 Relaxation Techniques
Over the last decades, researchers and mental health professionals have been experimenting with various techniques in hopes of discovering new ways to combat stress.
One of the most promising strategies for stress management is represented by relaxation techniques. From breathing exercises to progressive muscle relaxation, any activity that generates a state of calm is a viable solution for those of us find it difficult to handle everyday stress.
The beauty of most relaxation techniques is that you can use them anytime, anywhere. Plus, you don’t need extensive training to practice something as simple as equal breathing or deep breathing.
In a nutshell, yoga is an ancient Indian practice that involves physical movement, breathing techniques, and meditation. For thousands of years, Hindu monks have been using this practice to improve flexibility, reduce stress, and cultivate a general sense of well-being.
In recent years, yoga has received a lot of attention from researchers and healthcare professionals who believe this practice might be an excellent natural remedy for anxiety and stress and a viable complementary therapy.
In fact, according to a recent paper published in Health Psychology Review exploring stress reduction using yoga:
“yoga is increasingly used in clinical settings for a variety of mental and physical health issues, particularly stress-related illnesses and concerns, and has demonstrated promising efficacy.”
Although researchers have yet to determine how yoga alters the brain – and consequently the mind – the undeniable positive effect this practice has on our overall health makes it an excellent stress relieving activity.
Stress reduction is like a long drive on the highway. You just need to follow the rules, be alert, and enjoy the ride.
Remember that stress is 20% of what happens and 80% of how we respond to it. Regain control of your mind and body, and identify your inner strengths because that is where the answer to stress lies.
Try understanding the signals your body sends and follow your senses.
Never step back from asking for help and never try to mask your stress. It is easy to vent out stress through negative emotions like anger, grief, or irritability but that never solves the real problem.
Accept stress as part of everyday life and learn to manage it properly.
So, what do you think about our 12 stress relieving activities? Have you ever tried any of them? Did they help? Share your experience by leaving a comment below!
Clinical Psychologist, Licensed CBT Therapist.
I’m a Clinical Psychologist and a licensed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy practitioner. My work focuses mainly on strategies designed to manage and prevent the most common mental issues – anxiety, depression, and stress.
When I’m not busy with my therapeutic practice or other work-related activities, I enjoy going out for a jog or hit the nearby gym.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via LinkedIn (link below), or through the Contact Us page.