Real talk: Stress is inevitable. But it’s especially poignant during uncertain times like these. With your normal routine interrupted due to the new coronavirus, you might be in need of some quick stress relief more than usual. Maybe you’re sharing a small space with your not-so-silent toddlers or feeling overwhelmed about your work from home situation. (Been there, felt that!)
And you probably could have guessed this, but chronic stress isn’t kind to your body. It can leave you feeling exhausted, cause breakouts, and even make your hair fall out. Plus, women bear more of day to day stress than men, according to Dr. Maureen Sayres Van Niel, president of the American Psychiatric Association’s Women’s Caucus.
Why? “Because [women] continue to shoulder most of the responsibility for nurturing, whether it be of children or elderly relatives, and they continue to have most of the responsibility for caring for the home as well,” she says.
Think about it: When your daily routine is to wake up, get yourself (and possibly several other people) ready, start work, make dinner, clean, and do it all again the next day, you can easily get stressed. (Stressful just reading that, no?)
That’s why it’s super important to deal with your stress response in the short term (a.k.a., doing something to relieve it right now) in addition to incorporating long-term stress management solutions into your life, like therapy. While it’s going to be most beneficial to work on the underlying reasons you feel stressed, there are some things you can do to relieve stress ASAP.
“Fast stress relief can have a significant affect on both your body and your brain,” says Dr. Kevin Chapman. Using quick stress relief methods can decrease your heart rate to normal levels, allow your body to achieve homeostasis (or balance) and teach your brain how to manage cortisol levels, Chapman says. (FYI, cortisol is the stress hormone that can be helpful for short periods of time to fight stress, but has negative affects on the body if it occurs too often.)
Try one, or all, of these tricks to start feeling calmer, instantly:
1. Focus on what you can control
“Engaging in present-focused awareness and what is happening right now is effective for managing strong emotions,” Chapman says.
He recommends using a meditation app like Headspace to get you in that self-focused mindset — then move forward with your day with the awareness that you can only control what you do (think: washing your hands or wearing a mask to the grocery store).
2. Watch your language
If it’s quarantine-related stress that you’re experiencing, try changing the way you talk about your current situation. Chapman, for example, makes it a point to refer to social distancing as “physical distancing” in conversation with himself and others. “This perspective represents an important psychological ‘twist,'” Chapman notes; how you label your stress can seriously impact the way you respond to it.
3. Try this “4-7-8” breathing exercise
Deep breathing is a quick and easy way to deal with in-the-moment stress, says Dr. Van Niel — and it can even “change the chemistry of your body and mind.”
There are literally tons of breathing techniques to choose from, but her go-to is the “4-7-8″ method: “Before you begin, let all the air out of your lungs and then take a breath, inhaling for the count of four,” she says. “It’s best to count ‘one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,’ to get the full effect.” Once you’ve inhaled, sit still and hold your breath for a count of seven, she says, then, slowly exhale to a count of eight. Do the exercise four times.
4. Snuggle your face in your dog’s fur
Or say a simple prayer to yourself, or immediately lace up your shoes for a quick walk or run around the garden. The point: Do something that makes you feel relaxed, says Dr. Van Niel. It’s also important to remember that everyone is different, so what counts as a relaxing activity for you, might not feel quite so relaxing for someone else.
“For some, this is a quick workout, but for others it’s a meditation session,” says Dr. Van Niel, adding that reading a favourite book might also be an option. Figure out what works to relax you, and have it in your back pocket for particularly stressful days.
5. Use your damn vacation time already
You know those weeks or days you get off from work? Use them. So what if you’re just staying at home, getting away from your typical routine can reboot your energy and put your life stressors into perspective, says Dr. Van Niel.
6. Stop chopping your own veggies at home
Women often have unrealistically high expectations of themselves to do everything perfectly, says Dr. Van Niel. Translation? It’s okay to give yourself a break and take shortcuts when you can—even with something as simple as chopping your own veggies.
Go ahead and buy your veggies already chopped (seriously—it saves so much time). Or do something similarly time-saving, like throwing your hair up into a ponytail instead of your normal blow dry-then-straighten routine. Use this as a reminder that you don’t need to be perfect all the time.
