20 Easy Ways to De-Stress and Relax

http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/

Full moon and bonsai not required.

Are you stressed out?

I know, I know – stupid question. Everyone’s stressed out. It’s just a condition of modern life. We all have pressure from work, family, finances, health concerns and a million other things. There aren’t really many good options for escaping it.

The problem is being stressed out all the time can literally kill you or at least set in motion changes that can bring about a much earlier demise than would have otherwise been in your future. Health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes to acne can be caused or exacerbated by being too stressed out, and if you’re trying to lose weight the cortisol it floods your system with will make things exponentially more difficult for you. Being stressed is serious business.

So what can we do about it?

How to Fight and Relieve Stress

Everyone’s a little bit different, so some things will work better for some while others may need to try a different approach. The important thing is to find what works best for you and then to make time to do it every single day. Remember, if something’s important you should do it everyday. Relieving stress is extremely important, so don’t neglect it.

  1. Meditate – Meditation is number one on the list because it’s probably the most obvious and yet the most potentially intimidating if you’ve never done it. The key is to not think of meditation as some mystical or spiritual thing, it’s just exercise for your brain. Exercise that has been shown to reduce stress, improve clarity of thought and train your mind to focus more easily. Some studies have shown that meditation even helps your brain build more grey matter to help you deal with stressful situations on a day to day basis.

    The easiest way to get started if you’re a beginner to meditation is to just set aside five minutes to sit down and not think about anything. It’s harder than it sounds, but once you can sit five minutes with no thoughts popping into your head, try for ten, then for fifteen and so on. Guess what? You’re meditating!

  2. Read – As little as six minutes of reading has been shown to cause significant reductions in saliva cortisol levels – that means a reduction in stress. The studies in question used fiction, so the jury’s still out as to whether curling up with a technical manual is going to help you much.

    I know my preference for de-stressing is a good work of fiction anyway. Few things offer the kind of imagination powered escapism that a good book has inside of it. Don’t think you can half-ass it and de-stress with TV either, with the exception of comedy shows TV increased stress levels on average so ditch your TV.

  3. Listen to Music – Music is extremely therapeutic. The trick is in finding the right kind of music for you. There have been studies on the calming effect of classical music, so if you’re not sure you can always turn to that to unrustle your jimmies.

    Now while I personally do enjoy classical music, I’ve found I de-stress equally well to all the 90s music I group on. Well, almost all of it anyway. The point is there are even some thrashing, screaming Finntroll songs that I’ve found I can sit down and close my eyes and listen to that calm me down – find what music works for you then spend a little bit of time each day or night listening to it. Really listen to it too, don’t do anything else or try to multitask, just listen and relax.

  4. Have Some Pet Time – Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, spending time with pets not only helps de-stress you but also helps lower your blood pressure. Spending some quality time just loving on your pet of choice is so effective they even use them in some nursing homes and hospitals to help improve the condition of residents and long term patients.

    If you have your own pet, take some time each day to just sit and pet them or play with them. If you don’t have any pets see if you can hang out with a friend or family member who does or volunteer every now and again at a rescue or animal shelter.

  5. Scream Profanity – If a lot of your stress is manifesting itself as anger and tension, go scream some curse words at the top of your lungs until you feel better. Screaming is a really good way to vent and let off pent up frustrations, and the use of profanity actually helps us deal with physical pain better – so it stands to reason that it would help deal with stress as well. Aside from being cathartic, it’s usually pretty fun.

    On a side note, if you get hung up over the use of profanity, grow up and deal with it. They’re just words. It’s the intent that’s important, and if your intent is to blow off steam and relax as opposed to intending to harm someone else then there’s nothing that makes any of those words ‘bad’.

  6. Smile and Laugh – Even if you don’t have anything to smile about, forcing yourself to think about something that makes you smile actually triggers a feedback loop that releases the feel good chemicals in your brain that cause you to smile. That means forcing yourself to smile can physically make you feel happier.

    The same thing happens when we laugh. Every time we laugh our brains are triggered to release the chemical cocktail that makes us happy and want to laugh more. You can either force laughter by trying to think of something funny, or just go out and find something funny to watch or listen to. Spend 5 minutes every night watching something hilarious on YouTube or find a funny show you really love and save them for when you’re particularly stressed. Laughter not only improves your mood, but it also lowers blood pressure – so you get a double benefit.

