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20 Science-Backed Ways to Reduce Stress

Keep calm when anxiety strikes with this stress survival plan, curated from experts and research.
20 Science-Backed Ways to Reduce Stress

When stress hits, it’s hard not to feel like you’re trying to claw yourself out of a hole... a very large hole made of sand. Imaginary, of course. But the panicked, overwhelming strain can be felt all the same—whether the source is work, your family, your relationship, or maybe even a combo.

You can't control the cause of your stress, but you can manage the symptoms, alleviate some of the grievances, and remedy the situation as quickly as possible. In fact, we'll help you out. We thumbed through research and took expert advice to bring you the best science-backed remedies to combat stress. Relief is on its way. 

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More than 50 percent of people live in urban areas, and by 2050 numbers are expected to rise to 70 percent, according to research from Stanford University. The problem is urbanization is associated with higher instances of mental illness. Nature can help, though. Participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination (repetitive negative thoughts) compared with those who walked through a cityscape, according to the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Set aside time for your favorite adventures, like hiking or biking. Ari Novick, Ph.D., a therapist specializing in stress management adds: “If you like the activity, then you’ll be more inclined to do it more frequently, which will help ward off stress."

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Most men are more stressed at home than when they’re at work, according to researchers from Penn State University who gave 122 men self-tests and took saliva samples (to check for the stress hormone cortisol) at the participants’ work and home. The culprit? Multitasking. Work barges its way into your non-work life and hinders you from doing either job efficiently. Keep work at work if possible (even if that means staying a little late). 

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A study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health found exercise can help you better manage stressful situations immediately after you work out and in day-to-day life. Researchers had one group of students sit through three separate 30-minute rest sessions and another group participate in three separate bouts of moderate exercise, after which both viewed 90 photos (from the International Affective Picture System, a database of photographs used in emotion research) including highly arousing pleasant and unpleasant photographs, as well as neutral images. They viewed the images again 20 minutes later. Initially, both sets of students were calm and relaxed, but only the exercisers experienced less anxiety after an extended period of time of viewing unpleasant photos. The researchers explain in a real life scenario, too, exercise can act as a buffer against the negative effects of emotional experiences. So, by exercising, you’ll reduce overall anxiety in the short term (in the gym), and be better able to maintain that reduced anxiety when confronted with emotional events in the long term (outside of the gym). 

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People who take annual vacations report having better health, less stress, more energy, a heightened sex drive, better productivity, and increased happiness overall, according to a Nielsen survey, commissioned by Diamond Resorts International. “Vacations should not be considered a luxury—they are a must for our happiness and health in an increasingly stressful world,” said Dale Atkins, Ph.D., Diamond Resorts International’s “Vacation Doctor” in a press release. What’s more: 80 percent of people who go away on vacation at least once a year report that “romance is alive in their relationship,” compared with 56 percent of those who never take a vacation. Spoiler alert: Stress reducer #20 is to have more sex. 

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In a study carried out by researchers at Swinburne University, people who chewed gum while multitasking under taxing conditions experienced reduced stress and anxiety, lower cortisol levels, and increased alertness and performance when compared to the control group. Another study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior also found chewing gum can alleviate a negative mood, boosting calmness and contentment. The researchers say the underlying mechanisms behind these effects are unknown but they think when we chew gum, we're improving blood flow in the brain, which has a marked influence on these emotions. 

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“When we experience stress and the negative emotions associated with it, we typically stay in our own heads and do little to address our thinking," says licensed psychologist L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D. "But a process called ‘objective recording’ forces us to view our circumstances and thoughts from an outsider’s perspective.” Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. At the top of the left column, write “Negative things I am saying to myself.” In the right column, write “Alternatives.” Fill out both columns. “When we simply acknowledge what we’re saying to ourselves out of stress, we often realize how silly we are being.” This process will help put your stress into perspective. Research backs it up; a study published in (the aptly named) Anxiety, Stress, and Coping found college students assigned with expressive writing tasks experienced less depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms after two months than control students who did nothing. 

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If you pull an all-nighter partying or scrambling to meet a work deadline, being groggy and edgy aren't the worst tradeoffs. You up your odds for developing a full-blown anxiety disorder, according to a University of California Berkley study. Regions in your brain that contribute to excessive worrying and anxiety light up when you don’t get sufficient sleep. 

