You can blame all your stress on saber-toothed tigers. Triggers like your job, money, family, or just the general state of the world activate the hardwired fight-or-flight response leftover from caveman days. When we experience those primal physiological reactions over extended periods of time, they result in symptoms including chronic pain, headache, muscle tension, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, and anger among others.

Stressors are so pervasive in our day-to-day life that the majority of Americans say they experienced stress during a lot of the day and 44 percent say they feel worried a lot, according to a Gallup poll. And stress has become such a common mental health issue that therapists have developed specialties in helping people cope.

“Think about stress management in three ways,” says Patrick Raue, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington School of Medicine:

  • “The most powerful solution is to identify the problem and eliminate it,” he says. Sure, a lot of the time, this one isn’t possible, but sometimes we overlook this option and just assume we’re stuck with the situation as it is. It’s worth examining.
  • Guide our thoughts and how we perceive events. “The goal is to slow the thinking process down and manage those thoughts,” explains Dr. Raue.
  • “Slow the physiological processes down in our bodies to feel calmer,” says Dr. Raue.

With this in mind, these eight therapist strategies help tame the beast that is stress.

#1: Take A Walk

Adding to your step count can have a big impact on your stress levels, says Laura Athey-Lloyd, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. She says the rhythmic motion and change of scenery can be calming.

“If you can’t get outside, even walking between rooms can have an impact,” she says. You’re causing your nervous system to adjust to new stimuli rather than staying focused on your stress.

And a stroll helps no matter your location. Researchers showed that individuals who took 30 minute walks in nature or urban settings had reduced cortisol levels and improved moods.

#2: Talk to a Friend

Reaching out to discuss what’s stressing you out can offer relief. “Talking things over with a friend puts your internal experience into words, which helps with problem solving,” says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City.

And, that’s not the only benefit.  “You can get feedback on the way you’re thinking about a problem—having an outside perspective can feel helpful.” Often feeling isolated can add to the stress, Dr. Carmichael says, so reaching out keeps you from dealing with things in a silo. And having that social support is good for improving your mood, which can make handling stress feel more manageable.

This doesn’t have to be in person—a phone call or video chat offer similar benefits to an in-person catch up.

#3: Write it Down

Seeing your thoughts in writing can help relieve anxiety. In one study, students who wrote down their worries about their performance on a test before taking it scored higher on the test than those who didn’t do any writing.

Dr. Carmichael says writing before a stressful situation helps you tame overwhelming thoughts. She advises thinking about ways you’d manage obstacles that are causing you stress. “Writing down your ideas on paper is better than doing it in your head because it helps you think in a linear fashion and slows down your thoughts.”

#4: Help Someone Else

It’s okay if your motivation is selfish, helping someone else can benefit you both. “When you deliver kindness, it’s exercising the same reward machinery in your brain as when someone is kind to you,” explains Michael Merzenich, PhD, a neuroscientist in San Francisco and professor emeritus at the University of California San Francisco.

In one study, brain images showed that when a participant was giving support the brain displayed lower stress-related activity and greater reward-related activity. Dr. Merzenich says the act doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. Simply writing a note, checking on someone, baking cookies, or finding a way to ease another person’s stress will relieve yours.

#5: Get Physical

For some it helps to sweat it out. “Physical exercise is always good,” Dr. Merzenich says. “Any mindful movement that engages the body and the mind can carry your thoughts away from the self-absorption that accompanies stress.”

He explains that the purposeful movement serves to exercise your brain and jolt you away from the all-encompassing stressful thoughts so that stress has to fight to get ahold of your mind. Hiking, biking, or running, for example will cause you to pay attention to your surroundings and break the cycle of stressful thought patterns that is drawing your focus.

#6: Make Something

If there’s not much you can do to change the stress, Dr. Raue suggests distracting yourself with a hobby, but the more productive you can be the better. “Do things that give you a mood boost and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something.” Make a cake, plant some flowers, knit a scarf, carve a piece of wood—it doesn’t matter as long as it makes you feel like you’ve made something.

#7: Watch a Horror Movie

“Distraction is powerful,” says Dr. Athey-Lloyd. “Give your mind a break with a novel or television show that’s based in a fantasy world.” She says fiction offers your brain a good defensive buffer by transporting you out of reality.

“Inhabiting another character’s mind lifts you out of your own frame-of-mind temporarily to give you relief from your own stressful mind state.” And while any fictional world can offer an escape, Dr. Athey-Lloyd suggests trying to jolt your emotions with a comedy or scary movie to offer more of a departure from your current mood.

#8: Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Relaxation skills can be a powerful tool to lower physiological activity associated with stress, Dr. Raue says. One of the techniques he has his patients try is progressive muscle relaxation—the process of tensing and releasing different muscle groups. One study showed that individuals who engaged in progressive muscle relaxation reported the greatest relaxation levels in addition to a decreased heart rate.

You can try it by sitting or lying down and starting with your feet, tensing each body part for five seconds then releasing, paying attention to the feelings of tension and release in each area as you move up to your head. As you move through the exercise, you force your body to relieve muscle tension that is often associated with stress.

Identifying that feeling in your body as stress, is the first step to taming it.

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Last Updated: Apr 27, 2020