Being overly stressed out is bad for you. How bad? Well, really bad. Like, shave-years-off-your-life bad, cruelly-aging-you-inside-and-out bad. And yes, our collective stress is only getting worse. An American Psychological Association survey found that one out of five Americans reported feeling “extremely” stressed out.
While there’s no evidence to suggest that the world in which we inhabit is will get any less stressful anytime soon, you can feel heartened by the fact that stress can be managed in a variety of small and easy ways. Below are 30 techniques for fighting those gnarly stressed out feelings, suggested by experts, which are guaranteed to help you lighten your load.
1. Don’t Snooze—You’ll Lose
If you smack the snooze button first thing you’re starting your day stressed out. “For most of us, that’s counterproductive to waking refreshed,” says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and Technology. “People set their alarms to go off an hour in advance, and it wakes them every 10 minutes, fragmenting their sleep. It’s silly to chop up the last hour.”
The relationship between stress and sleep is reciprocal, Rosenberg says, and fatigue makes coping with even minor stresses harder. “You won’t think as clearly, and decisions will come slower,” he says. Instead, sleep in as late as you can manage, but allow yourself a 15-minute buffer. Then use those minutes to let your mind wander, instead of dozing off.”
2. Lace up and get out
Think of a brief morning run or strength circuit as rocket fuel to power you through the day. Researchers in Denmark found that people who exercise just two hours a week—that’s just 17 minutes a day—are 61 percent less likely to feel stressed out. “People who exercise prior to stressful encounters report lower spikes in blood pressure during the events because their blood vessels are relaxed,” says Rod Dishman, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia. Sweating before work can mean less sweating—and less feelings of being overly stressed out—once you’ve clocked in.
3. Make a list
Making a long list of stuff that you need to get done might seem stressful in the short term, but not having an agenda may end up being more costly down the line. “Having a lot to do creates a healthy sense of pressure to achieve more focus,” says Don Wetmore, J.D., founder of the Productivity Institute. Wetmore suggests over-planning your day by 50 percent.
“A project tends to expand with the time allocated to it,” he says. “Give yourself one thing to do, and it’ll take all day. But give yourself 12 things, and you’ll get nine done.”
4. Use delays and hiccups to your advantage
Sometimes things don’t work out how you imagine, and it’s enough to make you totally stressed out. “Stress is caused by expectations on one level and reality on the other,” says Wetmore. “When your expectations fall short of reality, you feel stress.” You can let that hiccup derail your day, or you can look at something like a delayed train or canceled flight as an opportunity to check off something on your list. “We all have a list of secondarily important things to take care of,” says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “Delays like these are a great time to make that call to your mother you’ve been putting off.”
5. Do workload triage
Not all the tasks ahead of you require the same amount of time and effort. So what should get done first? The little things that you can swat away in short order, or some heavy lifting? “If you can complete the task in two minutes or less, do it right away,” says Allen. If it’s a little more time-intensive, save it until you’ve had a chance to get urgent assignments out of the way. All the while, throw on Spotify and create a playlist. Researchers at the University of Windsor found that people who listened to their favorite music felt more positive and did better on tasks that required creative input.
6. Get comfortable with discomfort
Most of us think of anxiety as something to avoid, but it can actually fuel positive change—if you know how to use it. “Anxiety is a natural emotion that lives in the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” says Robert Rosen, Ph.D., founder of Healthy Companies International and author of Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success. “We need to reframe how we look at anxiety. It’s not something to run away from, but something that can be used as productive energy.”
7. Resist the urge to compare yourself
A preoccupation with comparing ourselves against our friends and rivals is often a losing proposition. “People who have a problem with anxiety get lost in judging themselves,” says Mel Schwartz, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Westport, Connecticut. Schwartz says we measure to create order in our lives, but by doing so, we lose our humanity. “The critical voice is enslaving,” he says. “To escape, you need to accept yourself and like who you are.”