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The term “fight or flight” is also known as the stress response, but breath control helps calm the body, according to Harvard Medical School. Chapman adds, “deep, controlled, and slowed breathing from the diaphragm combats many of the physiological symptoms that we experience when stressed.” When you take control of your breathing and feel in control of just one thing, it can make you feel immensely better. Chapman suggests sitting or lying comfortably with your eyes closed while you deeply inhale through your nose, and count “one.” Then exhale and think the word “relax.” Continue this up to 10. “I would suggest doing this two to three times a day, especially during stressful periods,” says Chapman.  

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A study in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found when people bring their dogs to work it lowers office stress and boosts employee satisfaction. It's even better if you get your own; dogs make excellent running buddies

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Perfectionists set unrealistically demanding goals for themselves, and feel worthless when they don’t achieve those goals. They're also at a higher risk for suicide, according to a study from Canada's University of York. Perfectionists are under constant stress, which can lead to severe psychological pain and hopelessness, but there's a way to break the cycle: Strive for excellence, not perfection. That simple mantra can keep you cool, calm, and collected. 

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Obsessively checking and immediately responding to work emails is seriously stressing us out, according to research from the University of British Columbia. The researchers studied 124 adults and instructed some of them to limit how often they checked their email to three times daily for the week, and told other participants to check their email as often as they liked. The instructions were reversed during the next week. Researchers found that people felt less stressed when they checked their email less often. Try adding your boss and other important folks to your "VIP" email list. That way, you can safely check your email less frequently knowing that the truely important stuff will make it through. 

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Mindfulness, the practice of learning to focus on moment-to-moment experiences with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance is found to be effective in treating psychiatric symptoms, pain, and stress, according to research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. Try it for yourself; zero in on present thoughts, emotions, and sensations to calm the brain and soothe the spirit.

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Like meditation, yoga encourages the use of numerous relaxation techniques, which can make you calmer. Yoga breathing can also bring your mind to the present moment and reduce stress, according to research published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The researchers say "by inducing stress resilience, breath work enables us to rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering." Give it a shot. 

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Get over your preconceptions and sniff some essential oils. Lavender aromatherapy can significantly reduce stress levels, according to research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Other scents like peppermint can boost cognition and mental sharpness, too. 

 

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Specific kinds of music can have measurable stress-reducing effects in people, according to research published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine. Music is even used as a therapeutic tool in the treatment of different diseases; although the scientific background is poorly understood, the so-called "Mozart effect" can make people feel centered, reduce anxiety, depression, and stress-inducing cortisol levels. 

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According to the Mayo Clinic, a good laugh has some stellar short-term effects; it stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles (by enhancing your intake of oxygen-rich air), and increases endorphins released by the brain. A bout of laughter also fires up your stress response, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, before cooling back down, which promotes a relaxed feeling. Research also touts its ability to improve immune function, relieve pain, improve mood, and reduce anxiety and depression. 

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A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that just 45–60 minutes of relaxation massage lowered subjects’ heart rates by more than 10 beats per minute, lowering blood pressure, and promoting serotonin—the sleep hormone. Regular massages can reduce anxiety, eliminate excess stress, and keep cortisol levels in control so your immune system stays in shape.

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Research in The Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic may convince you to undergo hypnosis—if you can wrap your mind around the fact it's not just about a spinning wheel. Researchers randomly assigned participants to an intervention group, which comprised an audio recording of a hypnotic induction accompanied by suggestions for progressive relaxation, imagery, and anchoring to be used for two weeks, or a wait-list group. The study showed that—compared with baseline and wait-list conditions—the hypnotic intervention had a medium-to-large beneficial effect on participants' experience of stress, burnout, and well-being. 

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A Harvard University survey found 25 percent of our happiness relies on how well we're able to manage stress. The researchers polled 3,000 participants across the U.S. and 29 other countries, who responded to an online questionnaire. The participants' stress-management skills were gauged by how they rated their level of agreement with 28 items, such as “I frequently use breathing techniques to help me relax.” They were also asked about how happy and successful they were in their personal and professional lives. Turns out the stress management technique that worked best was planning; when men and women fought stress before it happened, they reduced later onset stress and frustration. 

“Those who plan well tend to feel less stressed,” notes Novick. Tackle more difficult to-do-list items early in the day, week, or month, and save easier duties for later in the day, week, or month. “We have more time and more energy earlier in the day, week, or month than if we wait until a deadline,” he explains.

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Casual sex does the mind and body good. Researchers from Cornell University asked college students to document their sexual encounters for 12 weeks, and monitored their overall well-being. Students who had sex with someone they didn’t know very well (a.k.a they weren’t emotionally attached to) reported a higher sense of well-being and less stress after sex than after no sex at all. Once casual encounter a week seemed to do the trick, but don't go on a one-night stand frenzy—there aren't any health benefits to back that up...just a higher risk for an STI

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