5 Practical (and easy) ways to reduce stress
Updated: Jul 25
Stress is a part of life. It is best defined as an emotional and physical state resulting in a physiological reaction where the body is prepared to fight or fly. The release of adrenaline, palpitations, and increased sweating which may be experienced is often unpleasant and lasts until the perceived threat has passed, or until the body is no longer able to sustain this state and falls into exhaustion. Unfortunately, stress can cause further behavioural problems such as a lack of sleep and inability to focus and changes in our eating habits – often over or under eating.
However, stressors are often temporary and if they are removed prior to exhaustion, recovery is often swift, and if we listen to our body’s response and can identify stress triggers enabling us to make small changes to manage our response to stress
Make your stress response work for you
While it is helpful to be able to manage the stress response, stress is a useful warning sign to our body that we may be pushing it too far. It is not about removing it, nor admonishing it, but learning to recognise and respond to it.
a) Listen to your body
No-one can ever be more of an expert on our bodies than ourselves, and yet we so often ignore the signs when it is struggling. Becoming more aware of what triggers any of the stress responses mentioned can help us avoid them – or deal with them before they begin to get worrisome – in future situations.
b) Look after your body physically
With stress being a physiological response, physical care can be just as important as emotional and mental support for building resilience to stress. Eating sensibly, sleeping well and simple things such as taking breaks can help our bodies function better, after all, we often ask a lot of them so we would do well to look after them.
c) Make tiny changes to your routine
If we can recognise that perhaps on a certain day a particular route on our commute is difficult we can choose to leave earlier, or perhaps find a different direction or means of travel. If certain people cause us to feel uncomfortable, perhaps reduce the amount of time we see them. If our jobs are causing these unpleasant feelings, then consider what the alternative options are.
Being aware of what our body is saying comes first, doing something about it is an important next step.
Here are some simple tips for the "doing" part which will help you build resilience and manage stress.
1. Remember what makes you happy and engage in it
Just because you have responsibilities and priorities doesn’t mean you cannot also enjoy life at the same time. Perhaps if you have not engaged in a hobby for a while, try it again and see if you can incorporate it into your life – maybe even inviting your family and friends to participate too. It is all too easy to become your “job role” or “mum/dad” or even “big sister/brother” (ie. “the reliable one”) – remember you were always more holistic than that, so revisit you once in a while.
Bear in mind also that if we are returning to a once-enjoyed past-time, it may take a little while to return to your previous standard. It's not about painting another masterpiece, but finding enjoyment in doodling to start with.
2. Learn to say no!
If you cannot say “no” directly, then work out and practice some statements which can buy you time such as “I’ll tell you a x o’clock.” If you say “yes” to everything, if we have spread ourselves too thinly not only does the quality of our work suffer, but we may begin to resent the people we originally wanted to help. It is not your job to “rescue” others, and if you don’t do it, they will find a way to make whatever it is work if they want it enough!
Psychologically, when we agree to something we are driven by the "why" of saying yes (eg. the motivation to say yes because we want to make people happy, or because it makes us feel good in that moment), instead learn to respond to the "how". When you are asked for a favour think also about how you will make it work, and only say yes if you know you will be as positive about the "how".
3. Practice mindful deep breathing
Meditation or simply focused deep breathing (in for a count of 4 through the nose, hold for 2, and out through the mouth for a count of 6) is recommended to build up internal resilience – with the very act of deep breathing promoting positive physiological changes in times of stress. Free guided meditations to support you can be found here:
Meditation is a way of building up our ability to focus. Life today is full of distractions - phones sending notifications, emails popping up, demands from the family, and with all the attention switching we do we in turn train our brain to struggle to concentrate. Meditation reminds us of our ability to attend to one thing at a time creating headspace which can allow clarity of thought thus improving decision making, creativity, interpersonal communications, as well as sleep. However, it is not the only method, so if you have limited time to mediate – or simply do not enjoy it:
4. Find a moment to be informally mindful
Mindful practice does not always need to be formal - informal moments of being present can be just as conducive to good mental health and wellbeing eg:
- When out walking listen to birdsong or take a moment to feel the warmth of the sun
- When having a drink take a moment to appreciate the sensation as it quenches your thirst, or while eating take a moment to savour the taste – and see if you can recognise the multitude of flavours
- Treat yourself, just because (but be aware of your finances!)
- As a sub point, conduct a financial awareness audit – do you know how much you are spending? If so, you can make changes, or be pleased that when you treat yourself, there was a fund to do so
- Wear something that is uniquely expressive of you (even if it is not obviously displayed)
5. Keep evergreens – or use your other senses to support feelings of relaxation
Not only does pine smell lovely, but researchers at Kyoto university in Japan found that healthy volunteers who strolled through a pine forest for 15 minutes a day reported more positive ratings on a mood scale compared with those who did not. If this is not practical, inhaling lavender or rose oil dabbed on a cloth has been shown to have a relaxing effect.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt