How does your body feel right now? Is your jaw clenched, are your shoulders tight and does it feel like your neck is in a vice? Or maybe you feel chill right now, but boy, those symptoms sound so familiar!
We hear you — stress can sometimes feel like a part of daily life, and that’s not great news for your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, when this type of tension runs rampant in our lives, it can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and more. Along the way, it can cause headaches, muscle pain, exhaustion, stomach issues and depression.
So to protect your well-being — and to find a measure of happy calm in your day — it makes sense to have a number of quick moves and fixes that can bring down your level of tension quickly.
Table of Contents
Ways to relieve stress quickly
1.Use your breath
Breath-work is a tried-and-true, research-based method that’s a gentle but speedy way to bring down your anxiety level, by lowering your blood pressure and heart rate. One type of breath-work to try: alternate nostril breathing. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, put your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril; then release your thumb, place your ring finger over your left nostril and exhale via your right one. Without moving your finger, inhale via your right nostril, close it with your thumb, exhale left, inhale left, close that nostril, exhale right, etc. Experts suggest that you start with 11 rounds at first.
2. Get up and dance!
The same study review also found that when dance movement is worked into therapy, subjects reported a significant decrease in physical signs of stress (such as reduced cortisol levels) — and people reported that they were better able to psychologically cope with stress in their lives as well. So take dance breaks when you’re at home, or sign up for dance classes — also stress-busting!
3. Take a walk
Even just a 10-minute brisk stroll can lower your anxiety levels, research shows shows. It makes sense, considering that any sort of exercise boosts mood-regulating neurochemicals in your brain. This includes serotonin, which helps induce a feeling of calm, and dopamine, which activates the brain’s reward system. Combine your walk with listening to music you love, or a phone conversation with a friend, and you’ll get an extra boost. Or walk with a friend or even a group, because socializing is another feel-good activity.
4. Create some art
A large-scale review of studies found that drawing, working with clay and doing other sorts of art activities can significantly reduce anxiety and bring on a feeling of calm, as measured by a decrease in cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at it: What you produce is less important than just the process of creation itself.
5. Listen to music you love
A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that listening to relaxing music helped lower the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in college students during exams, and they also self-reported feeling less stressed. Listening to music that they considered energizing had the opposite effect — however, in general, listening to the stuff they enjoyed seemed to be very important. So if bouncy music is your jam, you may just find your muscles unclenching.
6. Stretch your body
Stretching relaxes and loosens the body, of course, but there’s also evidence that it can ease the mind — because when your body is tense, your mind gets, well, tight as well. A 2013 controlled trial showed that doing 10 minutes of stretching for three months made people feel less anxious and burned out. And according to UHS Berkeley, stretching in a slow and mindful way is a great way to reduce stress. Research there suggests that as you stretch, you breathe in a slow and controlled way, and focus on the muscles you want to stretch.
7. Get outside
There’s a reason why nature has been called “Vitamin N” — there’s plenty of research backing up the idea that it’s not just good for the soul, but good for the body as well. It can reduce feelings of stress overall, and help you deal with tension as it comes up.
8. Do progressive relaxation
This is a long-established technique that lets you release feelings of mental stress by tensing and relaxing your muscles. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate, and make those pesky stress hormones become less active. One method of progressive relaxation you can try out is to work your way from your toes up to your neck and head. Lie down or sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and tense the muscles in your toes and feet for five seconds, then release. Move on to your calves—tighten the muscles, hold, then release. Keep going up your body until you reach your neck, your jaw, your forehead—and by then, you should feel pretty chill!
9. Try chewing gum
Yes, it sounds weird, but for various scientific reasons, there’s some evidence that when you chew gum, it can reduce stress (it has to do with neurons in various parts of the brain, but the research isn’t clear about exactly why it can help). Just make sure the gum is sugarless, because having to visit the dentist to deal with cavities is definitely not good for one’s stress level.
10. Pet your fur-baby (or someone else’s!)
There’s a bunch of research showing that interacting with dogs and cats is good for both improved mood and stress relief. For example, one study on college students that were given the chance to interact, pet and cuddle with these critters for 10 minutes in an animal visitation program found a reduction in cortisol levels in saliva and reported less psychological stress. Other research has found an increase in emotional support when the pet is the person’s own. So if you have a dog or cat, take advantage of that when you’re feeling tense; and if you’re not, consider volunteering at a local animal shelter — for the animals’ benefit as well as your own!