  7. Go Play – Just because you’re a grown up doesn’t mean you have to act old. Playing is not only an inherent part of being human, it’s an inherent part of being a mammal. Getting out and playing not only gives you something to focus on other than the reasons you’re stressed out, it also gives you an outlet to work out some of your energy and get a little bit of exercise. It’s also a social activity, and being around other people you’re comfortable with is another good way to help lower stress. Make it an outdoor game and you even get the mood elevating effect of Vitamin D exposure.

    Grab some friends, or your kids or even your dog and go find a game to play. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, it can be as structured as an organized game of football or as irreverent as a game of chase. The point is just to go have fun and forget about everything that’s troubling you. Make it an actual physical game though, video games don’t count.

  8. Have Sex – If you’re reading this, sorry Mom. The fact is though that sex is an excellent way to relive stress. I’m reasonably certain I don’t have to explain in too great of detail why that’s the case. It should be noted though that this tactic is one best taken when you’re in a committed relationship as trying to use sex as a stress reliever outside of a committed relationship can increase the probability of creating situations which will lead to much more stress down the road.

  9. Workout – A good workout acts as stress relief in many of the same ways good sex does – the physical exertion not only encourages your body to release all the pleasant chemicals and hormones that make you feel calm, serene and happy, it also allows you to physically vent any pent up frustration and anger that may be adding to your stress levels. Exercise pair extremely well with meditation as vigorous physical activity also leads to changes in your brain that improve your clarity of thought.

    Really you should be on a structured fitness routine anyway, but if you aren’t on one or are strapped for time you can always make good use of a quick 5 minute morning bodyweight circuit There is no such thing as being too busy to work out – you have time to exercise – you just have to make it.

  10. Go for a Walk – Vitamin D is a natural mood elevator, and there are few better ways to get a little bit more Vitamin D than taking a nice relaxing stroll outside. Going for a nice walk is effective as a stress reliever for a variety of reasons, the physical activity encourages the release of pleasant brain chemicals, the exposure to sunlight provides an extra little does of Vitamin D and lastly a good long walk allows you time to reflect on the things that are stressing you and work through them.

    Thoreau (who penned an entire essay entitled Walking) wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements”. It’s that freedom from worldly engagements, the feeling of which I second, that provides so much needed relief from life’s stresses.

  11. Explore Nature – I’ll resist the urge to follow one Thoreau quote with another, or perhaps one from Emerson, but both would tell you that it’s extremely important for a person’s well being to spend some quality time immersed in nature. I’ll tell you the same thing – getting outside into the wilderness is a wonderfully calming experience and I think a lack of time truly enjoying nature leads to a great deal of the stress most people feel in their lives.

    Take an afternoon and head out to a park or the nearest woods and go for a stroll. Sit by a stream and listen to the birds or climb a tree and just hang out up there for a while. If you want, combine your exposure to nature with some of the other stress relieving tactics – exercise outside, read a book in a tree, or meditate on a log. Just be careful about number 8, depending on where you are that might lead to embarrassment and a night in jail.

  12. Call Home – I know, I know, you’re a big boy or girl. You don’t need your mommy. You might change your mind though once you see how much stress she can take off your shoulders. In a study on college aged girls researches found a ten minute call to their moms brought about a significant reduction in saliva cortisol. A quick call home to the folks may be just what you need to stop feeling like you’re going to rip all the hair out of your head.

    Of course, if you have a strained relationship with your parents this option may not be the best one for you. It goes without saying that you know your situation better than anyone, just don’t dismiss it as an option because you feel embarrassed.

  13. Eat a Small Piece of Dark Chocolate – A small piece. A small piece of dark chocolate can trigger all of the same good feelings as a round of hearty laughter or some good grins, as well as all the feel good chemicals that come along with it. Cocoa also has a positive effect on blood pressure and HDL levels, so there’s an added bonus there. The important thing is to not go overboard. A small piece of dark chocolate is good for you, an entire bag of dark chocolate is not good for you. Especially if you use your stress to justify tearing through one each night. Keep it in moderation.

