Stress can be a positive force in our lives when it is short-lived and when we use it to direct our energies to beneficial action. In other words, stress isn’t all bad. It serves a purpose.
The problem comes when we forget to take time out from stress, or when we feel helpless in the face of it, or when we simply let it rule us and run us into the ground. At that point, stress becomes an enemy instead of the helpful friend it was meant to be. We lose our way. We lose our ability to reason. We lose our health and our emotional wholeness.
This world, your world, my world—needs to diminish stress, even as it requires stress. I’m guessing that you don’t have to think too hard about how to get some stress into your life. We each come by it pretty simply. What may be harder is to know how to diminish it at key moments, so you can come back and harness its power later on when you are refreshed and ready to think, act, and be creative.
10 Ways You Can Take Action—to Diminish Stress Right Now
1. Look out onto a green space or a blue space. (Simply put, find some trees or fields… lake or river or ocean and spend an hour immersing yourself in the view.) Both kinds of spaces have been shown to calm us physiologically and help us refocus.
2. Take a walk in the sun. Exercise reduces anxiety at both the muscle and the brain level. Can you walk in the sun? All the better. When the sun touches our skin, it causes us to release chemicals that ultimately calm us down physiologically.
3. Think of a lullaby your mother sang to you. Yes! It’s been shown that this relieves stress. Alternately, if you can’t remember such an experience, you could try singing a lullaby to yourself or someone else. Singing calms us physiologically. If we picture singing to a loved-one, the image of the loved-one calms us, too (positive visualization is powerful for calming us down).
4. Speaking of pictures, look at them. Anxiety reduces when we look at pictures of people we love. Are they smiling? Great. Because a smile has excellent effects, too.
5. And, speaking of smiles, try one on for size. The mere act of smiling puts us in a better mood. It is virtually impossible to feel out-of-sorts while you are engaged in smiling.
6. Let’s go back to that side-note about visualization. What we visualize causes our brains to respond; if we focus on pain it increases. But the brain has a fixed capacity for conscious attention, so we can use that reality to visualize positive things instead, and that can calm us down. I loved the suggestion in one book I read, to “imagine touching the sun.”
7. Meditate. This can be done through the simple act of sitting in silence and focusing on just breathing in and out. If you like, you can repeat a small phrase or prayer of love and kindness, over and over while you sit in silence. Meditation produces high activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that’s associated with positive thoughts and emotions. And, the prefrontal cortex is crucial for rational thinking, social relationships, and self-regulation. Also, purposely attending to our breathing can positively impact the vagus nerve, which turns down stress in our bodies.
8. Do something that has a strong sense of positive control and purpose, especially if it can be linked to something you love. This increases the level of telomerase enzyme—an enzyme that is critical for reducing premature aging and disease, and which is otherwise potentially depressed by stress.
9. Engage in a beautiful ritual. Rituals make an abstract thought more concrete and they take such thought beyond the brain to feeling in the body. What we feel in our bodies also then goes on to re-impact the brain. So it can be a lovely virtuous circle. Rituals also connect us to each other, and positive social connection can reorient us physiologically. Looking for a very simple ritual? For example, I recently asked a friend to light a candle one night. That lighting of a candle was something we could both do even though we’re separated by many miles.
10. Drink a cup of tea. The chemicals in tea calm us physiologically, as long as we don’t overdo it on the caffeine scale. Tea can also be part of that “beautiful ritual” we were just talking about. Further, it has been found that pleasing natural fragrances improve our affective states. I think I’ll brew a fragrant cup right now. (Light a candle, pour a spot of tea, join me. Rejuvenated, we can go on to make the world a better place.)
Some of the sources for the facts in this article:
Psychology Today magazine
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder