Stress is an unavoidable part of life. From work deadlines to financial pressures to relationship issues, we all encounter situations that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and anxious. While a little stress can help motivate and focus us, prolonged or chronic stress can negatively impact both our mental and physical health. When we experience frequent or intense stress, it triggers our body’s “fight-or-flight” response, flooding our system with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, this can weaken our immune system, raise our blood pressure, and even alter our brain function. Finding effective ways to manage and relieve stress is therefore critical for overall wellbeing. But with so many purported “remedies” out there, from supplements to scented candles, how do you know where to start? According to science, several strategies stand out as the best medicine for stress.
Getting your body moving is one of the most powerful stress relievers. Aerobic exercise in particular, which raises your heart rate – like running, cycling, or dancing – has been proven to decrease stress hormones and elevate mood-boosting endorphins. Just 5 minutes of aerobic activity can start to stimulate anti-stress effects. One study found that participants who did low-to-moderate intensity exercise for 25 minutes 3-5 times a week over 12 weeks showed significant reductions in perceived stress levels. Strength training can also help relieve stress by building muscle and calming the mind. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, to keep stress in check. Even just going for a walk around the block can provide relief by getting you outdoors and moving.
Meditation and Breathing Exercises
Practices that cultivate mindfulness, or an awareness of the present moment, are extremely effective for stress relief. Meditation – whether guided or simply sitting quietly and focusing on your breath – activates the body’s relaxation response. The regular practice of meditation can reduce feelings of anxiety, improve emotional regulation skills, and even change brain structure to promote calmness. Deep breathing exercises help too, as making breathing slower and more controlled directly activates parasympathetic nervous system recovery. This switches off the heightened stress response. Try taking 5-10 minutes each day to meditate or practice breathwork, focusing on taking slow, full belly breaths. Apps like Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer provide guided meditations.
Humans are wired to connect, so relationships are a vital buffer against stress. Sharing feelings and seeking support from others reduces loneliness and distress, while laughter and humor can instantly relieve tension. Face-to-face interaction is best, so make regular dates with friends, join a book club, or visit loved ones. But even maintaining social networks online has benefits. Just interacting with supportive people on Facebook can lower cortisol levels, research shows. Feel-good brain chemicals like oxytocin are released when we bond with others. Make community and meaningful connections a priority in your life to conquer stress.
Therapy and Counseling
When stress becomes severe or unrelenting, seeking professional mental health support can be critical. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and developing healthy coping strategies. EMDR therapy is also highly effective at reducing anxiety and PTSD symptoms related to traumatic stress. Journaling, art therapy, and psychotherapy help process emotions and trauma as well. A good therapist provides both coping tools and a listening ear. Online counseling services like TalkSpace and BetterHelp offer more flexible options for reaching a licensed professional. If finances are an issue, check with your employer or community resources about mental health benefits. Investing in therapy can yield huge dividends for stress management.
Kneading out physical knots through massage soothes tension in the body and the mind. Massage promotes relaxation by increasing endorphins while lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Swedish massage techniques are especially calming, while deep tissue massage releases muscle adhesions and scar tissue. Massage guns and foam rollers are useful at-home tools for myofascial release too. Get a professional 60-90 minute massage every month or as often as you can, focusing on areas that feel tight or sore. Couples massage classes are a relaxing bonding activity as well. Even just having your partner rub your shoulders in the evening can relieve daily stress buildup.
The pressures and demands of modern life will invariably take a toll on our wellbeing. However, through evidence-based techniques like exercise, meditation, social connection, counseling, and massage we can activate our natural relaxation response and avoid the health consequences of chronic stress. While quick fixes like alcohol or retail therapy may provide temporary relief, they tend to exacerbate anxiety and depression. Whereas healthy stress relief is all about responding, not reacting, to life’s ups and downs. Slowing down, supporting our mental and physical resources, and finding purposeful outlets sets us up to handle whatever challenges may come. Making stress relief a priority allows us to be resilient in the face of adversity and live each day from a place of calm. That is the best medicine.