Stress management is one of the most important parts of a successful health and fitness plan. Yet, it’s one of the last things people think about when they are trying to lose weight, improve their health or enhance their athletic performance.
“Stress truly can undermine even the best of diet and exercise plans,” says Rachel Fiske, a holistic nutritionist, certified personal trainer and advisor at Smart Healthy Living. “But we tend to place stress management and self-care pretty low on the to-do list, unfortunately.”
The thing is, keeping stress low can help you stay on track. For instance, when you’re less stressed, you’re less likely to fall prey to emotional eating, skip your workout or suffer sleepless nights.
Ahead, eight simple strategies for taking the pressure off in stressful situations:
Try this low-key form of biofeedback when you feel your stress levels rising. “Stop what you’re doing to take your pulse by placing your pointer and middle finger on the inside of your wrist,” says Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Baltimore Therapy Group. “Then, work to bring your pulse down by breathing in and out slowly.” After several breaths, you’ll start to feel a sense of calm.
“Being stressed because we’re anticipating all the different obstacles we will face in our future often means we are losing contact with the present moment,” explains therapist Karly Hoffman King,. One way to combat this is through a technique called “grounding,” which essentially means bringing your attention back to the here and now. “An easy way to do this is the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ technique,” King says. “Take a moment to notice and describe five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can physically feel, two you can smell and one you can taste.” Try it, and you’ll likely feel like you can tackle what’s ahead in the present moment.
“Doing some simple stretches is a great way to reduce stress and feel better in a short amount of time,” says Austin Martinez, a certified strength and conditioning coach and director of education for StretchLab. Martinez recommends these two, which are discreet enough for the office:
- Neck Stretch: Look forward and bring your hands behind your back. Slowly move your ear toward your shoulder. Breathe deeply, hold for 30–60 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
- Back Release: Sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. Keep your toes pointing upward and rest your arms by your sides or on your lap. Relax your back and neck and let your head and chest fall forward. Breathe deeply, hold for 60 seconds, then relax.
This one works best right before bed, but can be done any time of day to blow off some steam. “Take the time to write a short letter about anything that stressed you out during the day,” explains Brittany Ferri, an occupational therapist and author. “Then either tear it up into pieces and toss in the trash or, for a more cleansing way to dispose, burn the letter (safely, of course).”
The benefits of forest bathing for stress reduction are well-documented, but it’s not always possible to get outside in a moment of stress. “If you don’t have time to take a walk in the woods, buy a few indoor plants to surround your desk or workout space,” suggests Tom Kassan, a physical therapist at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers. “Plants like aloe, rubber trees, snake plants and spider plants all naturally remove toxins from the air and make the air you breathe cleaner. Additionally, being around nature, trees and plants can have a naturally stress-reducing effect.”
Specifically, be kind to a stranger. “Make an effort to be nice to everyone you encounter,” recommends Kelly Bay, a chiropractor and nutritionist. This includes the barista making your coffee or the guy at the dry cleaners. While these moments may seem small, they can alter your mood for the better and help shift your body into a calmer, happier state, Bay says. “Don’t underestimate the power of connection.”
A go-to for meditation and mindfulness enthusiasts, box breathing is an easy, effective way to calm down fast. “This wonderful practice can regulate the autonomic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that controls if you are in sympathetic (stressed) or parasympathetic (relaxed) mode,” Fiske explains.
Here’s how to do it: Sit up straight in a comfortable position. Take a deep breath, inhaling for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. Then hold your breath again for a count of four. Repeat this process 4 times. “Practice this two times a day or any time you start to feel stress and anxiety levels creep up.”
“Diving into cold water slows the heart rate and can reduce the stress response,” explains Dr. Jamie Long, a clinical psychologist at The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale. Obviously, jumping into a body of cold water isn’t that practical, but you can trick your brain into thinking you’re diving underwater. “Fill a bowl or sink with moderately cold water,” Long instructs. “Next, bend over and submerge your face while holding your breath. Repeat this a few times and notice your heart rate slow down. You can also place a zip storage bag filled with cold water over your eyes and cheeks while holding your breath to achieve similar results.”