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Stress: we all experience it, and we all know too much of it can be unhealthy. But eliminating it completely isn’t a realistic goal – and, it turns out, it’s not even a good one. Some stress may be healthy for us, as long as it’s balanced with periods of relief and rest. However, it can be tough to achieve calm and focus when daily stressors are, well, everywhere.
Research indicates that some amount of stress can actually be beneficial, helping us to become better able to manage stress, more confident in our ability to handle difficulty, more able to deal with change – in short, it can make us more resilient. It’s like building a muscle in the gym: You stress it over and over with exercise, give it time to heal through rest, and over time, that muscle gets stronger.
But if you worked that muscle over and over with no rest, eventually you would injure it, and it wouldn’t function as well. The same can be said for our overall health when we experience prolonged stress with no relief. Chronic stress, over time, can lead to everything from anxiety and depression to digestive issues, headaches, problems with memory and concentration, weight gain, sleep disorders, and even heart disease.
Given that our days are full of potential stressors, building in quick practices to manage stress and give us regular moments of relief can help us stay on the healthier side of stress. Here are some quick, easy, science-backed hacks for cooling your jets, so you can stay calm, focused and well.
1. Practice deep breathing
If your mom told you to take a deep breath when you were upset as a kid, she was right (thanks, mom!). Deep breaths help you take more air into your lungs, which signals to your brain that you can calm down and relax, and then your brain broadcasts that message to the rest of the body. So your breathing rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax.
“People tend to breathe less when they’re under stress, and they have to be reminded consciously to breathe even more, to breathe even deeper, to breathe solid breaths,” says clinical social worker and therapist Dr. Jed Turnbull. “You want to breathe into your stomach, up into your chest, and even picture and visualize that air and breath going right into your head, into your brain, flowing around, and take your time doing that. Minimum, two full seconds in, and even more important, slowly exhale four seconds out.”
There are many techniques for deep breathing; you can choose one, or experiment with several. The best part: It’s very quick, yet effective. “You can run off to the restroom, get in a stall and do these things in under two minutes, and it’s going to help,” Dr. Turnbull says.
2. Change your focus
If you stare at a screen all day, you know that can leave you feeling tense – plus, after a while, it can become increasingly harder to focus on a task. Luckily, taking regular, very quick breaks can make a big difference. “A lot of people are in front of a screen all day, or they’re in a closed-in workspace, and staring into the distance is very calming,” Dr. Turnbull says, noting that having something to focus on is key. “I don’t just mean looking up at the blue sky, because there’s nothing really to look at. But staring into the distance, if there’s some trees in a park, across the street, outside your window. Something you can focus on in the distance can be very calming.”
The reason? Our modern habit of staring at things up close works against our biology. “It’s basically because 98 percent of our evolution as homo sapiens, we were designed to look more in the distance, for trouble, for food, for all kinds of things,” Dr. Turnbull says. “To look at something up close, as far as a book or a computer screen, it’s kind of an unnatural state for us to be in. And so we have to give ourselves that opportunity to readjust, and to let our brains sync up in the way that they have evolved to do.”
You only have to do this for 30 to 45 seconds every 40 minutes, he notes. The important thing is to do it regularly. If you think you’re too busy to take frequent mini breaks, try to think of it as an investment. Research indicates that our ability to focus begins to drop off if we don’t give our brains that brief rest. So those few seconds looking out a window will make your next 40 minutes of work more efficient and effective.
3. Listen to music
If you enjoy listening to music in your non-work hours, you’re already onto something. In a meta-analysis of more than 45 studies, researchers found that music has a calming effect that shows up in our physical stress response. It can reduce our level of the stress hormone cortisol and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, it can improve mood and give us a temporary emotional break from stress.
Not just any music will do, though; what you listen to matters. “There are specific kinds of music that are really, really good for relaxation,” Dr. Turnbull says. Music with a slow tempo appears to work best, and music without singing is the most calming (music with singing can boost mood but appears to be more exciting and less calming). For a good place to start, try the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union; in one small study, participants reported feeling 6 percent more relaxed when listening to it than when they had a massage, and 11 percent more relaxed than when listening to other songs.
Again, just a few minutes can help you relax, and return to work more focused, Dr. Turnbull notes.
Use these techniques and other calming strategies whenever you’re feeling stressed
In addition to having these techniques in your back pocket, Dr. Turnbull recommends taking the time to note when you regularly feel more stressed, so you can build in calming techniques strategically. “Explore where the areas are that you’re feeling stress,” he says. “What parts of the day, what’s going on, what could be triggering it?” If you have a difficult commute, or a regular check-in meeting with your boss, or a time of day when your energy level naturally drops, any or all of those can be good places to build in a deep-breathing or music break.
Also, he points out that although all of these techniques can help in moments of acute stress, the greater effect happens over time. “Maybe the first time you do a deep breathing technique, it’s only going to keep you relaxed for 30 minutes, or 60 minutes,” he says. “But as you go along, it’s accumulative, so it will last for hours, even throughout the whole day, doing them once a day. So building these techniques into your daily routine will have unquantifiable benefits, long term.”