1. Prep for tomorrow.
Nothing is more stressful than being unprepared. Get organized so you’re ready for the next day, taking a few minutes to make a to-do list and clean up before you leave. Knowing you’ve got everything covered means you’ll be less likely to fret about work in the evenings. When you come in the next morning, you’ll have the sense that you’re in control of the situation and can handle it. This sets a positive tone for the day, which can help you get more accomplished.
2. Arm yourself with healthy snacks.
According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, more women than men (one in three) turn to comfort food such as ice cream and cookies to ease stress. It’s common for women to deny themselves favorite foods because they’re trying to lose weight. But under stress, the urge for them becomes even stronger.
In fact, researchers at Montclair State University in New Jersey recently confirmed that dieters are more likely than non-dieters to overeat when under pressure, bingeing on the very same high-fat foods they normally try to avoid. The key is to not deprive yourself. Keep three or four healthy snacks on hand that you know you’ll probably want–peanuts, if you like salty; string cheese, if you crave protein; a small piece of chocolate for something sweet–so you aren’t tempted to binge.
3. Try a repeat performance.
Doing almost any routine, repetitive activity (like vacuuming, shredding paper or knitting), or reciting a word that represents how you wish you felt (such as calm) is a quick way to achieve a Zen-like state.
Studies show the effects lower blood pressure and slow heart rate and breathing. The crucial elements are to focus on a word, your breathing or a movement and to bring your attention back to your task if your mind wanders or negative thoughts intrude.
Or look to your faith for a mantra: A recent study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that repeating phrases with spiritual meanings helped participants cope with a range of problems, from anxiety to insomnia.
4. Use the proper hand washing technique.
When you’re under pressure, you’re more susceptible to cold viruses and other germs because your immune system is suppressed. Hand washing is your best defense. Lather up with soap and warm water for 10-20 seconds, or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday.
5. Turn on some tunes.
According to a recent study published in the British journal Heart, slow or meditative music is a proven stress buster, so set your dial to a soothing station during your commute.
And, if you’re stuck in a traffic jam, sneak in this quick exercise: Grab your steering wheel and clench the muscles in your fingers, arms, shoulders and back. Do this until your muscles begin to tremble (about 45 seconds), then release. You’ll produce a wave of relief in your upper neck and arms all the way down to your fingers. Just make sure your foot is on the brake when you let go of the wheel!
6. Use the ATM once.
Limiting your cash withdrawals to once a week is a quick, easy way to monitor your spending habits. Multiple trips to the ATM make it harder to track your money. If you put yourself on an allowance and pay cash for everything, you’re more aware of what you’re spending and more careful about what you buy.
And while thinking about your finances may be enough to send you over the edge, it turns out that getting them under control eases tension in the long run. (Money and work tied for first place as the leading sources of stress, according to an APA survey.)
When you have a weekend afternoon free, try this take-control move: Write everything down, so you can see exactly where you stand financially–what you owe, the amount of interest, your monthly income, your budget. Not facing what you’re up against creates even more stress, because it’s always in the back of your mind. But once you have the information down, you can begin setting concrete goals using real figures. And taking action will make you feel so much better.
7. Hit the pool!
A Swedish study published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that floating in water triggers the body’s relaxation response, helping lower stress-hormone levels. Even better, nearly 80 percent of the subjects showed improvements such as feeling less tense and depressed.
8. Give your thumbs a rest.
Thanks to e-mail, cell phones, and BlackBerrys, it seems like your job never ends. The increasingly blurry boundaries between work and home life leave us with less downtime than ever before (and in some cases, no downtime!). Advances in technology are a leading source of chronic stress, putting many of us in a constant state of alert. Not to mention the effect it has on family ties.
A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found a link between the use of cell phones and pagers at home and increased stress, which spills over into family life.
To make technology work for you, screen calls with caller ID or, better yet, limit your cell phone and e-mail use to working hours only. Can’t kick the BlackBerry habit? Set a regular time you’ll check it in the evening (say, after dinner), so you’re not constantly disrupting home life to keep tabs on work.
9. Recall a past success.
Taking five minutes to reflect on how you pulled through other stressful situations like your last breakup or when you switched jobs can help you reconnect with your resilient side.
In the moment, it may feel as though you’ll never get over your present problem, but when you look back, you realize that you felt similarly before and found a way to overcome it.
If you’re going through a divorce or recently lost a loved one, you also may want to seek out a support group: Research on grieving presented by the Center for the Advancement of Health in Washington, D.C., suggests that talking with peers is even more beneficial than one-on-one counseling in the initial months after a loss.
