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When anxious thoughts pop up, use these strategies to help set them free
Day-to-day stress is inevitable. Someone you love gets sick and you can’t sleep from worry. Or you’re planning a special anniversary surprise and your mind keeps racing. A flat tire puts you over the edge.
All of these emotions are completely normal. What’s not normal, however, is allowing yourself to remain in panic mode.
That’s because holding in too much stress without a release valve is unhealthy for your body and mind. Worry that isn’t managed is called chronic stress. Chronic stress isn’t just in your mind, and it has a very real physical impact. It’s related to heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure, according to the American Psychological Association.
Fortunately, you can use a number of proven strategies to help ease your mind.
Stress Buster #1: Take a Stroll
Even if it’s a short one. Studies show that as little as 20 to 30 minutes of moderate daily activity offers many benefits for the mind.
The endorphin rush you get from exercise can help lift your mood, manage stress and enhance your problem-solving ability, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH also confirms that exercise can be an effective treatment for people living with chronic pain, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
Don’t feel like walking today? Dive in for a swim or roll out your yoga mat — whatever physical activity sounds fun and fits easily into your schedule is the one to add to your stress-management toolbox.
Stress Buster #2: Take a Deep Breath
While it might sound silly, paying attention to your breathing is an effective way to rein in stress and relax, Harvard Medical School research suggests.
If you can carve out a 10-minute break in your day, try this deep-breathing exercise:
- Find a comfortable spot to sit.
- Put your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap (or lie down if you’re more comfortable that way).
- Close your eyes and imagine a calm, peaceful place.
- Hold that picture in your mind.
- Inhale slowly and deeply.
- Exhale the same way.
- Continue the slow breathing for 10 minutes — more if you can spare the time.
Stress Buster #3: Put Your Worries on Paper
“Writing can help you sort through thoughts and emotions you never even knew you had,” says Rebecca Lee, a New York City-based registered nurse.
Journaling may reduce anxiety by helping you identify stressors and plot steps to resolve them. The best part about journaling? “There are no rules,” says Lee. “It just provides a creative way to express your thoughts and emotions.”
Stress Buster #4: Pet a Pooch
We don’t need scientific studies to validate the stress-relieving value of playing with our furry friends — but there is plenty of research nonetheless.
A 2017 study in Scientific Reports, for example, found that owning a dog is linked to a longer life. Researchers in Sweden tracked 3.4 million adults who had no known history of heart problems at the beginning of the 12-year study. They found that dog owners had a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, as well as a lower risk of death from other causes, compared to people who didn’t own a dog.
The American Heart Association (AHA) says that pet ownership can lower stress indicators, such as high blood pressure or elevated heart rate.
Fear and anxiety also decline when pets enter the picture, reports Frontiers of Psychology. Playing fetch with your pup or curling up with your cat triggers the release of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin.
Dogs are an especially great choice, as they encourage regular exercise through daily walks.
Stress Buster #5: Phone a Friend
One thing that might be stressful right now is the coronavirus outbreak and its related social-distancing guidelines. While the recommendations are a good thing for your physical health, your mental health has likely taken a hit.
That’s because social isolation has been linked to many poor health outcomes, one of which is faster cognitive decline, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Even if you can’t meet up with a friend for lunch or hang out with your family, you can still get in those all-important connections with a phone call or video chat.
“Companionship comes in many forms,” says clinical psychologist Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D., of Harborside Wellbeing in North Carolina.
Once you have your pal on the line, remember to laugh. Recount some funny memories or trade lines from your favorite sitcoms. Humor has been shown to decrease stress, and laughter itself has been linked to greater feelings of emotional well-being and life satisfaction, according to the NIH.
Stress Buster #6: Set a New Happiness Target
Woulda, coulda, shoulda: As we get older, worrying about the things we never accomplished in life can trigger anxiety and sadness, says Prior.
Don’t go there. Even if you don’t have the means to fulfill a big goal, Prior recommends exploring more modest variations of your dreams. If your grand plan to travel across Europe is out of the question, for example, you can still tap into that idea by planning fun getaways within driving distance.
“If you woke up this morning, then you have been given the opportunity to accomplish another goal or dream,” says Prior.
Stress Buster #7: Park Yourself Under a Tree
Or by the beach. Or in the middle of a botanical garden.
Surrounding yourself with fresh air and greenery reduces levels of your body’s stress hormone, cortisol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That, in turn, helps ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Even city dwellers can find ways to soak in the benefits of a little nature time by seeking out parks and other hidden green spots. “Hiking under trees, walking through parks or by bodies of water, and windowsill gardening are also beneficial,” notes Lee.
Stress Buster #8: Relax Your Muscles
One telltale sign you’re holding in stress: stiff, achy muscles.
If you don’t have time for a full stretch session or a massage, you may find quick relief with this simple control-and-release exercise that can calm your mind and reveal where you tend to hold tension in your body.
- Kick off your shoes and get comfortable.
- Take some slow, deep breaths and just relax for a minute or two.
- Focus your attention on your right foot. Slowly tense the muscles as tightly as you can. Hold the squeeze for a count of 10.
- Relax your foot and continue breathing deeply. Concentrate on how it feels as the tension drifts out.
- Direct your attention to your left foot. Do the same thing, tensing the muscles for 10 seconds, then releasing.
- Work your way up to your face muscles, focusing on one muscle group at a time.
It might seem a little awkward at first, but after a few go-rounds this exercise can start to become second nature.