Let’s face it — we all get stressed out. Whether it's everyday aggravations that pile up or unexpected traumatic events that throw us into a tailspin, stress takes a toll on both our mental well-being and on our physical health. In fact, according to the American Institute of Stress, the stress levels felt by Americans are 20 percentage points higher than the global average. But there’s good news. Experts say there are simple, science-backed strategies that can help you relax within minutes. Spoiler alert: It’s easier than you think!
1. Take a breath
By simply taking control of your breath, you can help your mind and body relax in minutes. When you're stressed, the brain tells the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine. These powerful stress hormones prepare you to fight off a perceived threat by making your heart beat faster, raising your blood pressure and boosting glucose levels in your bloodstream. “There's a kind of snowball effect that can happen,” David Spiegel, Willson professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and co-founder of Reveri, a self-hypnosis and stress relief app, tells Yahoo Life. “You notice your body getting tense; your muscles get tense. Then you think, ‘Oh, my God, this must be really bad,’ so you worry more. And what you want to do is interrupt that.”
One easy way to interrupt that snowball effect is through breathing. Normally it’s an automatic function we don’t even think about. Spiegel co-led a study where participants performed various types of breathing exercises for five minutes a day over the course of a month. “We found at the end of the month that ‘cyclic sighing’ in particular resulted in improved mood, people felt happier, and they had a lower respiratory rate overall,” Spiegel says.
To try cyclic sighing for yourself, first inhale through your abdomen, expanding your belly halfway and then holding. Next, extend that breath through your chest and fill your lungs fully through your nose. Finally, exhale very slowly through your mouth. “The slow exhale is very important because when you're exhaling, you're increasing pressure in your chest. You're not only expelling air, but you're returning more blood to your heart,” explained Spiegel. “The heart gets a signal that says, ‘Oh, there's plenty of blood here. I don't have to pump as hard.’ And what that means is that you're triggering the self-soothing component of your autonomic nervous system and calming your body down.” Spiegel suggests doing this exercise three to four times a day, or just any time you start to feel uptight.
2. Listen to music
Research shows that listening to music releases dopamine in the body, which makes us happy. “The enjoyment of music appears to involve the same pleasure center in the brain as other forms of pleasure, such as food, sex and drugs,” Shahram Heshmat, an emeritus associate professor of behavioral economics at the University of Illinois-Springfield, tells Yahoo Life.
A 2021 study revealed that adults who listened to music were able to reduce their cortisol levels significantly. Songs for relaxation don’t necessarily have to be instrumental, says Heshmat. “Lyrics that resonate with the listener’s personal experiences can give voice to feelings or experiences that one might not be able to express oneself.”
“It's going to be unique for each person because of the way our preferences are built. Our music preferences are going to provide us [with] the most meaning and memory and have a potential for relaxation and enjoyment,” Leslie A. Orozco Henry, professor and director of music therapy at Alverno College in Milwaukee, tells Yahoo Life.
So how does it work? Within milliseconds of entering our ears — before we even know it’s happening — music transports to two parts of our brain, says Henry. “One area is the area that processes and influences our awareness of events and of our environment. So, it kind of orients us to what we're listening to,” she explained. “The next stop is a place called the thalamus. This is the central processing unit of the brain that sends all sensory information out to all the different parts of our brain and tells us what we need to know about that thing and how to respond to it with our bodies.”
If you want the music to help change the way you’re feeling, Henry says to try matching your mood to the music first. “And then what I would do is I would gradually move the needle to the other direction to try and help myself take that edge off.” And you don’t have to lock yourself away to feel these positive effects. Henry says listening to music with others can also be therapeutic. “I think groups are a beautiful way and music is a wonderful connector to bring people together. Regardless of what political ideology, what group you belong to, what identity you have, you still can find commonality in music.”
Just like any exercise, practice makes perfect. So, the more you use music intentionally to relax your body and mind, the quicker you’ll reap the benefits. “It's like developing a muscle,” says Henry. “We need to practice regularly for it to work when we really need it.”
