New research has found that people in their sixties who work in high-stress jobs and have little freedom or control to make decisions at work are 15% more likely to die than those in low-stress roles. Stress hormones like cortisol and arginine vasopressin have been implicated in negative outcomes ranging from arthritis, weight gain and insomnia to heart disease, depression and dementia. Feeling your stress levels rise just thinking about it? Here are 20 science-backed ways to tackle it, right now.
1. Change your mindset
The key to conquering stress may not lie in removing it from your life, but in learning to embrace it. Whilst those in high-stress jobs with little freedom seem to be at greater risk of premature death than those in low-stress roles, those in high-stress roles with a greater degree of autonomy are 34% less likely to die than those in low-stress occupations. A stressful job can be experienced as “energising” rather than “debilitating”, Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, the study’s lead author, posits.
Other studies have found that those primed to see stress in a positive light subsequently experience less of it! So, next time you feel the pressure, remind yourself that stress can not only motivate and energise you, but help you live longer, too.
Can’t help but feel helpless in the face of the source of your stress? You can still take steps to mitigate its effects on your mental and physical health. Many stress-related deaths are thought to be linked to unhealthy responses to stress (smoking, drinking, comfort eating…) and not directly to the stress itself.
2. Smile through it
The physical act of smiling can directly affect your mood, as well as your body’s response to stress. Research has found that people directed to smile through a stressful task recover more quickly.
3. Put it on your to-do list
Scheduling 30 minutes of dedicated ‘worry time’ into your day could help you manage stress more effectively, according to researchers. The catch? You are only allowed to worry within this 30 minute period!
4. Drink tea
Regular tea drinkers experience less stress and release less cortisol in response to stressful tasks. Scientists believe that the amino acids found in green and black teas may have calming effects.
5. Chew gum
Chewing gum for at least 5 minutes, twice a day lowered the anxiety levels of a group of stressed-out nurses. They also experienced a boost in energy.
6. Get a plant
The soothing effects of nature are well-documented. Look out of the window. The more trees you can see, the quicker you’ll recover from a stressful task. If the view from yours is more concrete jungle than suburban oasis, don’t despair – a desk plant could have similar effects. It’s also worth taking the occasional trip to the beach – researchers believe that ‘blue spaces’ (i.e. locations near open water) could have greater impact on stress levels than green spaces.
7. Get a pet
The act of petting a dog or cat has been proven to lower blood pressure, and has near-instantaneous effects. Research has also found that people cope better with a stressful task when their pet sits in on it with them as opposed to their spouse.
8. Get a massage
Researchers believe that massage could have a direct impact on stress-related hormones. A weekly Swedish massage decreases the levels of cortisol and arginine vasopressin (associated with a host of ill-effects, from weight gain to heart disease) circulating in our blood, whilst increasing our levels of oxytocin (associated with mental and physical wellbeing).
9. Take a nap
Lack of sleep can result in stress for mind and body – increasing cortisol levels by up to 250%. However, a 30 minute nap can eradicate this effect.
Daily mindfulness meditation decreases cortisol production by an average of 20%. Focus and awareness could be key – brain scans of highly resilient people indicate that they pay more attention to what is going on in their bodies at times of stress than less resilient people.
Regular exercisers release less cortisol in response to stressful situations. Scientists believe that the physical stress of exercise allows the body to ‘practise’ dealing with stress. Yoga might be the most effective choice of all, combining the benefits of mindfulness with those of physical activity. Those who practise regularly experience a drop in cortisol levels and report experiencing less stress when confronted by stressful situations.
12. Get creative
You may be able to reap some of the benefits associated with meditation and exercise by taking part in a creative activity – playing a musical instrument, singing, sketching or even colouring-in. Immersion in a sport or art-related activity has been linked with improvements in immune function, cognitive function and reported wellbeing, and decreases in blood pressure and heart rate. Experts believe these benefits stem from entering the state of ‘flow’, a state of energised focus.
13. Go shopping
Yes, there may be a case for retail therapy after all! Shopping has been scientifically proven to boost low mood, with researchers speculating that the act of making purchase decisions may be a way to “restore personal control over one’s environment”.
14. Go to a gig
Music can moderate cortisol spikes. But there’s no need to stick to Classic FM. Going to a live gig has been found to lower cortisol levels, so rock on.
15. Watch TV
Watching laugh-out-loud TV shows can help to combat the negative impact of stress. Why? Laughter causes our blood vessels to dilate, which, in turn, lowers blood pressure.
16. Buy jewellery
Specifically, an aromatherapy necklace (try Etsy). Research participants who wore an oil-diffusing necklace filled with bergamot orange essential oil reported less stress and experienced reductions in blood pressure and stress hormone levels.
17. Try PMR
PMR, or progressive muscle relaxation, has been found to be as effective as meditation when it comes to stress relief. Working from top to toe, or toes to top, simply tense and release your muscles, one area of the body at a time. Hold muscles tight for a count of 5, then relax as deeply as possible for 30 seconds.
18. Forgive and forget
Forgiveness buffers the negative effects of stressful life events on mental health. Let go of that grudge and you’ll be the one to reap the benefits.
19. Lend a hand
Giving directions to a stranger, helping your child with their homework or even just holding a door open – science says that the more ‘helping behaviours’ you engage in on a daily basis, the less impact stressful experiences will have on you.
20. Stay connected
A digital detox could be counterproductive after all – using social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter several times a day, sending and receiving plenty of emails and regularly sharing digital images could reduce your stress levels by a fifth – if you happen to be female. Sadly, men don’t enjoy the same benefits…