From conflicts with colleagues or family, frustrations at work, or even being stuck in traffic – our daily lives are not short on stress. These common upsets – “psychosocial stressors” – incite our emotions, and our brains are equipped with strategies to help regulate them: we might use self-control to override the instinct to focus only on the negative, or reframe stressful situations in a different light to make them less distressing.
As we’ve adapted to the digital age, we’ve adopted habits that hinder the brain’s efforts to regulate emotion. Just five nights of looking at a computer screen for two hours between 9pm and 11pm can lead to a rise in negative emotions the following morning, and instant communication through smartphones tempts us into a state of incessant vigilance.
Your brain records things as you perceive them, not as they actually happen. So if you launch a colossal stress reaction every time someone nudges you on the train, or you read an annoying news headline, or discover you’ve run out of milk, your brain will record your day as having been inordinately stressful when in reality it was quite ordinary. Over time, an overactive emotional brain has trouble bouncing back.
But there are ways to cope. Learning how to anticipate a stressful situation, how to reduce the intensity of your reaction, and how to speed up your recovery can significantly lighten your stress load.
1 Do some gentle morning exercise
In 2015, researchers from Berlin found that in a group of young men, exercising at moderate intensity reduced the cortisol response to psychological stress that happened 90 minutes later. Exercising may also help alleviate anxiety when faced with a sudden, unpredictable shock – in a 2018 study in Maryland, US volunteers who exercised at moderate intensity for 30 minutes, were less startled when given an electric shock to the back of the arm without expecting it, an hour after the workout, compared with those who had not exercised.
2 Spend time with a close friend
A 2003 Zurich study found a group of healthy young men had a smaller stress response to a psychologically stressful experience if they had spent time with a best friend immediately beforehand. Humans have evolved in tribes – we are hard-wired to feel safer around human connection.
3 Start the day with time outside
Observing the natural world may help you recover faster from subsequent stressful experiences, according to a 2013 study by researchers from the University of Essex. In the study, people looked at pictures of nature, so even if you can’t head out to a garden or park, simply looking at scenes on your laptop can do the trick.
4 Remember to breathe
Several studies demonstrate slow, deep breathing is calming. Most recently, researchers from Georgia, in the US, observed that 15 minutes of deep breathing reduced reactivity of the nerve network that is active during the stress response in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
5 Take control
Believing you are in control of your environment can help curb your stress reaction. As you walk into a stressful situation, remind yourself what is under your control – the length of time you spend in a room, what you will or won’t say to somebody, for example. Or if being stuck in a traffic jam is stressing you out, take steps to improve your immediate environment, for instance by planning what you’ll listen to, or using props to make your seat more comfortable.
6 Pour a brew
Tea has anecdotally been associated with stress relief, but this has seldom been tested scientifically. But in a head to head comparison of black tea with a different caffeinated drink, each containing 72mg of caffeine, researchers at University College London discovered tea drinkers recovered faster after stress.
7 Immerse yourself in something else
When you leave an emotionally stressful scene, you might have physically left it but your mind is often still there, replaying the scene on loop. Find an activity that stops your mind from wandering – anything absorbing that you enjoy (even playing a game on your phone). In 2002, researchers from the University of California put healthy volunteers through a mentally stressful experience. Half were allowed to rest afterwards while the others were given something demanding to do, requiring their full attention – it was this group who relaxed faster.
8 Go for a walk
After a particularly stressful experience, head for a walk or other low intensity exercise. For the rest of the day, move at every opportunity, so you’re physically tired by bedtime. Keep it gentle – lighter exercise is best after stress, as it reduces the stress hormone cortisol, while intense exercise can raise its levels. Your heart may not appreciate an all-out workout after a bout of intense stress, either. A 2016 study spanning 52 countries found exercising vigorously while you’re emotionally upset or angry can triple your risk of a heart attack. If you can be around nature while you exercise, even better. Exercising on a cycling machine while listening to birdsong or looking at a nature video reduced perceived stress more than exercising alone. If you’re short on time, even a 15-minute walk can calm you down.
9 Write it down
During a distressing experience, your emotions colour your perception of the event. If you revisit the scene without these emotions, the same event can appear very different. When you’re calmer, write down what happened as if you were a third person observing the scene. When you put your experience into words, you omit emotions and sensations that are irrelevant to the story. As you record the event on the page, you rewrite its memory in your head.
Stress-Proof: The ultimate guide to living a stress-free life by Dr Mithu Storoni is published on 21 February by Yellow Kite, £14.99
Tune in, chill out: books, podcasts and apps to lift your mood, chosen by Hannah Booth
• Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury). First published last year, this bestseller offers radical new ways of looking at anxiety and depression.
• Worried? Science investigates some of life’s common concerns by Eric Chudler & Lise A Johnson (Norton). This witty but rigorous study by a neuroscientist and an engineer debunks some of our most common worries – from shark attacks to bedbugs.
• Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (Penguin). An accessible and insightful guide to reducing your use of digital tools for a more productive and peaceful life.
• Ten to Zen by Owen O’Kane (Bluebird). A highly practical workout for busy minds – in 10-minute bursts – from this NHS mental health service practitioner.
• Pacifica: This app uses a CBT-based approach to counter cycles of negative thoughts, with relaxation and mindfulness techniques and audio exercises. Free app; from $3.99 for extras.
• Headspace: A popular app offering guided mindfulness and meditation from former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe. Free starter programme, then from £5.99 month subscription.
• Calm: Over 100 guided meditations covering anxiety, focus, stress, sleep, relationships and more – along with a library of bedtime stories (calm.com). Free seven day trial, then $59.99 annual subscription.
• Happify: Short, science-based activities and games designed to improve your emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction. Free app; from $14.99 a month for advanced options.
• Aura: Personalised mindfulness meditations, life-coaching, stories, music and more to soothe stress and anxiety and help users sleep better. Free app; from $7.99 a month for advanced options.
• Noisli: Generates bespoke music and background noise to help you relax, focus, or relieve anxiety – including waves, rustling leaves and forest birdsong. $1.99 for the app.
Happy Place: Broadcaster Fearne Cotton talks to well-known people – from Tom Daley to Gary Barlow – about love, life and loss (itunes.apple.com). Free.
Soul Music, BBC Radio 4: A powerful, uplifing podcast – currently on series 27 – that explores one piece of music or song, and how it has affected the lives of people around the world. Free.
How to Fail With Elizabeth Day: Stressed at work? Hearing about
other people’s fails (and what they learned) might lift your mood. Free.
Heavyweight: Fascinating documentary series that explores regret; notably, the point in people’s lives where it all went wrong – and how they put it right. A fourth series is on the way. Free.
Oprah’s Masterclass: Honest life lessons from heavyweight celebrity guests, from Jane Fonda to Smokey Robinson. Free.
This article appears in ‘The ultimate guide to easing stress and reducing anxiety’ – free in the Guardian on Saturday