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Calm in the storm: Science-backed techniques to reduce stress.

We’re living through uncertain times fueled by anxiety. Here are some proven stress relievers to help keep you calm and centered.

 

Covid-19 has thrown our world into chaos. Everywhere we turn is uncertainty. The good news is that while you can’t control what happens over the next few months, you can follow these simple steps to relieve your stress and anxiety and boost your positivity. The science proves it.

 

  1. Wake up earlier

 

Working from home brings its own stresses, particularly with kids, partners and pets thrown into the mix. If you feel like you aren’t being productive enough during the day and this is adding to your anxiety, then becoming an early riser might alleviate some tension.

 

Start by setting your alarm an hour earlier each morning, with the goal to eventually get up two hours before anyone else in your household. It’s incredible how much you can get done in the quiet, early hours of the morning.

 

And the best part? Not only will this relieve your stress, but you’ll be free to spend more time with your family, on exercising or even meditating later in the day.

 

The science: According to a study conducted by biologist Christoph Randler and outline in the Harvard Business Review, early risers get further in their careers, perform better at the jobs and earn more than their late-riser colleagues.

 

  1. ‘WOOP’ it up

 

We’ve all been exposed to mantras and programmes that celebrate the power of positive thinking. According to the science however, simply thinking positively isn’t enough. Here’s the problem: while picturing your wishes coming true might make you feel better in the short term, it doesn’t make you put any real effort into achieving those dreams – you’re already feeling better, for now at least.

 

Focusing on all the challenges you’re facing isn’t helpful either, and will most likely send you into a stress spiral.

 

According to New York University professor Gabriele Oettingen in an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the answer lies in a mental contrasting tool that she calls ‘WOOP’, for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.

 

Here’s how it works. Shut your eyes and imagine your wish coming true for a few minutes. You’re feeling happier already, which is why the next step is so important. You need to imagine the main obstacle standing in your way. What’s stopping you? Now that you’re back to earth, you can visualise the action you will take if (and when) that barrier presents itself. This prepares you to physically take the action, overcoming your obstacles and decreasing your stress levels because you have a plan of action.

 

The science: According to Oettingen, a study that compared health care providers who used WOOP against a control group, found that people who use mental contrasting are significantly more engaged with their work and less stressed than their counterparts.

 

 

  1. Stretch it out

 

Progressive relaxation is the practice of tensing and releasing every muscle in the body, from your fingers and toes through to your arms, legs, chest, back and neck. Releasing the tension in your muscles relaxes your body, and once your body is relaxed the mind will follow.

 

The science: According to Harvard Medical School, research reveals that progressive relaxation helps ease anxiety and calm the nerves. It also boosts your awareness of your mind-body connection.

 

 

  1. Breathe deeply

 

According to the Harvard Medical School, breath control calms the body and can be done anywhere and anytime that you’re feeling increased levels of stress and anxiety.

 

To begin, sit or lie comfortably (depending on where you are) and close your eyes. Breathe deeply through your nose and count ‘one’. Exhale while you think the word, ‘relax’.

 

Repeat this action for the count of ten. If you’re currently experiencing increased levels of stress, you should do this exercise at least two or three times a day.

 

The science: According to Harvard Medical School, deep, controlled and slow breathing from the diaphragm actively combats the physiological symptoms that the body experiences when it’s stressed. In addition, taking control of something as simple as our breathing can help us feel much better when everything else feels beyond our control.

 

 

  1. Practice mindfulness

 

The practice of mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment instead of worrying about the future or reliving the past – neither of which you can do anything about.

 

There are a few different ways to practice mindfulness, from simply concentrating on your breathing to actively counting your breaths.

 

According to mindfulness.org, the practice has many positive effects. First, you don’t immediately react to a situation. This moment to pause will often help you react to a situation without stress or anxiety, because you have thought things through.

 

Your level of care and compassion for yourself and others rises, and you are better able to focus.

Finally, you can switch your attitude to the stress itself. Instead of just seeing the negative consequences of feeling stressed, you can think differently about the stress itself and appreciate how it can actually energise and assist you.

 

The science: In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participants were asked tap one computer key per breath for a count of nine breaths, and tap a different key for the tenth breath. The activity required an awareness of the breath to complete, and the researchers found a correlation between accurate breath counting and a positive mood.

 

 

  1. Write it down

 

Most negative thoughts and emotions are a closed loop that go around and around in our thoughts without resulting in action. The more we dwell on them, the more stressed we become, and then we dwell more and so on. It’s a vicious circle.

 

The solution is to get the thought out of your head and onto a piece of paper. This breaks the loop, but it’s also the first step in a process called objective recording.

 

Psychologist L. Kevin Chapman says that objective recording forces us to view our negative thoughts and emotions from an outsider’s perspective.

 

Here’s what you need to do. Take a sheet of paper and write “Negative things I am saying to myself,” at the top of the left-hand side of the page, and “Alternatives” at the top of the right-hand side of the page. Fill out both columns. You’ll quickly see that your stress-fuelled thoughts are mostly in your head – and possibly even quite silly.

 

The science: A study that tracked college students who were assigned to express themselves through writing found that they experienced less stress, depression and anxiety after two months than control students who did nothing.  

 

 

  1. Laugh out loud

 

A good laugh doesn’t just improve your mood – it’s a physical response that actively counteracts the effects of stress.

 

The science: According to the Mayo Clinic, when we laugh, we stimulate our heart, lungs, and muscles because laughing enhances our intake of oxygen-rich air. That’s right – when we laugh we naturally gasp for air. On top of that, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, which promotes a relaxed feeling when they return to normal. Other research had shown that laughter also has the ability to relieve pain, improve immune function, improve mood, and reduce anxiety and depression.

 

Resources:

 

https://hbr.org/2010/07/defend-your-research-the-early-bird-really-does-get-the-worm

https://hbr.org/2014/10/stop-being-so-positive

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/six-relaxation-techniques-to-reduce-stress

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant...

https://www.mindful.org/9-ways-mindfulness-reduces-stress/

https://news.wisc.edu/to-practice-mindfulness-start-by-counting-your-breaths/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19333797

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456

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