  14. Vent to Someone – If screaming out profanity isn’t really your thing, you can always verbally vent to someone else. Being able to just unload on someone who cares and is patient enough to listen not only helps by providing a comforting social experience where you bond even more closely with a friend or loved one, but also allows you to openly examine what’s stressing you and get all of the internalized pressures off your chest.

    Sharing your burdens with someone willing to help you with them is a huge relief, but make sure to actually vent to someone willing to share your burdens. It can be even more disheartening to open up to someone about how stressed out you are only to have them react dismissively or negatively. You know which people in your life you can open up to, so pick the right one.

  15. Breathe – Breathing is an incredible physiological process. Deep calming breaths have a profound ability to calm the mind, slow down your heart rate and bring clarity of thought. It’s why a focus on deep breathing is such a key element to many forms of meditation. You don’t need to meditate to use breathing as a stress relief technique (although, seriously, you should try meditation), you just need to take a second to take a nice deep breath through your nose and out your mouth.

    Focus on breathing from your diaphragm. That means when you take a nice deep breath instead of your shoulders coming up, your belly should push out and down. This allows you to get a much bigger, deeper breath which means more oxygen. More oxygen means a happier, calmer and more focused brain. That means less stress.

  16. Get a Massage – Again, if I need to explain to you why this is a good option for how to de-stress, you are way too far gone for me to help. Go on out and treat yourself to a professional massage every now and then if you have to – some people swear by it. A better option in my opinion is to trade massages with your significant other. Not only are the massages a good way to relieve stress and increase intimacy, they tend to lead to another stress relief option I mentioned previously.

  17. Make a List of Positives – Being able to take what’s stressing you and get it out of your system, either verbally or through physical exertion, is a common thread running throughout many of these stress relieving tactics. That’s because it works. Another equally good option is to sit down and make a physical list of all the good or positive things in your life.

    There’s something psychologically powerful about making physical lists. While you can certainly type it, I really do think getting a pen and paper and writing by hand is a much more powerful exercise. Take some time and do it mindfully, write down as many good things in your life as you possibly can. By the end I guarantee you’ll feel a lot less stressed and a lot more grateful.

  18. Smell Something Really Good – Out of all the senses, scent is the most strongly linked to memory and emotional response in our brains. You can use this to your advantage by finding a particular scent that reminds you of something you love, be it home, the smell of your favorite flower or a special fragrance your significant other wears, and exposing yourself to it when you really need to relax.

    If you don’t have any smells ingrained in your mind as particularly calming or pleasant you can make one. Pick a unique scent, lavender works well and so does incense as they’re easily available and very unique. Once you have your scent every time you employ one of the other stress relieving techniques fill the room with it first. Before long just exposing yourself to the scent will trigger the same emotional response as the calming activities you normally do with it.

  19. Visualize Something Happy and Calming – While visualizations aren’t quite as powerful as scent for triggering an emotional or memory response, they’re still pretty strong. It’s why we employ visualizations to enhance our memories to encode a lot of new information very quickly.

    In this case, we want to use our visualizations to recall a happy or serene moment rather than to encode new information with a memory hook. Sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, take a nice deep breath and picture your happy place. I know it sounds cliched and silly, but it really does work.

  20. Stretch – Stretching is a good idea for a lot of reasons, but the one we’re concerned about here is the relaxing effect it has. Most people already stretch instinctively when they’re trying to relax. You can use the natural physiological response from stretching to lower your stress levels and increase your flexibility a little bit all at the same time.

    While I’m of the opinion you should already have a good flexibility routine in place, you don’t need one to use stretches to relax. Just set aside 5 to 10 minutes either right when you wake up, right after a workout (not before) or right before bed to do a couple easy stretches. If you want to get a little more advanced, try some nice slow yoga. (Though you should avoid hot yoga at all costs).

I’m certain there are lots more quick and effective ways to reduce stress, but these were the first ones to come to mind. If you can think of any others or have some that have worked particularly well for you in the past, share them in the comments! We’re all stressed out and I guarantee they’ll be appreciated.

Photo Credit: H.koppdelaney

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com