Even for those who cultivate a positive mindset, a healthy balance and strong relationships, some amount of stress is an inevitable part of daily life. In addition to the minutiae of daily stressors—traffic, deadlines, house or car repairs—many people are weighed down by larger, more sweeping concerns like finances, healthcare, politics and the future of the nation. While eliminating stress altogether isn’t a realistic option in this day and age, there are constructive ways to manage it.
You’ve no doubt heard about—and probably tried—many of the more common, expected ways to deal with stress, like exercising, journaling, getting a massage or taking a relaxing bubble bath. But if these don’t do the trick, there are some other, more unconventional approaches that could help you lead a calmer, more content life.
Instead of fighting against stress, embracing it can be the quickest way to reduce its power. Charlene Rymsha, founder of Everyday Coherence, has practiced this for years.
When stress shows up, try saying, "Thanks for showing up right now," to send an uplifting message. "The trick is to actually feel gratitude for stress," says Rymsha. "It shakes up the central nervous system’s response, allowing for a reframe in both body and mind."
Then the final step, still cultivating this sense of gratitude, is to say, "I now ask you to leave," and perhaps even add a playful "bye!" Notice how your mind, body and energy shift. "It’s not about denying your stress, but rather building a new relationship with it," Rymsha notes. "Stress will come and go. The less you fight against it, the more willingly it will leave."
Focus on the physical senses.
When you find yourself stuck in a high-stress cycle, pay attention to all of the sensations your body is experiencing, rather than just your emotions.
"Sensations are things like tightness in your muscles, the weight of your body against the seat of your chair, clothes brushing across your skin or the texture of the floor under your feet," explains Sukie Baxter, a posture and movement specialist. "These touch points calm your nervous system and give it a sense of safety. Your body then sends signals to your brain to communicate that all is well, and your mind relaxes."
Schedule a worry time.
If you tend to get stressed out and anxious, it can be helpful to schedule a "worry time" when you give yourself permission to stew for a certain amount of time, suggests Alyssa Prete, L.M.H.C., L.P.C., who specializes in stress reduction, anxiety and depression.
For example, perhaps you could set your phone timer for 15 minutes before bed and take that time to think about all the stressful things in your life. "Scheduling this time in your day allows you to be more focused and present, because when the stress and worry starts creeping in, you can tell yourself you can worry about it later, but right now you need to get things done," says Prete.
Peel an orange.
This trick comes from Dr. Jennifer MacLeamy, psychologist and executive director at mental health facility Newport Academy. "Humans have used aromatherapy for its mental and physical benefits for thousands of years, and studies have shown that specific scents—citrus in particular—can lower stress and relieve anxiety," she notes.
Focus on gratitude.
When you’re struggling with stress, ask yourself what you can be grateful for in that moment, suggests yoga instructor and Ayurvedic coach Samantha Attard. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with a big work project you're spearheading, focus on expressing gratitude that you got promoted a few months ago, or that your boss is trusting you to lead this project. Or if you’re worried about the seating chart for your wedding, you can choose to be grateful that you're getting married, that you found such a great venue or that so many of your friends and family are excited to join you.
"By choosing gratitude for your stressor, you may realize that this stress is not all bad," says Attard. "There is a larger purpose at work, and you might even be excited to be experiencing it. Plus, when we feel gratitude, we turn down the adrenaline and cortisol running through our bodies, feeling instead a sense of well-being and calm."
Sing it out.
Singing (whether in the shower, in your car, or with others) has been shown to increase the feel-good chemicals dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol, says Dr. MacLeamy.
De-stress with superfoods.
Instead of reaching for a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips as a stress antidote, try incorporating some superfoods to help detoxify and combat stress. Dr. Will Cole, I.F.M.C.P., D.C., points out that stress levels are largely determined by levels of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone, which is secreted by the adrenal glands.
"Problems occur when cortisol rhythm reaches a state of imbalance, which we refer to as adrenal fatigue," Dr. Cole says. "Adrenal fatigue is actually a dysfunction of your brain’s communication with your adrenals."
Early research shows signs that some foods might be able to help re-balance the brain-adrenal connection. Oysters are packed with zinc, which boosts neurotransmitter function and eases stress. Avocados contain healthy fats that increase neurotransmitter function and enhance brain health, and coconut oil has medium-chain-triglycerides that are powerful brain boosters, says Dr. Cole.
Defuse stress with temperature.
Sheila D. Tucker, L.A.M.F.T. with Heart Mind & Soul Counseling, suggests applying a cold compress wrapped in a towel to the back of your neck—or even just a bag of veggies from the freezer—when you’re feeling stressed. "The cold sensation triggers or resets the parasympathetic nervous system," she explains. The same concept can be applied to warmth—try warming your hands around a warm cup of water or tea, taking a hot bath or snuggling under blankets, which will also trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.
Next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, watch a favorite video that’s guaranteed to make you giggle—or, even better, belly laugh. "Laughter releases dopamine, relieves the stress response and improves mood," Dr. MacLeamy notes. "Even the simple act of shaping your mouth into a tiny smile can send signals to your body to improve your mood, because the links between emotions and body language are actually bi-directional in nature."
By smiling or laughing for a few minutes, your mind can become convinced that your mood has changed and will respond by continuing to lift your emotions.
Kimberly Clay, lifestyle blogger at WhatSheSay.com, has found self-filtering to be an effective and healthy way to manage stress. "Filtering involves limiting external irritants or stressors in order to allow my internal level of stress to remain low," she explains. "The emphasis should be not only on what you keep out, but also on what you allow to enter into your environment."
Some examples of filtering might include reducing exposure to negative media, steering clear of other people's drama and decluttering your physical environment and surroundings.
"With filtering, when I am faced with stressful situations, I am much better able to control the level of internal stress I feel or experience, so I can better handle the situation and find a solution," she says.
Take up knitting.
If all else fails, grab some needles and get knitting! Studies have found that knitting is a great way to stitch away stress. According to one article, knitting and crocheting can reduce the resting heart rate, normalize blood pressure and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
If you’re still struggling after implementing these strategies, Dr. MacLeamy suggests reaching out to friends and loved ones. "Although you might instinctively want to isolate, hide away or manage things on your own during times of stress, forcing yourself to reach out to another human can break down that resistance and make you more likely to do so again in the future," she says. And that doesn’t mean you have to talk about your stress, she notes—simply reaching out to hear about a friend’s life or to connect about a non-stressful topic can break the negative cognitive cycle.