10. Do yoga asanas in your pajamas.
A simple spinal twist can help you get a better night’s sleep. It alleviates tension that’s built up in your lower back throughout the day. Sitting on your bed with legs crossed, place your right hand down on the bed behind you and rest your left hand on your right knee. Sit up straight and inhale for four to eight counts, lengthening your spine as you breathe. On your exhale, begin to twist toward your right hand (don’t strain your neck). Hold this position for four more full breaths, lengthening your spine on the inhales and deepening your twist on the exhales, if it feels comfortable. Repeat yoga asanas on opposite side.
11. Worry about one thing at a time.
Women worry more than men do. A study of 166 married couples who kept stress diaries for six weeks found that women feel stress more frequently than men because women tend to worry in a more global way.
Whereas a man might fret about something actual and specific—such as the fact that he’s just been passed over for a promotion—a woman will tend to worry abstractly about her job, her weight, plus the well-being of every member of her extended family. Keep your anxiety focused on real, immediate issues, and tune out imagined ones or those over which you have zero control, and you’ll automatically reduce stress overload.
12. Focus on your senses a few minutes a day.
For a few minutes a day, practice being mindful—focusing only on what’s going on in the present —whether it’s during your workout or taking a break from your work. Try taking a short walk and instead of thinking about what’s worrying you, pay attention to your senses—what you see, feel, hear, smell. This can make a huge difference in your emotional and physical well-being when done daily.
13. Talk about—or write out—what’s worrying you.
Writing or talking about the things that prey on you—in a diary, with friends, in a support group or even a home computer file—helps you feel less alone and helpless.
One study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at people who had either rheumatoid arthritis or asthma— conditions known to be stress-sensitive. One group chronicled in a perfunctory manner the things they did each day. The other group was asked to write daily about what it was like, including fears and pain, to have their disease. What researchers found: People who wrote at length about their feelings had far fewer episodes of their illness.
14. Be faithful to your workout routines, no matter how stressed or busy you are.
Working out is one of the most effective stress relievers. Researchers recently found that after spending 30 minutes on a treadmill, their subjects scored 25 percent lower on tests that measure anxiety and showed favorable changes in brain activity. If you only have time to do one thing for yourself, make it sticking to your workout routines. If you can’t hit the gym or trails, even a brisk 30-minute walk at lunch or getting up several times a day to stretch and walk around will help relieve stress.
15. Take time to be touched.
Experts haven’t figured out why having your body pressed and prodded works wonders, but they know that it does. Studies suggest massage can speed up weight gain in premature babies, improve lung function in asthmatics and boost immunity in men with HIV. If you can’t indulge in regular full-body massages, treat yourself to the occasional pedicure, manicure or facial—all nurturing, hands-on treats that offer some of the benefits of massage.
16. Speak a stress-free language.
So instead of using statements that catastrophize an incident, like “I’m a complete failure,” they might say to themselves, “I need to work on my backhand.” Or they’ll transfer blame to an external source. Rather than saying, “I really blew that presentation,” it’s, “That was a tough group to engage.”
Replace the word “expect” with “hope.” Expectations can only be used for those things over which you have the greatest personal control. You can expect to quench your thirst with a drink of water. You cannot expect to get the job you just interviewed for. You can hope to get it.
17. Don’t be so serious.
There’s nothing like anxiety to annihilate your sense of humor. It would follow, then, that it’s impossible to feel stressed when you’re hunched over in a fit of giggles. Studies have shown, in fact, that laughter not only relieves tension, but actually improves immune function. Swap jokes with your friends. Rent a funny movie. Stop taking things so seriously!
18. Once a day, get away.
When you’re having a hell of a day—good or bad—checking out for 10-15 minutes is revitalizing. Find a place where you can be alone (and definitely ditch the cell phone)—the attic, the bathroom, a quiet cafe, a big oak tree—and wipe the slate clean for a few minutes. Do whatever it is that relaxes you: Meditate, read a novel, sing or sip tea. It’s crucial to take just a few minutes everyday to de-stress. It’s not how much time you allot, but being consistent that’s important.
19. Identify at least one good thing that happened today.
It’s a scenario played out every evening all over the country: Come home from work and start venting to your spouse or roommate about your day. Instead of creating a negative atmosphere the minute you walk in the door, try starting off the evening with your family or friends by exchanging good news. Something good every day, you just need to recognize it.
20. Take the stress in and release it.
Literally embrace whatever it is you’re going through and then let it go. Try doing a tai chi exercise known as “embracing the tiger,” where you take your arms, spread them wide, put your hands together and then draw them—and everything around you—toward your navel, the center of your being. Doing this allows you to take the good with the bad. Then reverse your hands and push them out, releasing your tension. When you can control stress, it can no longer control you.
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