As much as we’d probably like to live completely stress-free, the reality is that life is going to give you some lemons. But that doesn’t mean you have to feel hopeless about stress and its negative side effects. As a neuroscience researcher, here are the six science-backed stress reduction techniques that I recommend.
First, it’s important to understand how stress works in the body. At a cellular level, the body can’t really distinguish between mental stress and physical danger. Situations, circumstances, or people that make you feel bad are interpreted the same as physically dangerous situations.
So what happens? The pituitary gland comes to the rescue and releases hormones that prepare you to deal with the threat. These hormones make us more active and alert to help us deal with the perceived danger. However, the same hormones can also disrupt our mood, sleep, skin, and digestion.
Further, on a molecular level, every cell in the body starts to experience increased levels of inflammation. The reason for the inflammation is the release of interleukins, which attack the immune system. This can make you more vulnerable to illness.
Similarly, the brain is also affected by these processes. Stress can prevent the formation of connections between neurons and contribute to neuronal aging. In other words, your brain gets older, faster. Finally, as you’ve likely experienced, your ability to think, concentrate, or remember information is challenged under stress.
Psychologists refer to the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to describe the three principal things that humans need to live comfortable. They are:
Therefore, it makes sense that these areas of our lives may cause us the most stress. Common sources of stress include:
Significantly, stress in one area of life can impact all areas of you life. If you’re dealing with stress at home, at work, or in your relationships, it can have an impact on other areas of your life. For that reason, it’s important to employ effective stress reduction techniques.
Adaptive stress management techniques are effective at improving our situation and have long-term benefits. By contrast, maladaptive techniques may offer short-term relief but ultimately have a long-term detrimental impact.
For example, turning to alcohol or smoking for relief are both maladaptive stress management practices.
Here are six adaptive stress reduction techniques supported by scientific research.
If you’re not in the habit of keeping a journal, you may want to start.
The process of writing down your thoughts and feelings allows you to ‘vent’ and better manage your feelings. Research shows that offloading your feelings into a journal is emotionally liberating. What’s more, you can then look back and look for patterns around the stressful events. Once you know the patterns, you can start to plan how to react or avoid the stress altogether.
In an increasingly digital-first world, the traditional boundaries between home, work, friends, family, public, and private can be blurry. Whether it’s the pressure to respond to emails at all hours or have an Instagram-ready home and constantly be sharing, this level of connectivity can cause a great deal of stress.
In a study at the University of Illinois, researchers found a correlation between those who turned off work email alerts and lower perceptions of stress at work. Significantly, they also noted that whether supervisors supported their boundaries or expected them to always be available affected their stress levels.
At times, the circumstances or situations we dealing with aren’t within our control. In these situations, focus on strategies that offer a sense of hope and control over your situation.
Techniques like meditation and mindfulness are excellent for this. Examples include purposely focusing on a single activity or taking deep, purposeful breaths.
These techniques work by slowing down the emotional pathways between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Over time they enable you to be less reactive to the stresses you are facing. By becoming less emotionally engaged with your stressful situation, you can be less drained even if the stressor hasn’t changed.
Psychology research shows that meditation can increase compassion for ourselves and for others. Meanwhile, neuroscientists have found a link between meditation and the ventral vagus response, which is associated with love and tolerance.
You can’t beat exercise as a stress reduction technique. It releases feel-good endorphins and reverses oxidative stress. Plus, you don’t necessarily need to drip in sweat to make it an effective form of stress reduction. Even slow-moving workouts like yoga can help to activate our parasympathetic nervous system to return to a state of rest and recovery.
Another bonus of exercise for stress relief? It helps you sleep, a process which is often negatively impacted by stress. Physical movement during the day encourages the muscles in the body to relax enough to sleep at night. It’ll also reduce the odds of ruminating over the challenges you’re facing as your head hits the pillow.
Which leads us to…
While it’s not exactly practical to stop in the middle of a stressful situation and catch some shut-eye, it is important to get adequate sleep at night to encourage your body’s resilience against stress.
Admittedly, the relationship between sleep and stress can be a bit of a vicious cycle. Stress reduces sleep, but a lack of sleep can also increase stress.
Luckily, employing the stress management techniques listed here can help to promote sleep and break the cycle.
Self-care is crucial in managing stress, but getting support from a loved one is also an important practice to embrace.
Research shows that social support has neurobiological effects related to stress relief. Supportive interactions release oxytocin and other hormones which raise our mood and mitigate the detrimental effects of cortisol.
Life will always bring unexpected challenges, but hopefully these science-backed stress reduction techniques will help to build your inner resolve and resilience.