Over the past decade, the search terms “Why am I stressed” and “How to be less stressed” (not to mention terms around anxiety) have skyrocketed, according to Google. In 2020, the American Psychological Association released “Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis” — a testament to how serious our stress levels really are. To cut to the chase: we’re all really stressed, and we’re looking for solutions. Specifically, healthy habits to reduce stress.
And good news. You’ve come to the right place!
“It’s important for all of us — this psychologist included! — to remember that we’re all responsible for our mental health,” says Dallas-based clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, PsyD. “We have to own our health. But the good news is that we can do so much to have an impact in that area … We have to do our part, and we can.”
Dr. Gilliland explains that little changes have big results, and simple habits add up to have a major impact on our stress levels. “There are a lot of things within arm’s reach — our arms! — that can have huge benefits to our psychological and physical health,” he says. “That’s so encouraging.”
Ahead, Dr. Gilliand and Dr. Joanne Frederick, NCC, LPC-DC, VA, LCPC-MD, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington, D.C. share the best habits you can pick up right now to manage your stress levels.
The Negative Consequences of Chronic Stress
“Left unchecked, stress can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes,” says Dr. Frederick. These are just a few of the myriad of issues that can arise.
“Americans have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the external factors Americans have listed in previous years as significant sources of stress remain present and problematic,” says the APA. “These compounding stressors are having real consequences on our minds and bodies.”
Stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline lead to direct and indirect issues. You’ll experience poor sleep quality, a weakened immune system (think: getting sick often and not recovering as quickly), digestive distress, the aforementioned heart and cardiovascular problems, general aches and pains (a physical manifestation of emotional stress), weight gain (or in some cases, unhealthy weight loss), and mental health conditions, from burnout and brain fog to anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline.
Dr. Frederick says that the top three of these include heart disease, depression, and headaches.
7 Habits to Reduce Stress According to Experts
Dr. Frederick explains that “Visualization, or guided imagery, is a variation of traditional meditation that requires imagining a scene where you feel at peace and let go of all anxiety and tension.” Simply put, you pick a scenario and immerse yourself in it mentally. “Choose a calming setting whether it’s a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet coffee shop,” she says.
“Some can also choose to do visualization in silence or use listening aids, such as calming music or a sound machine that plays the sound of ocean waves that complement your picture of a beach,” says Dr. Frederick.
This practice should help improve your mood and energy levels; a study on 71 individuals found that visualization helped provide a “marked augmentation in perceptions of physical and mental energy,” — two things stress tends to rob from us.
Ahead, Dr. Frederick shares how you can get started with this stress-reducing habit.
How to visualize:
Step #1: First, close your eyes and imagine your peaceful place. Picture it as vividly as you can: thinking of everything you could see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Visualization works best by incorporating as many sensory details as possible.
Step #2: Enjoy the feeling of worries drifting away while slowly exploring your restful place. When ready, open your eyes and slowly come back to the present. It is normal to occasionally zone out or lose track of where you are during a visualization session. Experiencing feelings of heaviness in your limbs, muscle twitches, or yawning can also occur.
You’ve heard it before, but you’re hearing it again because hands down meditation is one of the most important habits you can implement to reduce stress.
How? “Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness aims to switch focus to now, keeping you engaged in the present,” says Dr. Frederick. “Meditations that cultivate mindfulness have reduced stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions.”
There’s no one way to do it. “Some of these practices bring you to the present by focusing on a single repetitive action, such as breathing or word repetition,” she says. “Other forms of mindfulness meditation encourage following and then releasing internal thoughts or sensations. Mindfulness can also be applied to eating, walking, or exercising.”
Keep at it, too. It’s one thing to know it works — it’s another thing to make this stress-reducing habit a consistent part of your routine! And you might not experience results right away; that doesn’t mean it’s not working. “Enabling mindfulness to stay focused on the present can seem straightforward, but it takes practice to reap all the benefits,” says Dr. Frederick. “When you start practicing, you’ll likely find it challenging to keep focus from wandering back to your worries or regrets. But don’t get discouraged. Each time your focus is drawn back to the present, you’re strengthening a new mental habit that can help you break free of thinking about what’s beyond your control.” Her tips on beginning your practice, ahead.
How to practice mindful meditation:
- Find a quiet place free of distractions and interruptions.
- Sit on a comfortable chair, keeping your back straight.
- Close your eyes find a point of focus, such as your breathing, where you take note of air flowing into your nose and out of your mouth or your stomach rising and falling.
