5 ways to reduce your stress this year
Jan 3, 2024, 11:05 AM
(CNN) — If feeling more relaxed is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, maybe you’re looking for a practice outside of the classic “work out and get more sleep” suggestions. Five other techniques CNN explored this year could add a little variety to your stress-management toolbox.
Stress is a normal reaction to high-stakes or unpredictable situations, but chronic stress levels have been associated with various health problems, including high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, said wellness expert Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
Stress can also “show up as frustration or anger, which can impact our relationships,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Karmel Choi, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, via email.
Happiness or managed stress, on the other hand, “comes from feeling balanced and able to manage the bumps in the road that sometimes stretch our energy levels to the limit,” said Dr. Monica Vermani, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas.”
“Maximizing our energy levels … enables us to be present and capable of dealing with whatever comes our way,” Vermani added. “What better way to kick-start the new year than with a commitment to quality self-care?”
Five routines you could put into practice today could help you do just that.
1. Play around
Life does get real when you become an adult, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave the joy of play behind in childhood. In fact, in adulthood engaging in play remains important for coping with distress and improving life satisfaction.
A study published in March 2013 of nearly 900 university students found those who were more playful had lower levels of stress than participants who were less playful. Playful students were also more likely than less playful students to use healthy coping strategies focused on their specific stressors instead of trying to feel better by avoiding or escaping their problems.
How you incorporate play into your life is up to you. Are there any childhood activities you miss? Is there a new hobby you’ve picked up but haven’t made time to enjoy? Reflecting on these things could give you a way forward, as can taking the National Institute of Play’s quiz for determining your play personality.
Once you figure it out, ensure you regularly make room for play in your schedule.
2. Do something mindless
The idea of vegging out in front of the TV to reduce stress may sound very anti-wellness, but sometimes it could be exactly what you need.
Leisurely activities such as being a couch potato can be helpful for people who can’t easily turn their brain off and find meditating or other mindfulness practices difficult to do, Dr. Victoria Garfield previously told CNN. Garfield is a senior research fellow at the Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Aging at University College London.
Just make sure you don’t use screens within an hour of bedtime, lest you spoil the sleep that also helps you better manage and react to stress.
Sighing may feel like a negatively indulgent response to stress, but a study published in January suggested otherwise.
One type of breathing — cyclic sighing — was found to be the most helpful of all breathing and meditation techniques considered. You can practice cyclic sighing by inhaling through your nose until your lungs feel halfway full, pausing briefly, inhaling again to completely fill your lungs, then slowly exhaling through your mouth.
“Cyclic sighing is a pretty rapid way to calm yourself,” Dr. David Spiegel, a study author and director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine, told CNN in March. “Many people can do it about three times in a row and see immediate relief from anxious feelings and stress.”
4. Try progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a highly effective mind-body relaxation technique that can be done anywhere you can sit or lie down for as little as five minutes. With the active systematic tensing then relaxing of the muscles, PMR is another technique that’s good for people who need a little help focusing on meditative breathing exercises.
You can find detailed instructions for how to do it here.
5. Practice gratitude
Even during hardship, practicing gratitude can reduce stress and improve mood, studies have found. And this can be done in many ways — such as by keeping a gratitude journal that you jot some things down in every night before bed, or a gratitude photo album on your phone. The photos could be of anything, including of loved ones, accomplishments, a pretty sunset or meaningful text exchanges. Try looking at them during stressful moments instead of doomscrolling or comparing your life with those of others.
“Stress narrows our focus,” Choi said, blocking out the awareness of everything good in life.
But “when we feel less stressed,” Choi added, “we are able to widen our view to notice positive moments and the different opportunities around us.”
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