3. Pet a dog
Studies show our four-legged furry friends can be helpful in relaxation. Nancy Gee, professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been researching this topic for more than two decades. She tells Yahoo Life one study shows, “Just five minutes of interacting with a dog, for a stressed healthcare worker, can decrease their cortisol to the same level as if they had sat alone in a quiet room for 15 minutes.” She says she’s seen the same effects on college students through its Dogs on Call program. “We're asked to come down to the VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] campus frequently and do these de-stress events for university students who are studying for finals or just dealing with the stress of academic life,” Gee says. “Just watching the students from the moment they walk in until the moment they walk out of that room, there's an entire demeanor change.” When the dog interaction was paired with an on-campus stress management program, the students also had an increase in executive function that helped them plan better and stay on task. “So having a dog in those settings is not only stress-reducing, but it's also beneficial to the point that it may help university students with their academic success.”
When humans interact with animals, their blood pressure and cortisol levels drop while oxytocin tends to increase. This is the feel-good hormone that helps us think more clearly. “Sometimes when we're under those kinds of high-pressure situations, it can be challenging to make decisions, or maybe we make snap decisions that we regret later,” says Gee. “But when we are more relaxed, we're more able to inhibit these off-task thoughts.”
4. Try coloring
Crayons aren’t just for kids anymore. According to numerous studies, coloring not only relaxes your mind and body but can potentially ease depression and anxiety, improve your sleep, sharpen your focus and increase your motor skills. “Repetitive movement can be soothing and calming for some people,” Joel Bobby, a licensed independent clinical social worker in psychiatry and psychology, tells Yahoo Life. “When a person can focus on the simple act of coloring, they can let go of the other demands and judgments in their lives.”
Coloring helps relax the fear center of your brain, the amygdala, and puts you in a meditative state by reducing restless thoughts. Coloring also requires the two hemispheres of your brain to communicate. The logic side helps you stay inside the lines while choosing colors generates creative thoughts.
So where should you start? One study from 2020 showed participants reported feeling calm, safe and at ease after just 20 minutes of coloring mandalas, geometric symbols that are made up of circles with repeating symmetrical shapes. Another study showed using the colors blue and pink resulted in a higher reduction of stress levels. But if you don’t happen to have any mandala coloring books or blue and pink crayons laying around, Bobby says that’s OK. “From my experience with patients who color as a coping strategy, I think any kind of coloring, and being able to pay attention to the one activity for any length of time, has been helpful in reducing stress.”
And before you say, ‘I’m not artistic’ ... guess what? You don’t have to be! “Coloring can be done with no specific expectations or demands, deadlines or judgment,” says Bobby. “It can be an open-minded, creative experience with no pressure to ‘do it right’ or in any particular way.”
He says this easy and affordable activity could be beneficial to companies as they look for ways to reduce stress at the office. “I hope as the research becomes more widely known and acknowledged, employers will consider this as a healthy option for employees to utilize on their breaks and throughout the workday.”
5. Peel an orange
When you get stressed out, your vitamin C levels tend to decline rapidly. That’s because your adrenal glands need vitamin C to produce the influx of those stress hormones. But even if you don’t want to eat an orange, simply peeling an orange can reduce stress, improve your mood and make you feel more relaxed. That’s because 97% of the essential oils found in a sweet orange rind are composed of a chemical constituent called limonene. This chemical produces an uplifting and stimulating physiological effect and is also found in many cannabis strains. In contrast to your other senses that pass through the thalamus first, your sense of smell has a direct link to the brain where memories and emotions are processed — so the effects can be felt even faster.
In one study, researchers diffused the scent of oranges into a dental office waiting room. The participants reported an overall decreased level of anxiety while the women who were exposed to the orange aroma had a higher level of calmness compared with the men. In another study, researchers emitted the smell of sweet oranges into an office break room and discovered the fragrance promoted relaxation among the employees. Studies have also shown that orange aromatherapy can be a noninvasive and effective method for reducing anxiety during the stress of childbirth.
But if keeping a stash of fresh oranges nearby to peel whenever you get stressed seems a bit much, keep a small jar of sweet orange essential oils with you instead and apply a few drops on your wrists, temples, neck or behind your ears when feeling stressed.
No matter what de-stressing strategy works best for you, just remember you’re not alone. “The only people who aren't stressed at all are dead,” says Spiegel. “Take care of your body first and it will help you take care of the problems that you need to deal with.”