9 Easy Ways to Reduce Stress and Boost Mood

Simplistic but effective.

By Sandy Cohen
February 4, 2020

Stress is not only damaging to your mental well being, but also adversely affects your physical health. Stress causes inflammation in the body, which is implicated in a whole host of medical conditions no one wants, from heart disease and stroke to cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Sometimes the things that feel like they ease stress — booze, Netflix binges, online shopping — actually compound it. The good news is there are lots of free and easy ways proven to reduce stress and boost mood, and some of them work almost instantly.

Next time you’re feeling fatigued and overwhelmed (maybe right now?), try a few remedies from the following list.

Go outside
Natural environments soothe the psyche. Most of us spend the majority of our days indoors — and most of that time staring at screens — but human beings need sunlight and fresh air to thrive. Studies find that time in nature results in reduced stress and increased joy. And you don’t need to escape to a mountain retreat to reap the benefits. Can you have lunch outside where you can see trees and sky? Or walk through a park after work? Even looking at nature through a window or watching fish in an aquarium can ease worries and provide a psychological boost. 

Take a few deep-belly breaths
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep-belly breathing, calms the body and mind almost instantly. When we’re stressed, we tend toward quick, shallow breaths that begin and end at the chest. Breathing deeply from the diaphragm, though, activates the relaxation response, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve that physically links mind and body. Deep-belly breaths restore the whole system, and you can do them anywhere. Simply sit comfortably, relax your shoulders, and place a hand on your belly. Inhale deeply for two to four seconds until you feel your stomach expand with air. Pause briefly, then exhale for another two to four seconds as your stomach empties and contracts. Repeat at least three times. Aaaaahhh.

Do something kind
Performing acts of kindness, even when we’re not in the mood, is proven to make us happier. And it doesn’t have to be a grand, dramatic gesture. Simple, brief acts of kindness are effective, too. Send a supportive text message to a friend or family member, or give a loved one a quick call to wish them well. Smile at a stranger on the street, or make friendly conversation with the barista making your coffee. Even a little bit of kind action can give you a lift.

Focus on gratitude
Many studies attest to the power of gratitude to make us happier, healthier and more resilient. As with kindness, even quick bursts of gratitude can ease stress by shifting our focus from what’s wrong to what’s right. Take a few minutes to reflect on the good things in your life, however small. For instance, you could be thankful for the ability to read this list of tips and for the device you’re reading it on. Feel gratitude for your friends, your health (however imperfect) and your job (even if it’s stressing you out, it’s helping to pay the bills). Looking at what we have, rather than what we lack, primes us to feel good.

Take a self-compassion break
Like an act of kindness directed inward, a self-compassion break invites you to focus on a stressful situation and deliberately offer yourself the kind of compassionate understanding you’d give a friend. To do it, acknowledge the stressor and remind yourself that everyone has struggles from time to time. Then send yourself kind vibes by saying, “May I give myself the compassion I need,” “May I accept myself as I am,” or the timeless classic, “This too shall pass.”

Give yourself a tiny victory — plus a boost in mental ease and clarity — by tidying up your workspace or an area of your home. Cluttered, messy environments are inherently anxiety-provoking, and as Marie Kondo fans know, there’s “life-changing magic” to organizing and shedding what we no longer need. Set a timer for 10 minutes and go to town on your desk, closet, pantry, or any cluttered space. Wipe away dust and grime, put things in the trash or give-away pile, then relish in the calm you feel and fresh cleanliness you’ve created.

(These next three strategies require a greater time commitment, but they’re some of the most effective stress reducers/happiness boosters around.)

Regular physical activity is practically a panacea. Exercise improves mood, cognitive function and self-esteem, lowers the risk and incidence of depression and anxiety, improves sleep, boosts circulation, strengthens the body, diminishes disease risk and makes you look better. Try for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week, but even a 10-minute burst of activity yields benefits.

Get more sleep
An overwhelming majority of us regularly do not get enough sleep. Whether it’s due to ever-expanding to-do lists or the array of excellent TV options, skimping on sleep comes at a high cost to our health and happiness. It makes us more prone to stress and disease, shortens our emotional fuse and takes a toll on memory, cognition and appearance. If you only do one thing on this list to reduce stress and boost your mood, make it getting more sleep. Even if you insist you feel fine on five hours, studies show adults need at least seven hours of sleep nightly to function optimally. Kids need even more. To improve your sleep situation, consider setting an alarm to alert you when it’s time to get ready for bed. Institute an evening routine that prepares you for slumber — something as simple as washing your face and putting on pajamas will do. Minimize screen time before bed, keep your bedroom cool and dark and snooze your way to a calmer, happier self.

Simple yet often deceptively challenging, meditation can do wonders for mental health. Engaging in mindfulness or focused reflection for even a few minutes a day reduces stress and anxiety, boosts emotional resilience and can lead to increased gray matter in the brain. Though meditation is as simple as breathing, any novice meditator can tell you that staying focused on the breath (or mantra, or guided session) without being distracted by a stream of endless thoughts isn’t easy. But distraction is part of the process, experts say, so long as you keep returning to your focus again and again. Whether you use an app like Headspace, follow guided meditations on YouTube or simply sit and breathe, the benefits of a calmer, less reactive mind come with sustained practice, so stick with it.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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