Most of us will encounter stress, maybe even anxiety, at some point in our lives. My favorite way of approaching stress and anxiety is to dissect them: approach them with mindfulness and curiosity to understand what the underlying trigger is. Once the trigger is clear, I bring in some logic to diffuse it, learn from it, and possibly even alter behaviors contributing to it to prevent it in the future.
Over the years I’ve read many books on the various internal and external factors affecting our minds to better understand stress. I’ve experimented with a lot of techniques known to reduce stress and anxiety, some helpful some not. When I try new techniques like these I like to give them a chance for a good 3 weeks to see the effects. In this post, I’m sharing my most impactful finds with you!
Remember that we are all different. What works for me, may not work for you and vice versa but maybe these will spark some ideas for you in overcoming stress or anxiety. If your situation is severe, consider reaching out to a medical professional. These tips are not meant as a replacement for professional medical advice, but rather, tools anyone can use in an attempt to help themselves!
This one shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve likely all been told that daily exercise helps reduce stress. I feel any stress melting away when I go for a ride or hike and the feeling typically lasts through the end of the day. The hard part is usually not the exercise itself, but the push to begin! What helps me is a mental conditioning exercise. Every time I’m doing some physical mountain sport and am feeling awesome, I reflect on that feeling and its cause and lock that link into my mind. So my mantra for when I need an extra push could be, “I don’t want to go on a ride right now, but I know that I will 100% feel amazing during and afterwards, I always do”.
Another obvious one that has been hugely beneficial for me over the years is yoga. Depending on your practice yoga might be stretchy, strong, physically and mentally challenging, all of which release endorphins that help regulate our mood. Yoga is a big destresser for me, but there is another important side to it. The journey that we take when we allow a regular practice into our lives also helps us better connect with and understand ourselves and others. The quality of our relationships with ourselves and others can also have an impact on our stress and anxiety levels.
I started meditating years ago to better understand my mind and reduce stress and anxiety. This is the most valuable and impactful of all the tips from this post and also the most challenging. That’s because meditation doesn’t provide all of its benefits immediately. It takes consistent effort over a longer period of time to reap the big rewards. But when you do, they truly are life-changing. Meditation is not just sitting still and doing nothing. It is essentially training the mind. Meditation has been scientifically proven to improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being. Meditating has also been found to actually change the connections in our brain, allowing for long-term health benefits.
It wasn’t until fairly recently that I have managed to keep up a daily practice. Why is that? Meditating isn’t like exercising. Every sitting is different. Sometimes I feel great after and sometimes I don’t. An immediate benefit isn’t always there but over time, I have noticed an improvement in concentration, an ease in responding to stressful or difficult situations, and an overall better understanding of my mind and I know this will only continue to improve.
If you are interested in meditating but don’t know where to begin, check out Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness and Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness. These have been really beneficial in my journey in keeping me motivated and understanding the importance of meditation. The Headspace App is also a fantastic resource for information on meditation and guided meditations. If you have difficulty keeping up a daily practice, Sharon’s book offers some good advice. I found that setting aside a time to meditate every day really helped me. I aim for 20-30 minutes per session twice each day. If I’m having trouble motivating myself, I compromise and tell myself to at least sit for 5 minutes. When the 5 minutes are up, I always end up setting the timer for longer. It’s been a great way to break through that expectation blocker.
I love to work some breathwork into my meditation and yoga practices, but also before meals, during exercise, and during random breaks throughout the day. Breathing techniques have numerous health benefits. Among them, the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system which helps us relax and relieve stress. For more information on the impact breathwork has on our health, check out this captivating read, James Nestor’s Breath.
Here are some of my favorite breathwork techniques. Guided breathwork videos coming to the site soon!
- Nadi Shodhana
- Visualizing your breath entering, traveling through, and leaving your body
- Counting 20 mindful, natural breaths
- Humming breaths (one hand placed on the chest, one on the belly, breathing in through the nose, breathing out through the nose with a hum)
- 4-7-8 breathing
- Abdominal breathing
Cold water dips
A friend of mine recommended cold showers to me via the Wim Hof method. The brief immersion into the cold water increases circulation, reduces muscle soreness post workout, strengthens the immune system, and decreases stress. I started taking daily cold showers and after the shock of the first week, I started to really enjoy them because of how great I feel after. For the benefit of a full immersion and some connection to nature, I began going for dips in colder waters outdoors as well and absolutely love them! I’d recommend going with someone outdoors and reading a bit about safety precautions to be aware of before giving it a go.
Simply spending time in nature is shown to reduce stress. I’m lucky to spend a lot of my time outdoors in the mountains and it has a massive impact on my wellbeing. Obviously exercising while in nature has the added bonus of exercise endorphins but even just walking or sitting in nature is shown to reduce stress levels and improve wellbeing. On days when I don’t have much time for outdoor activities, even a walk near some trees or a field already boost my mood.
Food and Drink
This one is more focused on reducing anxiety than stress. Our digestive system is linked to our mind which means that the things we put into our body have a direct impact on how we are feeling. I’ve done lots of experimenting with elimination diets to cut out foods and drinks known to heighten anxiety and was surprised by the effects! For me, cutting out caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and foods I am intolerant to greatly reduced feelings of anxiety and had an overall positive affect on my mood and energy levels. I’d try re-introducing one of the foods or drinks eliminated and immediately noticed heightened anxiety levels and often a decrease in energy and mood. Emeran Mayer’s The Mind-Gut Connection is a fantastic read all about the connection between what we eat and our mind.
Reduce Screen Time
When we are stressed, we tend to go for things that will distract us and give us immediate satisfaction: food, alcohol, our phones. But this can actually increase our stress levels in the long-term and make it harder for us to deal with stressful situations.
Tim Ferris shared something in one of his books about the boundaries he sets for himself around emails. He limits checking his inbox to once or twice a day with the idea that little is so urgent that email needs to be checked obsessively and that this is a really unhealthy habit. I use a similar technique for my phone and find it so delightful! I've experimented with not checking my phone after dinner or first thing in the morning and saving emails for midday and found it really refreshing.
As always, feel free to reach out with any questions!