Pop quiz: What's your stress level, on a scale of 1 to 10? Don't think about it. Just answer.
If it's a top-heavy number like 8 or 9, don't be ashamed. You're in the company of many high-level achievers—you know, the types whose hard work keeps everyone around them from having to experience that degree of stress. Even a mid-level number like 5-7 is nothing to sneeze at. That range, to me, signifies a dull roar of background chaos punctuated with occasional 8 or 9-level crises.
It's too easy to attribute your stress to a single source like "it's my job," "relationship troubles," or just "money." The truth is that if you're a 5 or above, you probably have multiple stressors heaped up on your aching shoulders—or your neck, or wherever your body seems to "carry it." Unfortunately, for every acute headache and neck crick, there may be a host of other silent, long-term health problems to which your stress is contributing. These can include depression, anxiety, heart disease and stroke, weight gain, chronic migraines, gastrointestinal problems, and an increased rate of aging.
You might not be able to cut out all stress in your life. You probably wouldn't even want to. But that's no reason not to take a stand against chronic stress and look for easy ways to turn the battle in your favor. Here are 10 time-tested stress-busters.
Keep a Journal
You could call this a "stress journal," but if that feels a little too negative—like it's the place you go to vent your rage and plot revenge against all the people who bug you—then just calling it a "journal" will suffice. Whatever the name, it is one of the best tools to combat daily stress.
Here's what most people don't tell you about journals: You don't have to write page after page like a stereotypical sullen teenager to see the benefit. A simple sentence or two here or there can do wonders. Just like acknowledging that you're at an 8 or 9 level of stress can help you realize that something needs to be done. Labeling your stressors for what they are can help give you the perspective to finally combat them. Just write what's happening and what you're feeling. That's enough.
The simple act of writing can serve as a fantastic emotional release and can help you temporarily put whatever stresses you out of mind, so you can deal with other issues and return to it later. Revisit it the next time you reach for the journal, and maybe you'll be better able to think up a productive solution.
Change Your Perspective
Remember, nothing in life is by nature stressful. Stress is simply a mental state coloring how you perceive an event or circumstance. That doesn't mean it's not real, but it does mean that you can shift the way you look at the event. Psychologists call this "cognitive reframing," and it's been shown to be effective for an incredible range of people and problems.
There are many ways to reframe. You can open yourself to more possibilities in what you thought was a simple either/or situation. You could look at a supposed weakness and see the strength it's causing you to develop. Think about how someone from another business, industry, or country would react in your shoes. There are many different ways to do it, but what they all share is creating possibilities you didn't know existed and bringing them to light.
Don't Forget Your Mg!
Magnesium helps lower the levels of cortisol in the body, which is the primary hormone released during a stressful situation, and the one linked to the most health concerns. If your cortisol levels are chronically high, you're also at an increased risk of muscle loss, sleep disruption, depression, moodiness, and general feeling-like-crappiness. Not so coincidentally, these are also some of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency, which more than half of us suffer from.
An easy way to get your magnesium during the day is to snack on nuts. Pretty much any variety will do, but some of the best include the Brazil nut (107 mg per oz.), almond (76 mg), cashew (74 mg), peanut (50 mg) and walnut (45 mg). Each of these also provides a heaping helping of essential fatty acids, potassium, protein, and other macro- and micronutrients.
Cook Up Some Oatmeal
If you wake up stressed about the busy day ahead, set aside a few minutes to eat something hot and filling prior to battle. Oatmeal is packed with complex carbohydrates to provide sustained energy over the course of the morning. Those slow-burning carbs also help release the neurotransmitter serotonin in your body, which can help induce a natural feeling of calmness.
Cut Simple Sugars
Not all carbohydrates are great for reducing your stress level. The simple carbs found in foods high in white flour, refined sugar, and most highly processed foods and drinks are going to cause an instant blood glucose spike followed by a crash. This can just leave you with a massive energy low, making stress feel even more unbearable and solutions even farther from your grasp.
This rapid fluctuation in blood sugar levels also places a significant amount of stress on the body in general, so avoid it as much as possible. Stick to complex carbohydrates along with fruits and vegetables instead.
Practice Deep Breathing
Sometimes stress sneaks up on you. Other times, you can feel it coming over you in a wave of panic. When this happens, the physiological response is almost always to breathe more shallowly—which is the exact wrong course of action. The next time you feel that awful feeling, take only deep belly-breaths for a full minute. This will increase oxygen flow into the body and the brain, producing a calming sensation to help you regain control over your emotions.
Deep breathing is so effective that once you try it, you'll wonder why you don't do it all the time. Well, you should! Research has shown that many people breath shallowly all the time without even realizing it. Don't be one of them. This simple change can drastically improve how you feel.
Go for a Brisk Walk
Exercise is great for stress. You probably know that already. But it doesn't have to be intense, sweaty, or take place in a gym in order to help you clear your head. Sometimes the best way to combat stress is to simply go for a quick walk. Even just 10 minutes of brisk walking is often enough for most people to feel more relaxed when they return to their desk or house. Step away from the screen, get that inbox out of your head, and move your body.
Walk a few times each and every day and see if you can rope in your coworkers. Why should smokers be the only ones who get to go outside?
Indulge in Dark Chocolate
Cutting down on sugar is harder for some of us than others. The key for people who simply can't imagine life without chocolate is to be strategic about indulgences. So listen up: Chocolate can help you combat stress, but not any chocolate will do! You have to go dark or go home!
Chocolate contains a number of different compounds that help release endorphins in the body, but these compounds are found in the cocoa part of the chocolate, not the other stuff like milk, sugar, or stabilizing agents. A good rule is to buy chocolate with as high a cocoa percentage as you can handle.
If you were to make a cartoon drawing of a stressed out person, he or she would probably have a cup of cheap coffee sitting right next to a huge stack of paperwork. Sound about right? You may think a steady stream of coffee is crucial for getting through the day, but it's also known to increase cortisol levels and boost production of adrenalin—the hormone behind the "fight or flight" response. Stretch that out over months and years and it can begin to fatigue your adrenal glands, which can lead to fatigue, anxiety, and mood swings. Long story short: Coffee leads to more stress, more problems, and less energy.
Black and green teas balance caffeine content with the amino acid theanine. If you don't know this compound yet, you should. It has been known for decades for its ability to reduce physical and mental stress, improve mood and cognitive performance, and raise the overall levels of the calming neurotransmitters GABA and dopamine. Sure, tea varieties generally contain less caffeine than your venti Americano, but they also have been shown in studies to decrease cortisol more effectively than a placebo. Sip them throughout the day without worry.
Get a Hobby
When you have obligations building up all around you, it can feel like the only way you'll ever be happy again is to struggle with them nonstop until they're out of your life. But, you need to have corners of your life that belong to you alone, where you can get lost in a state of "flow" and not have to worry about anything else.
These activities should be totally consuming while you do them, and they shouldn't be burdened with guilt or shame. A social component helps; regular social engagements have been shown to increase your happiness level on par with making more money at work. But a hobby doesn't have to be social in order to be great. It just has to clear out your worries and make you feel good.
May I suggest ... working out?