These data-backed strategies could change your life
In the old British comedy “The IT Crowd,” the boss of Reynholm Industries decides to declare war on stress. His strategy is to yell at his employees after hooking them up to a stress-testing machine and to fire them if they fail.
Now, none of us would need that test to see if we’re stressed. If you’re living and breathing in 2022, you are stressed. Stress compromises our immunity and causes a host of health issues, including chronic pain, gastrointestinal distress, and even cardiovascular disease. But the good part is that there are phenomenal strategies that you can use to combat stress.
Before you implement them, you should try to fulfill your basic biological needs for sleep, regular meals, and hydration first. Also, ensure that your mental health is good (and treat it with therapy and medication as needed). Once you have these essential markers sorted, you can move on to the following science-backed strategies for stress management.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This is an anxiety-busting strategy that works almost immediately. Designed by American physician Edmund Jacobson, it can be implemented anytime, anywhere.
It involves moving your attention part by part from your forehead to your toes, tensing each area for 15 seconds, and then relaxing it over 30 seconds. While you tighten a particular area, leave the rest of the body relaxed. McMaster University has a free recording that guides you through a PMR exercise. It takes less than ten minutes.
The Science: A ten-year systematic review, including a meta-analysis conducted in 2008, showed that relaxation training had a medium to large effect on treating anxiety. Relaxation training also included PMR.
Commonly, this refers to several Eastern practices, such as Yoga (especially slower, more relaxed forms like Yin Yoga,) Walking Meditation, and the Chinese-origin exercises Tai Chi and Qigong. The best way to incorporate it into your life is to sign up for a class, but in principle, mindful movement can be implemented with any exercise form. It involves maintaining awareness of your movements and focusing on your breath or how your body feels as it moves.
The Science: The evidence of Mindful Movement’s effects on mood, cognition, and stress management is enormous. A meta-analysis found that regular Tai Chi significantly improved psychological outcomes, including stress reduction, confidence, anxiety, and depression.
There is no way the average reader has not heard of meditation’s remarkable effect on stress. Meditation, though it may be intimidating (“How am I going to sit still for X minutes!?”) to the layman, is worth the effort to learn. Firstly, one does not have to be a Zen master on the first try. One can choose from many kinds of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation (focus on a mantra), Anapana meditation (focus on the breath), and so many more. If you’re wary of the high prices one has to pay to learn some of these techniques, you can download apps like Headspace and Insight Timer (which is free) to start.
The Science: A systematic review and meta-analysis of over 19,000 studies in 2014 suggested that mindful meditation can help ease psychological factors such as anxiety, depression, and pain.
This is an underrated form of stress management. It’s essentially any exercise that trains you to control your breathing by manipulating the rate and volume of your breath. It is so simple and takes such little time that it can fit almost any lifestyle. Like meditation, there are many ways to do it, including pranayama, sudarshan kriya (taught by the Art of Living Foundation), and Tibetan tummo breathing. According to WebMD, breathwork alkalizes your blood PH, has an anti-inflammatory effect on your body, and even elevates your mood.
The Science: A 2018 systematic review confirmed that slow, deep breathing was linked to improvements in emotional control and psychological well-being. The study found evidence of links between parasympathetic activity, and CNS activities related to emotional control and psychological well-being in healthy subjects.