It can occasionally seem as if we're all permanently stressed out. Life's stresses are everywhere — we're all plagued by nightmares about student loans, nerve-racking life decisions, and why we said that awkward thing to the woman on the subway. Stress is such an epidemic that Sweden is introducing a six-hour work day to improve productivity and lower stress rates across the board. But if you're not lucky enough to live in Scandinavia, it may seem like there's no escape. Is it possible to structure our existences to avoid the many stressors that seem like they're ruining our lives?
Well, no. But there are methods — backed up by solid science — that can defuse the stress as it percolates through your body, before it has a chance to seriously damage your life and health. (And it can; don't underestimate the potential of stress to really lower your quality of life.) If you only have time to one thing a day to defuse your stressful lifestyle, that's fine! Luckily, there are enough proven stress-reduction techniques and methods out there that if even if you can only do one each day of the week, you can still make an impact on how much stress you experience. And best of all, these techniques rarely take up much time, energy, or money.
If you've been feeling floods of anxiety and stress lately, program these seven activities into your calendar for the next week. They've all got good science behind them, and you may start feeling better pretty quickly.
Monday: Deep Breathing
The American Institute of Stress touts the power of something called the "relaxation response," which slows down the body, clears the mind, and relaxes the muscles. The fundamental way to get yourself into this peaceful, healing space? Deep breathing.
The act of deep, controlled breathing has been shown by numerous scientific studies to be a seriously de-stressing activity for the body, even for those suffering from physical damage from chronic stress. Breathing in a deep, considered way controls the heart rate and slows the body's production of stress hormones like cortisol during stressful situations. The practice of deep breathing may sound a bit kooky, but science knows the truth: Deep breathing enhances brain growth, helps manage anxiety, and lowers your likelihood of re-entering a stressed state.
Tuesday: Cardio Exercise
Exercise's many stress-relief benefits are well-known. One in particular is obvious, and very helpful when you're feeling extra anxious: the energy you take out on the punching bag or burn off in Zumba class effectively uses up the "fight or flight" response in your brain, giving the hormones an effective exit strategy. Endorphin boosts are also excellent for stress management in the brain; the "happy chemical," as it's known, is a neurotransmitter that dampens our sensations of pain and stress.
Exercise is also, on a more psychological level, a distraction. Absorbing activities — particularly repetitive ones like swimming laps or following the movements of an instructor — have been shown to be very calming to the human mind. If possible, make your stress-busting cardio a set of the same movements repeated in sequence; you'll relax into the routine and the ritual.
Wednesday: Make Your Environment Greener
Architecture and interior design are increasingly acknowledging that greenery is an integral part of human happiness and offer many different benefits when people are consistently exposed to it, including stress relief. Studies have shown, pretty definitively, that being surrounded by greenery — even if it's just a potted plant or a view of a park from a window — makes workers happier, healthier, and less vulnerable to serious stress responses.
So your task for today is to introduce greenery into your everyday life and routine. Switch up your walk to work so that it goes past a green space; buy a potted plant for your desk; buy seeds to plant in a box on the windowsill. Unfortunately, cut flowers don't count; the stress-relief effect only seems to come from interacting with living nature.
Thursday: Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Full disclosure: One of my friends is a trained mindfulness instructor. But even if you think my endorsement of mindfulness meditation is biased, you can still check out the research that seems to indicate that the practice — which is based on an awareness of your body — has been shown to lower symptoms of anxiety and stress in practitioners.
This makes sense, as mindfulness is very much about banishing brooding and repetitive worrying thoughts (a frequent source of constant stress) in favor of a healthier mental practice focused on the present. The U.K.'s National Health Service now recommends it as a stress-relief practice, so sign up for a class or nab yourself an online tutorial and see how you feel about integrating it into your life.
Friday: Make Time To Be Outside
That set of "greenery" studies we looked at earlier also pointed to something fundamental about human nature: We really do just enjoy being outside. Even if the weather is horrible and grim, fresh air and natural surroundings are proven stress-busters — especially spending time in parks, forests, and other green-heavy spaces. We're not sure why, but it does seem like time with nature is a good remedy for a stressed lifestyle.
People who spend large portions of their day in natural areas or live in a leafy part of the world register lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that causes havoc in the body. Just seeking out a green space nearby and spending some time in it will give your body a natural come-down.
Saturday: Drink Green Tea
Tea — and green tea in particular — seems to be the beverage of choice if you need to calm yourself down. Green tea is incredibly full of antioxidants, which makes it great for your health, but it has other benefits, too. The tea is particularly rich in the chemical theanine, which has been proven by scientists to reduce the body's stress responses and relax us. It also makes us less likely to get stressed again after drinking it.
It also has a positive affect on one very specific stress-related problem: blood pressure. Studies have shown that green tea significantly reduces blood pressure in those suffering from high levels, so if your doctor's been warning you about that, you may want to get some green tea into your daily routine every day of the week, too.
Sunday: Have Sex
OK, so hopefully you haven't been waiting all week to do this one. But sex is one of the biggest natural stress reducers available to human beings. Even if you're feeling too stressed to contemplate it at first, studies have shown that sexual intimacy lowers blood pressure, increases endorphins, and enables the body to have a better response to stress thereafter. It's basically like putting on a suit of armour to deal with later stressful situates — and so it is worth considering getting busy with your partner when you're stressed out, even if the stress has you feeling less than sexy.
The pleasure pathways in the brain triggered by sex give us a kind of mental "reward" for doing something so fun — and that reward lowers our stress levels, according to a study from 2010. In fact, it's pretty comparable to eating sugary or carb-heavy food in terms of stress reduction; the wash of stress-free pleasure is the same. But sex obviously doesn't have the same health drawbacks as candy or pastries; so the next time you're freaking out because of stress, don't reach for the cookie jar — reach for green tea and your partner instead.
Images: Jake Melara/Unsplash, Giphy