11. Take a quick nap
If you had a lousy night’s sleep, there’s some evidence that taking a nap could ease some of your body’s physical stress the next day. Note that the study was small, included only men and was done in 2015 — but it actually measured the levels of exuded stress hormones in the body (in other words, it wasn’t just that the study subjects felt better). And hey, any excuse for turning off your brain via a quick catnap is probably welcome. One thing to note, though: Naps aren’t recommended for those with sleep disorders.
12. Get a splash of chill (literally)
Splash or dunk your face in a bowl of ice cold water for 15 to 20 seconds. Weird but true: There’s some evidence that immersing your face in cold water engages your body’s relaxation system to counteract your stress response. You can also ttake a cold shower, or hold an ice cube or chilly drink to your face.
13. Get rid of one nagging little task
Pick one thing you’ve been putting off — dropping that pile of clothes off at the drycleaner, calling your financial planner, returning the too-small jacket you ordered–and just do it. Today. Chores like this take up space in our brain, causing an underlying level of stress; crossing even one of them off your mental list will give you a few moments of “ahhhhh.”
14. Cross off a health worry, too
Stressing about a weird-looking mole, a postponed vaccine or an unusual bump on your leg? This kind of concern also leads to underlying tension that can wear on our souls. Call your doctor to discuss it, to cross that worry off your list.
15. Get your ha-ha on
Watching a funny video and experiencing “mirthful laughter” had an immediate and significant effect on perceived stress, according to a study on healthy women done at Western Kentucky University. The study didn’t look at whether the stress reduction lasted, but when you’re looking for a quick way to bring your stress temperature down, grab your phone and look at whatever cracks you up, whether that’s videos of cats doing weird things or your favorite comic’s latest Instagram reel.
16. Swap chores with a friend
Here’s a way to get in some socializing (good for your body and mind!) and get rid of an annoying chore that’s eating away at your well-being: Agree that you’ll spend some time at your place, say, cleaning out your junk drawer, and then go to her home and tackle the dusting. Follow it up with a glass of wine for the win!
17. Sniff some lavender
There have been a lot of dubious health claims about essential oils, but there’s actually research to support the relaxing power of lavender. One study showed its effectiveness in helping to ease anxiety in people with anxiety disorders, so it’s worth a try to see if it brings you a measure of peace. Put a couple of drops in an aromatherapy diffuser or simply onto a piece of cloth, close your eyes and inhale.
18. Cancel something — anything
Especially if you tend to over-schedule your time, take a look at your calendar and see what you can postpone or even cancel. It’s key to your mental health to give yourself the time and space in your brain in order to recharge, particularly since there’s so much of life that can’t be changed or cancelled!
19. Reconsider negative friendships
Speaking of cancelling: You know those people who just suck the life out of you, either with constant negativity, criticism, judgy-ness or gossip? If there’s no reason why you have to keep them in your life (meaning, they’re not a relative you can’t avoid), then it’ll definitely lead to less stress if you can see them less often or end the friendship completely.
20. Ease Sunday stress
If you spend the last part of your weekend worrying about the week ahead, it’s a great idea to take some steps to ease that tension. One way to do that: Schedule something fun or pleasurable for Monday or Tuesday, whether that’s an after-work meet-up with a friend, or a quick lunchtime mani self-care break! Having a cool activity to look forward to can reduce some of that dread, and that good feeling can snowball into a better week all around.
When to seek professional help
Some signs of stress include: change in sleep or eating habits, irritablity, sadness and trouble concentrating. If you’re finding yourself stressed often and for long periods of time, or if your stress is causing you to feel overwhelmed and not in control of your emotions, it’s time to get help from a licensed professional. A therapist can help you develop your own coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. In an acute crisis or an emergency, don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or text “NAMI” to 741-741.
Lisa (she/her) is the executive director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, a team that produces health and wellness content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. Formerly the executive editor of Women’s Health, The Good Life and Parenting magazines and a senior editor at Esquire and Glamour, she specializes in producing investigative health reports and other stories that help people live their healthiest possible lives. She has won many editing awards, including the National Magazine Award.
Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor emerita of psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst and faculty fellow in gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston