Health is often defined by our external appearance (e.g. that person is in shape, so they must be healthy). I bought into this mindset earlier in my career and believed the equation, “diet + exercise = good health” was all that mattered. Although diet and exercise are essential for good health, they’re not the only factors at play. Sleep, sense of purpose, social support, and stress – the four “S’s”, as I call them – are just as vital for good health and successful aging. Let’s take a closer look at stress and I’ll offer four proven ways to reduce it.
Psychological stress is the mental and/or emotional strain from activities and events in life. Feeling overwhelmed, worried, or run-down are all examples of psychological stress. Small amounts of stress can be beneficial. It tends to motivate us and can boost our performance, such as working hard to meet a deadline or participating in a sporting event. Where we get into trouble is when it becomes a chronic, day-to-day issue.
Chronic stress weakens our immune system, making us more susceptible to infections. It also increases our risk of cardiovascular disease, and can lead to the development of psychological disorders like depression or anxiety. On top of this, people who are chronically stressed often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, drinking, or binge eating. Simply put, chronic stress is not good for our mental or physical health.
Everyone is going to be stressed out at some point in their life. What matters most is how we deal with it, and what we do to minimize the total amount of stress in our life. There are numerous ways to reduce stress. Below are my top four evidence-based ways to lower stress and improve your health.
- Exercise: Exercise is a well-established way to reduce stress (1). Any type of exercise can be effective, but aerobic exercise appears ideal. Going for a brisk walk, jog, swim, or bike ride will lower levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s stress hormones. It will also stimulate the production of endorphins (chemicals in the brain that act as natural pain killers and mood enhancers). It’s a win-win!
- Meditate: A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis titled, Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being, found that mindfulness meditation can improve anxiety, depression, pain, stress, and mental quality of life (2). Given the health benefits of meditation, I’ve started incorporating at least five minutes into my daily routine over the past few months. After meditating, I feel less stressed, more grateful, and have a more positive outlook on life. I’ve also noticed that the longer I meditate, the better I feel, which aligns with a Zen adage that states, “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” While there are a variety of different ways to meditate, sitting comfortably in a quiet location with eyes closed is almost universal. From there, you can repeat a positive mantra in your head such as, “I’m exactly where I need to be,” or simply focus on your breathing, allowing any thoughts to drift away. If you prefer some guidance, there are hundreds of guided meditation (someone is talking you through it) videos on YouTube. Do whatever sounds most appealing to you!
- Bathe in Nature: Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese practice of “forest bathing”, also called “forest therapy”. As the name implies, you enter a natural area and simply walk around in a relaxed way. This is thought to have a variety of health benefits, such as reduced stress, improved mood, and more energy. Now I know this sounds like some hippie mumbo jumbo, but there is actually some data to back these claims. Studies show that people spending time or exercising in a natural environment, compared to an urban environment or gym, report less hostility, depression, tension, and anger. They also report more positivity, liveliness, and feelings of revitalization (3-5). Maybe nature is truly cheaper than therapy!
- LOL: As I mentioned in this post, there is an Irish proverb that states, “A good laugh and long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” As it turns out, laughing is a great way to lower stress. In fact, laughter therapy, which relies upon various techniques to produce laughter, has shown promising results when studied. It’s been shown to reduce depression and improve sleep in the elderly, reduce depression, anxiety and stress in cancer patients, lower stress and improve the mood of adolescents, reduce anger in a local population after an oil spill, and reduce depression and anxiety in hospitalized military personnel (6-10). Watching a funny movie, joking around with friends, or playing a fun game are all good ways to bring about laughter. Granted, you can always fake it. Seriously, give it a try right now. Start “fake laughing” uncontrollably and see how it makes you feel. It often leads to real laughter, especially if you do it with a friend.
So there you have it, my top four evidence-based ways to shed stress. Think about how you can incorporate these into your daily life. You could, for example, bike, jog, or walk to work. During your lunch break, find a natural area where you can walk around or meditate. Surround yourself with people or things that make you laugh. Or, if need be, fake it. Pick a time of the day where you can fake laugh, like in the shower or during your work commute. Find what works best for you and go for it!
- Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction
- Green exercise as a workplace intervention to reduce job stress. Results from a pilot study.
- Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review.
- Effects of laughter therapy on depression, cognition and sleep among the community-dwelling elderly
- The Effect of Laughter Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Patients with Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy.
- The Effects of Laughter Therapy on Anger, Anger Expressions and Mental Status After Oil Spill in Victimized Community Residence
- Effects of Laughter Therapy on Stress Response and Pain of Military Personnel with Low Back Pain in Hospital
- Psychological, immunological and physiological effects of a Laughing Qigong Program (LQP) on adolescents.