7. Watch “The Office” tonight instead of the news
Sure, it’s good to keep up with current events, but there’s no question that the news can be stressful. If you find that watching the news is stressing you out, go ahead and take a break from it (that’s actual advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Use that time to catch up on your fave guilty-pleasure shows (or, you know, re-watch “Parks and Recreation” for the thousandth time).
8. Exercise for at least 20 minutes every day
Exercise is an amazing stress-reliever. It can lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep, and give you more energy, according to the American Heart Association.
But you don’t need to go all-out in high-intensity training every day to get the benefits: “Even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance session in the midst of a stressful time can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours,” says the American Psychological Association (APA). So hit the lounge (aka your home gym) for 30 minutes to work off your stress, or try a new online fitness class: Might I suggest something extra cathartic, like boxing?
9. Watch a comedy show — and don’t hold back the laughter
Think back to the last time you laughed — and I mean laughed (not just said “LOL”). You probably felt way less stressed in that moment, right?
There’s a reason: “People often hold a lot of their stress in their face, and laughs or smiles can help relieve some of that tension,” according to the APA. If you’re feeling extra on-edge, call up a friend and invite them to zoom-watch a comedy show with you.
10. Learn how to knit
Or sew, or paint—literally any craft that interests you. The process of creating something can be therapeutic—especially repetitive tasks like knitting, crochet, or cross-stitching.
In one 2016 study in the journal Art Therapy, researchers found that creating art for 45 minutes noticeably lowered the cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in the saliva of 39 people. While it may be frustrating before you get used to your new craft—whether it’s pottery, candle-making, jewellery-making, or anything else — making something will help with stress in the long run.
11. Turn on some Lizzo
Many people use music as a means of dealing with emotions—they listen when they’re sad, when they’re angry, or when they want to get energised — so it makes sense to use music as a way to chill TF out.
While some will claim that certain types of music (songs with slow, relaxing tempos, for example) are better than others for stress-relief, it’s most important that you’re specifically listening to music in order to relax, according to a 2015 study from the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Think about it: If you’re turning on the radio because you want to chill out, you’re likely paying more attention and really trying to de-stress.
12. Get in downward dog position
Thanks to its combination of physical exercise, stretching, meditation, and deep breathing, yoga is incredible for stress relief, says the American Psychological Association. Try to make room for an online yoga class or two in your week and take the time to really let go of obligations and negative thoughts.
13. Stop thinking all those negative thoughts
I know, easier said than done, but it really can help with your stress levels, according to the AHA. Instead, practice some positive self-talk. That means, instead of saying “I can’t do this,” say something like, “I will do the best I possibly can.”
14. Snag 15 minutes to yourself every single day
When you’re dealing with a partner and kids all day, every day, it can be helpful for your stress to just take a few minutes to yourself each day. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes of me-time every day, the AHA suggests, and do whatever you want. You can simply sit in your car and breathe deeply or listen to music before you go inside for the night or spend that time on your porch with a cup of coffee in the morning — anything that helps you relax.
15. Help others
Whether you’re helping a soup kitchen, a youth center, or an animal shelter, doing some community service can certainly help your stress levels. “Helping people who are often in situations worse than yours will help you put your problems into perspective,” according to the National Health Services in the U.K.
“The more you give, the more resilient and happy you feel.”
16. Go ahead and leave the party, if you want to
Some people thrive in social situations like Zoom family chats and parties with friends. Others… not so much.
If you fall in the latter group, one easy way to relieve stress fast is to get out of that uncomfortable situation (and don’t beat yourself up for it later). It’s okay to prefer small, intimate chats with friends, says Dr. Van Niel. And sticking it out is not worth stressing yourself out all night.
17. Take a bath. But not a bubble bath
Self-care advocates constantly talk up the relaxation benefits of a hot bubble bath, but science tells us that floating in a pool of water can be great for stress relief, as well.
Floatation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) is a specific type of water therapy that involves floating on your back in a pool of water saturated with Epsom salt. In one 2018 study in the journal PLos One, researchers found that floating in an Epsom salt pool for one hour reduced anxiety in people with anxiety and stress disorders.
Now go ahead and relax in a tub filled DIY-style with water and Epsom salts.
This article was originally published in Women's Health SA