Updated: Jan 8, 2022
We all know that chronic stress hurts us physically, mentally and emotionally. Wouldn't it be great to have a handful of proven "in-the-moment" strategies to reduce stress?
Chronic stress is bad for us and has damaging effects on our overall health. It not only kills brain cells, but it lowers our immune system and causes everything from headaches to heart attacks. In the middle of a pandemic, the stakes couldn't be higher. Stress either exacerbates or increases the risk of health issues like heart disease, obesity, depression, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, and more. More troubling still, a recent paper out of Harvard and Stanford found health issues from job stress alone cause more deaths than diabetes, Alzheimer's, or the flu.
Seventy-five to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments.
There are typically two ways most of us deal with this stress. One is to grind through it. Another way is to step away. Unfortunately, both of those options have potential pitfalls. The brain has limits in handling heavy workloads. “Grinding through it” when stressed and fatigued ultimately depletes our cognitive resources and impairs performance. And temporarily disconnecting might provide some relief, it’s often temporary.
In a previous Neuro Nugget, I shared that one secret to de-stressing at work is to learn something new. Researchers have found that stimulating the brain’s learning center counters the detrimental effects of stress including negative emotions, unethical behavior, and burnout. If you missed that one, check it out here.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had an in-the-moment de-stress strategy for everyday stressors?
I’m not talking about the stress of physical danger or a lack of basic needs like food or housing I’m talking about everyday situations that threaten our psychological safety. When someone challenges your beliefs, your status, your credibility, your inclusion in the group, the brain processes it as a psychological threat. Stress hormones spike and your sympathetic nervous system engages preparing you for fight or flight.
We’ve all been there when we are so stressed we can’t even think straight. One of the best solutions for modulating stress levels is going for a short walk outside in the sunshine and fresh air – even just 10 or 15 minutes. Your brain releases endorphins and serotonin which reduce anxiety, increase energy levels, and improve mood.
But, we can’t always do that. For those times, here are 5 more in-the-moment de-stress strategies.
Massage your Ear.
This sounds strange, but Medical studies have shown that ear massage (or auricular acupressure, if you want to impress your friends) relieved stress and anxiety. One study found that patients who were being transported to the hospital in an ambulance demonstrated significantly lower anxiety after receiving a quick ear masssage.
The trick is to massage your ear gently, right in the middle of the upper third of your ear. The spot is called the Shen Men point, which according to ancient Chinese culture means the Gate of Heaven. Use a Q-tip or your fingertip to gently massage the pressure point in circular motions to decrease stress and boost energy. As you massage, slowly inhale and turn your head to the left. Then, slowly exhale and turn your head to the right. You should feel noticeably calmer in less than a minute.
The second secret is simply breathing, but not normal breathing… diaphragmatic breathing. This is different in that your breath comes from the big muscle in your belly. Try to keep your chest still and push your belly out to inhale. As you exhale, pull your belly back in.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system also known as the chill out system that counters the sympathetic system – or the stressed out system. The parasympathetic system relaxes the muscles, slows the heart rate, and activates the thinking brain after the survival brain has been in charge. Learn more about how diaphragmatic breathing can give you a cognitive advantage here.
Listen to Music.
Pop in your earbuds and listen to some calming music. Countless Researchers and hundreds of studies found that relaxing music with a slow tempo reduces stress and relieves anxiety by lowering the production of stress hormones and increasing the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Some experts argue that the most relaxing music is the music you enjoy the most. But one scientist set out to determine not just the type of music best for reducing anxiety and stress, but also the specific song – with scientific certainty. Check out this post to find out the ten songs that you need to add to your relaxation playlist.
Watch those animal videos.
You might think that watching cute kitten videos is a waste of time, but we have a wealth of scientific evidence that tell us that a whole range of physical and emotional effects are triggered when we view warm fuzzy images of animals and babies. Research shows that certain images can make us happier, increase our resilience to stress and prime our brains for positive behaviors toward others like care, compassion, and helpfulness.
Most impressive, perhaps, are the physical changes that occur in our brains. When we see images like playful puppies and cute kittens, the brain’s pleasure center is activated, and a huge surge of the pleasure hormone, dopamine, is released. Overall, our stress levels reduce, our aggression lessens, and we tend to transform into happy, cooing, caring, baby-nurturers.
Grab a cup of coffee.
A person who holds a warm cup (for example, a warm cup of coffee or tea), has a natural tendency to judge others as warmer or more friendly than if they're holding a cup of cold liquid. Scientists refer to it as haptic sensation or embodied cognition, and it just means that the brain is influenced by what our sense of touch perceives. the construct that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the most counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. But studies show that our rationality is greatly influenced by our bodies and metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. Learn more about embodied cognition here.