8. Get comfortable with saying no
Although we don’t want to get a reputation for being less than a team player, agreeing to take on too much could be a recipe for disaster. “Don’t give a quick ‘yes’ to anything,” says Marty Seldman, Ph.D., author of Survival of the Savvy. “People always lowball the time a task will take. Suddenly you’re overcommitted.” Instead, practice the art of the “soft no,” says Seldman. “Say, ‘I don’t have time to commit to this, but let’s grab lunch and I’ll tell you what I’d do.” By approaching an ask like this, you’ll come across as supportive and keep your schedule realistic.
9. Don’t max out on caffeine
Caffeine is great for getting over the hump, but consume too much and you could elevate your stress levels and the hormones associated with them. Instead of coffee, try tea. In a British study, people who drank four cups of black tea throughout the day experienced a 47 percent decrease in cortisol, a hormone linked to stress.
10. Befriend Your Archnemesis
Having acrimony toward someone you work with is, to put it lightly, not ideal. Unless you’re a real masochist, you’ll probably avoid that person, detaching yourself from a situation that you wish would go away. No bueno. ”Avoidance adds to stress in the long run. It may lower stress initially, but eventually things left unattended catch up with you,” says Mario Alonso, Ph.D. “By facing problems and acting on them, you are taking control.
11. Minimize interruptions
According to a University of California study, an interruption costs you an average of 23 minutes before you return to the original task. In fact, the researchers say, temporarily cutting yourself off from e-mail can significantly reduce stress and hone your focus. Your best bet is to walk way for a bit. “Work somewhere else,” says Allen. “Sit in an empty conference room where you can disconnect, and people will have a harder time hunting you down. Changing your environment may be the best thing you can do.”
12. Don’t fuel stress with bad food
They call it comfort food, but the thought of heading into a meeting as you curse yourself for inhaling a giant cheeseburger and fries is the very antithesis of comfortable. When it comes to food, go with a lighter option. And although it’s good to control your carbs, don’t eliminate them completely. “Carbohydrates cause the brain to release the anti-anxiety elixir serotonin,” says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The Six Pillars of Nutrition. Roussell recommends combining whole grain, fiber-rich carbs—brown rice or beans, for example—with lean protein like turkey, shrimp, or a tri-tip steak. “The protein helps stabilize your blood sugar, ensuring that you cruise through the rest of the day with ample energy.”
13. Don’t sneak a cig
Quitting the butts was the No. 1 lifestyle change mentioned by every doctor and researcher we spoke with. But even casual smokers need to beware: Research shows that with the first cigarette of the day, heart rate will increase by 10 to 20 beats per minute. Blood pressure will go up 5 to 10 points. All this to say: if you’re a nicotine junky, you can expect to remain really, really stressed out.
14. Chat it out
Let’s face it: The daily grind can be an isolating and even dehumanizing experience at times. What’s more, studies show that social support is a key factor in reducing stress. When it comes to work pressure, simply sharing thoughts with a coworker will do the trick. In fact, researchers suggest the mere presence of a friendly face eases stress. In a study at the University of Tokyo, researchers found that rats given an electric shock had lower body temperatures and stress hormone levels when they were accompanied by another rat that didn’t get zapped. The rats that were shocked in solitary went crazy. If you give a rat’s ass about your stress levels, be ready with a smile.
15. Breathe through one nostril
It’s called the Nadishudhi alternate-nostril breathing method, and it has a profound and immediate effect on the body, says Kavita Chandwani, M.D., M.PH. She describes the technique: Hold your right nostril closed with your thumb; breathe in through your left nostril. Without letting out your breath, cover your left nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, then inhale through that nostril with the left nostril covered. Close your right nostril, and exhale through the left. Do this for one minute. The longer the breaths, the better. Shutting off one of the air passageways causes you to take longer, deeper breaths (it essentially forces you to belly-breathe), which calms nerves, slows heart rate, and reduces blood pressure.