Whether it’s the demands of family, pressure at work, our current political climate, or all of the above, we all experience stress from time to time. But, as I explain here, stress that’s relentless rather than occasional can have serious negative effects on your health. Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety, depression, heart disease, obesity, and more. Since we can’t escape the struggles of daily life, how do we make sure stress doesn’t get the best of us? Here are five stress management training exercises that can be used by you personally or, if you’re an employer, shared with employees and coworkers.
According to a New York Times article on the power of controlled breathing, experts believe taking slow and steady breaths activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing heart rate and promoting calm feelings. The beauty of breathing techniques (aside from how well they work) is they require no special equipment and can be done anytime, anywhere. Andrew Weil, MD, recommends the 4-7-8 breathing technique for coping with stress and anxiety. Here’s how it works:
- Exhale fully, then inhale through your nose for four counts.
- Hold the breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.
- Repeat the cycle for a total of four breaths.
- You can see a video of Dr. Weil demonstrating 4-7-8 breathing here.
Mindfulness meditation is a scientifically proven stress reliever. In one study, people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. Like breathing exercises, meditation doesn’t require any gear—simply carve out a few minutes and close your office door (or use that conference room that always seems to be empty). There are even meditation apps to help you get started, and you can read about some of my favorites here. To learn more about mindfulness meditation, including the ways it can change your brain, see my post here.
I talk a lot about the stress-busting power of exercise, but that’s because I know firsthand how well it works—and science supports my experience. In one study, the brains of mice who were allowed access to an exercise wheel for six weeks actually changed to better handle stress. Think you don’t have time to work out? Instead of wasting time online over lunch, try taking a quick walk around the block, which some research has shown to have the same effect as a mild tranquilizer. (Since exercise also improves your focus and concentration, you’ll be more relaxed AND super sharp for that afternoon meeting.) Employers and managers, consider setting up an afternoon fitness class for your employees. They’ll likely be more productive after a good workout.
This relaxation exercise couldn’t be easier since it involves nothing more than visualizing a peaceful environment. Whether it’s the beach, the woods, or the comfy chair in your living room, mentally visiting your happy place can help calm you when you’re feeling stressed out. MentalHelp.net suggests honing in on all the sensory aspects of your favorite spot, so if you’re picturing yourself on the beach, make sure to consider the smell of the ocean, the sound of seagulls overhead, and the feeling of salt spray on your skin. Need additional inspiration? You can find tons of guided imagery videos on YouTube.
If you’ve ever cranked some tunes REALLY LOUD after a hard day at the office, you know the stress-relieving power of music. Not only can music amp you up (powering you through that last quarter mile of a run, for example), it can also calm you down. In a study where college students gave a presentation with either Pachaelbel’s Canon or no music playing in the background, those in the music group had less anxiety, slower heart rates, and lower blood pressure than those who presented in silence. Other research indicates listening to classical music may improve sleep, so consider turning on the stereo at bedtime if stress is keeping you up at night.
You can’t eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how you handle it. Interested in learning more about stress management training exercises? See my post on corporate stress management for more information on how to handle stress at work, or check out my Simple 10-Day Meditation Course.