Lurking around the corner, most people will find a ticking stress bomb. In fact, Americans rate their stress level at 5.1 on a 10-point scale, higher than the 3.7 considered to be healthy, and the first significant increase in 10 years, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey. So, you book a massage, spend money on vacations and download 10 meditations apps to help eliminate stress from your life. But when you can’t find your zen? It can leave you tense about being so tense.
“When we’re stressed, we tend to shine a spotlight on the stressor itself, or on our reaction to that stressor, which only tends to magnify the response,” says Dr. Justin Ross, PsyD, a Denver-based psychologist.
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This holds true even for doctors in the mental health field. “The funny thing about stress is that it makes me want to do the exact opposite of what I know will make me feel better,” says Dr. Samantha Boardman, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of Positive Prescription. That might mean devouring a pint of ice cream or binge watching Big Little Lies. “These indulgences masquerade as stress busters but, as we all know, are ultimately stress amplifiers.”
To help you put a halt to the vicious stress cycle, we asked six mental health experts for their tried and true techniques for finding relaxation when they’re overwhelmed. Steal their 11 strategies to feel more calm, almost instantly.
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11 Ways to De-Stress, According to Mental Health Experts
1. Get busy…in bed.
Need an excuse to twist the sheets? Sex can relieve stress, says Nicole Amesbury, psychotherapist and Head of Clinical Development for Talkspace. “The newer research shows that sex promotes neurogenesis in the hippocampal region of the brain,” she explains. “These new nerve cells are beneficial to the nervous system and help in stress reduction, plus they support our learning and memory.”
2. Find real-life, squeezable stress balls.
No, not those squishy tools that fit in the palm of your hand. We’re talking about your pets. “My dogs, Panda and Schnitzel, are the ultimate stress balls. They are instant mood boosters,” says Dr. Boardman. And Dr. Marc Romano, PsyD, Director of Medical Services and Compliance at Delphi Behavioral Health, also relies on his dog to decompress, particularly walking with her. “For some walks, I have a set route I will take, but for others I let my dog, Lola, take the lead,” he says. “I don’t pull her in any direction, she gets to pull me.”
3. Concentrate on something small.
Dr. Ross’ trick to winding down? He thinks about his little toe. “You probably haven’t spent much time in your life focusing on this part of your body, and that’s partly why it helps in moments when you’re stressed,” he says. “Simply shift your focus to the sensations you find in your small toe.” Then take slow, deep breaths. You’ll be surprised at how you feel afterward.
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4. Spend time in nature.
When you feel your blood pressure and pulse rising, get up and go outside for a mental re-boot. “Spending time outdoors is a great respite for an overactive mind,” says Dr. Boardman. According to Kate Hanley, author of the new book, Stress Less and founder of MsMindbody.com, gazing off into the distance can literally change your perspective. “Otherwise, you spend most of your time constantly looking about a foot and a half in front of you, most likely at your computer, which fatigues the eyes and makes your world seem metaphorically smaller than it is,” she says. “Extra points for kicking off your shoes, as having your bare feet on the Earth is especially energizing and grounding.”
5. Rock out.
Music can be a powerful way to chill out. Dr. Romano creates workout playlists and focuses on the lyrics. “It becomes a game where I try to figure out the words, which have eluded me for many years,” he says. Hanley prefers singing, an activity research has shown decreases levels of cortisone, the stress hormone. “I work from home so the only person I bother by doing it is my dog,” she says. If you can’t spontaneously burst into song at the office, try singing on your commute home. “It will help you shed the stress of the day so you can be more present in your off-hours,” she says. Or, have a little karaoke session when you get home. The family can always join in on the fun.
6. Discover a new hobby.
When Amesbury feels overwhelmed, she pulls out her camera. “Several years ago a friend and I started making short films as a fun hobby to be creative and express ourselves. It’s the type of hobby where you can get into a flow and your mind can rest from all other thoughts or worries,” she says. “Choose whatever activity you find pleasurable that allows you to be playful and unwind.” It’ll help you focus on the positive activity, instead of other business that’s bothering you.
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7. Consider someone else.
Sometimes you need some external inspiration to help you navigate your way through a stress storm. “Whenever I have to give a speech, I think to myself, ‘What would Barbara Walters do right now?’” says Dr. Boardman. Next time you find yourself in a stress-inducing situation, try thinking of someone you admire and imagine what they’d do in a similar situation. “Tapping into someone else’s strength gives me the strength to make better choices and be the best version of myself,” Dr. Boardman says.
8. Breathe deep.
“Breathing exercises are a quick and portable way to relax in the moment — whether you’re commuting home or on a lunch break,” says Marlynn Wei, MD, psychiatrist, certified yoga and mindfulness teacher, and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga. She pairs breath work with a walking meditation. “I inhale gently through the nose for five steps, hold for five steps, and exhale through the nose for five steps,” she says. Keep your breath steady and un-rushed, like you’re sipping hot chocolate. You can also skip the breath-holding or, if you want a more calming practice, increase the exhalation count. “As long as you watch where you’re going, a walking breath meditation is a nice, relaxing alternative to checking your phone when you’re walking in the city,” she says.
9. Let it go.
Sometimes it helps to break down your stressor into smaller pieces. “I try to let go of the things that are out of my hands,” says Dr. Boardman. “When I focus on what I can control I am better equipped to make choices that uphold my values and goals.” For instance, her book deadline in April? Out of her control. What’s in her control? Dedicating three hours each day to writing.
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10. Say thank you.
You know that gratitude can help you be happier, but it can also help you de-stress, according to Dr. Ross. “Mentally connect to three things that you are grateful for in your life. They can be big things, such as family or owning a home. If you can connect to something you are grateful for related to the stressor, even better,” he says. “For example, being grateful for the opportunity you have at work despite the mounting pressure of the current project or deadline.” This helps you reframe the situation.
11. Switch up your stance.
A simple way to get out of your own head? Change positions. When Hanley is stressed about work but can’t take a break or go outside, she’ll switch up her stance. “Being static is actually stressful to the body,” she says. “I’ll stand up for a phone call and roll my foot on a tennis ball or do a quad stretch or reach my arms above my head. All these things increase the flow of oxygen, which promotes clear thinking and helps ward off that creaky, stressed feeling.” BRB, taking a stretch break.