- Forget about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you’re doing. If intrusive thoughts interrupt your relaxation session, don’t fight them, gently turn your attention back to your point of focus without judgment.
Need some more meditation guidance? No worries. We’ve got a library full of FitOn Meditations that will keep you cool, calm, and collected.
#3 Move … Mindfully
More reasons to move — and to do so intentionally and mindfully! While “The idea of exercising may not seem soothing,” says Dr. Frederick, “Rhythmic exercise that gets you into a flow of repetitive movement can produce a relaxation response.” Crazy, right? “You can even add mindfulness to your workouts for maximum stress relief,” she says. Her examples include:
“As with meditation, mindful exercise requires being fully engaged in the present, paying close attention to the way your body feels right now rather than daily concerns,” says Dr. Frederick. “If you’re walking or running, focus on the feeling of your feet touching the ground, the rhythm of your breath, and the feel of the wind against your face. You can also focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements by paying attention to how your body feels as you lift and lower weights. When your mind wanders to other thoughts, just return your focus to your breathing and movement.”
Try some mindful dancing right now with a FitOn App workout!
Getting sleep — quality sleep — is tougher than most would imagine. And, it’s the foundation of the anti-stress pyramid, to boot. “Sleep is power,” says Dr. Gilliland, who believes that no amount of medicine or therapy can undo or counteract the psychological and physiological effects of sleep deprivation. “We have to get good, consistent, quality sleep,” he says.
To make good sleep a habit, there are a number of supporting stress reducing habits you can implement. Start a bedtime routine an hour before you typically get into bed; use this as a wind-down routine full of relaxing, stress-busting habits. A meditation, some gentle stretching or a few minutes of yoga, a hot tea, your skincare routine, a warm shower — all of these things can help you nod off. Next, try curbing screen time by putting your phone away from your bed at a certain time (another great habit that supports sleep!). And the third habit: set a wind-down time, bedtime, and wake time… and stick to it.
RELATED: The Ultimate Guide To Sleep
#5 Get Some Sun
There’s a reason why Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly acronymized as “SAD”) and seasonal depression are so prevalent: lack of sun messes with our mood. One study found that decreased sun exposure was linked to cognitive impairment. Another found that sunlight helps the brain produce serotonin, a key neurotransmitter for stress reduction.
It could also come down to vitamin D; we all know sunshine is a great way to get that essential vitamin, but did you know vitamin D can help support your mental wellbeing, too?
So if you’ve been craving a sunny vacation, it could be your brain’s cry for help; you need some stress relief! Get outside for a few minutes each morning (wear SPF — don’t forget to protect your skin!) or take a nice long walk. The extra sunlight, vacation or otherwise, can do wonders for your mood.
#6 Curb Caffeine in the Afternoon
If you’re still sipping an iced coffee to get through a 3 pm slump, it may be time to re-evaluate — particularly if you’re dealing with chronic stress! Though coffee can be wonderful for a myriad of reasons, caffeine can also exacerbate stress. What’s more, is that it can interfere with your healthy sleep cycle.
A few solves… for one, try to cap your caffeine consumption at noon sharp. We know this might be tougher if you’re used to that late-in-the-day pick-me-up. If you’re still craving coffee or having a hard time with going cold turkey, try switching to decaf (we know, eye roll) or matcha. Trust us on this one… matcha is an amazing swap, particularly if it’s *good* matcha. If you feel like you can let go of coffee and caffeine, you could opt for another kind of tea, or make it a water-and-walk break (see: habits 3 and 5). When it comes to the best habits to reduce stress, find what works for you!
#7 Nourish Your Body at Regular Intervals
This is one habit that the author (yes, me) also needs to implement, so you’re not alone. You’re more than likely familiar with the feeling of being ‘hangry’ … you skip a meal (or are eating on an irregular schedule), your blood sugar drops, and you feel cranky, stressed, overwhelmed. That low blood sugar level triggers the release of stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline. Stress, in this case, is literally a “biochemical reaction due to low blood sugar,” reports Cleveland Clinic.
In other words, this is adding more stress to your life — which is stressful enough, to begin with! So give your body and mind a break. The lesson here is clear: keep yourself fed, nourished, and strong enough to fend off stress.
Because this is easier said than done, meal prep might be a good solution for you.
Start Simple and Build
Any of these simple habits to reduce stress can help you start to gain better faculties and coping mechanisms for the stress life throws at us (because trust us, it’s universal). Try one habit at a time to make sure it really sticks, then see if you can add another. Keep track of how you feel, and monitor your progress toward a more peaceful equilibrium.