If you Google stress, you’ll be overloaded with millions(!) of results telling you how to manage stress. That’s great because it can help you get started if you have no idea how to manage feelings of stress. And it’s necessary because too much stress (along with sleep deficiency and anxiety) is in the top 3 symptoms that cause people to take psychological leave at work.
But here’s the thing: How are you supposed to know what advice will work for you and skim the wheat from the chaff in this bountiful harvest of tips? Pia Linden, a psychologist at OpenUp, is here to share the tips she personally uses to relieve stress. Both preventatively and during periods of stress.
Not letting yourself get overwhelmed by stress and knowing what to do if this happens from time to time is something you just have to learn. The first step towards getting better at managing stress is changing your perception of stress.
In the TED Talk ‘How to make stress your friend’ by psychologist Kelly McGonigal (viewed millions of times) Kelly explains that it is mainly our beliefs about stress (stress is the enemy, I can’t be stressed!) that makes stress unhealthy for us.
In contrast, seeing stress as an aid that helps you to perform well in challenging situations can help. You should think of stress as a friend that stands by your side when you need to be sharp.
Exercises to reduce stress
It’s not always easy to see stress as a helper. Are feelings of stress starting to creep up on you and are you looking for some tips you can start using right away? Pia uses these exercises to reduce stress during the day, to manage anxious thoughts, and to avoid severe stress.
1. Check in with yourself
“Sometimes you’re not aware of the stress that’s racing through your body. That’s why it’s important to know what your personal signals are and to regularly check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling,” explains Pia.
It might be that your sleeping pattern has changed, that you’re suddenly snacking more, or that you keep wanting to be alone.
“When we’re in environments that ask a lot of us, whether that’s at work, during an important meeting, or in a social situation where we don’t feel comfortable, we often don’t take the time to pause and ask ourselves how it’s going,” she continues.
Reducing stress begins by becoming mindful of what your personal stress signals are. “The exercise that goes along with this is to regularly schedule a little check in with yourself.” Ask yourself how it’s going, what you’re feeling and what you need today.
2. Take time to breathe
“Various studies show that the breath is one of the most effective tools for reducing stress and helping you to relax. This is because the breath is directly connected to our nervous systems and, therefore, our stress levels. When we’re stressed, our breathing often becomes shallow and short. But we need to take long, deep breaths to relax.”
Taking time to do a breathing exercise, helps to immediately reduce your level of stress. “Focus on the exhale and try to make this longer. Personally, I put everything to one side if my stress is starting to get too much for me. I give myself a break and take ten deep breaths. It works every time.”
3. Practice mindfulness
This brings us to our third exercise: Mindfulness. It’s a simple and particularly powerful tool that you can use to calm your body and mind, as well as reducing tension.
Pia: “We often get so caught up in our work or our thoughts that a change in perspective can really help to calm us down. Often, our thoughts jump from one thing to another and from things that have happened in the past to things that might happen in the future. A mindfulness exercise helps you to put these thoughts to one side and get everything in perspective.”
“Be aware that mindfulness is most effective if you practice it on a regular basis.” But research also shows that you can experience its positive effects after just one week of practicing mindfulness for 15 minutes each day.
“There may also be times when you feel like you can’t focus on the exercise. That’s okay too. Being aware of this and not judging it is also mindful,” explains Pia.
“Accept that mindfulness just isn’t working for you at this moment and look for another exercise, such as yoga, hiking, or another calming activity.”
4. Find a hobby that helps you calm down
A common strategy people use when they’re feeling stressed is to park themselves down in front of the TV. You’re switching off and zoning out, so to speak. But that isn’t always enough, Pia believes:
“To recharge your batteries, you sometimes need to do a little more than just ‘switch off’ your thoughts and feelings. Start thinking about which activities restore your energy, while at the same time allowing you to rest. This is different for everyone. Personally, I love taking a stroll around the park, meditating, or crochet. Figure out what works for you.”
5. Take care of your body
Taking care of your mental health also means taking care of your body. “Having a ready-meal is sometimes quicker and easier than cooking, but eating healthily makes sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to function properly,” says Pia. “Especially in a stressful situation”.
Just taking the time to cook a healthy meal can make all the difference when you’re stressed. Especially, if you take this as an opportunity to cook mindfully.
“Drink plenty of water, eat regularly, and choose products that give your brain and body long-lasting energy. From personal experience, I can tell you that it isn’t always two cups of coffee you need, sometimes it’s a green tea, a handful of walnuts and a glass of water.”
What works for you?
If you want to know how to reduce your stress levels, then you need to figure out what works for you. These exercises work well for Pia. Use them as inspiration; take away anything that works for you and leave behind anything that doesn’t.
Maybe you’ve already tried a few of the things mentioned here and know that a yoga session is more likely to make you feel jittery than relaxed. Fair enough, that’s not your thing, but maybe hiking would work well for you.
Pia: “Which exercise I decide to use depends on the situation. What I often go for is simply some breathing or yin yoga. On top of that, I listen to calming music and I sometimes talk to a friend or family member about my feelings.”
👉 Want some further reading? Six Tips for Helping Your Body Recover from (Too Much) Stress