6 ways to relieve stress naturally

You can relieve stress by trying relaxation techniques or spending time with loved ones.fizkes/Shutterstock
  • To relieve stress, you can try strategies like exercising, practicing relaxation techniques, getting more sleep, eating healthier, connecting with loved ones, and finding ways to laugh.
  • Research has found that all of these methods can help reduce stress, though it's important to find which work best for you.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT, in Malibu, California.

More than 60% of Americans report feeling significant stress on a daily basis, according to a Gallup poll conducted in March 2020. Stress is the emotional or physical tensions caused by any event or thought that triggers frustration, anger, or nervousness.

Stress isn't necessarily bad, says Ben Hagopian, MD, a primary care physician at Maine Integrative Family Care. As part of your fight or flight response, stress causes your body to release cortisol and adrenaline, two hormones that make you more alert, tensing your muscles and increasing your blood pressure and heart rate.

This is beneficial when you are in danger, but overtime, chronic stress can have negative effects on your health, causing symptoms like:Advertisement

  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Lack of motivation or focus
Hagopian says his first advice for anyone who feels stressed is to identify the cause and see if you can eliminate it. If your stress is caused by something you can't eliminate, or is due to uncertainty, there are ways you can cope and manage it.

Here are some of the best ways to relieve stress:

1. Exercise

Hagopian recommends aerobic exercise, such as jogging, cycling or dancing, but says the specific type doesn't matter as much as just getting some physical activity. "You need to get your heart rate up, you need to be sweating a little bit and be breathing hard," he says.
Advertisement

The main way exercise helps relieve stress is by increasing endorphins, leading to the so-called "runner's high," Hagopian says. Endorphins are the hormones produced naturally by your brain to alleviate pain and reduce stress. Exercise also ultimately decreases the levels of hormones associated with stress, including cortisol and adrenaline.

Working out even when you aren't feeling stressed can also help you manage stress later on. A 2007 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology compared the stress response of elite athletes to healthy non-athletes. Researchers put participants through the Trier Social Stress Test, or TSST, a standard procedure for inducing stress in studies. While both groups saw increased cortisol levels and heart rate, the increase was significantly less for the elite athletes compared to the healthy non-athletes. The athlete group also reported being calmer and in a better mood. Advertisement

Hagopian recommends finding a type of exercise you actually enjoy, so that it's not a chore. General recommendations are to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. If you are just starting out, Hagopian suggests taking 10 to 20 minute walks three times a week and building from there.

2. Practice relaxation techniques

Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can also help manage stress.

Usually, when you are stressed, you breathe faster and take shallow breaths, because your heart is racing. Other people actually hold their breath, Hagopian says. Slowing down your heart rate by focusing on your breath can help. Hagopian recommends a technique called 4-7-8 breathing, where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds. Advertisement

Meditation also has a number of benefits, including stress relief. In a small 2013 study, medical students who participated in a four-day mindfulness meditation program had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to before the program. A review of more than 200 studies published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review also found that mindfulness meditation was effective at reducing stress.

Hatha yoga has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels during a stressful event. A 2017 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that a single Hatha yoga session before a stressful task lowered cortisol levels and blood pressure levels in participants, when compared to a control group.

3. Get more sleep

Anyone who has ever had to function on just a few hours of shut eye knows that lack of sleep makes it harder to deal with anything, including stress. In fact, 21% of adults report feeling more stressed when they don't get enough sleep. Advertisement

Adults typically need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, and those who sleep less than that report being more stressed. But for many people, being stressed makes it harder to fall asleep. Cortisol, the stress hormone, makes you stimulated and alert, which can make it difficult to doze off.

There are some basic ways to improve sleep, including:

  • Establish a sleep routine. It's important to practice good sleep hygiene, which means going to bed and waking up at around the same time every day. This helps your internal clock, called your circadian rhythm, stay in sync so that your body is ready for sleep at your set bedtime.
  • Turn off devices. Scrolling through our phones or watching TV can be stimulating, which makes it harder to fall asleep. Hagopian suggests setting a specific time when you turn off your devices and switch to more calming activities.
  • Have a calming, pre-bedtime ritual. This can be a warm bath, reading a book, listening to music, drinking chamomile tea, or anything that will calm you, says Hagopian.

4. Eat a healthy diet

Another key to managing stress is your diet. "Healthy nutrition is super important," Hagopian says. "Eating lots of fast food, or food with a lot of processed flour or sugar, is going to make you feel worse."Advertisement

Here are some stress-reducing nutrients to look for in foods:

  • Vitamin C helps lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. A medium orange has about 70 mg of Vitamin C, which is 100% of the daily recommended amount for adults. Other good sources include vegetables like broccoli (78 mg/cup chopped) and cauliflower (52 mg/cup).
  • Complex carbohydrates increase production of serotonin, a hormone involved in regulating your mood and happiness. Examples of complex carbs include whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Magnesium helps fend off stress-related headaches and fatigue. It can also help older adults get better sleep. Foods like spinach, salmon, and soybeans are all good sources of magnesium.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce surges of stress hormones. They are found in fish like salmon and tuna, nuts, and seeds.
You should also try to avoid consuming too much alcohol, caffeine, or sugar, as these can all exacerbate stress, Hagopian says. Plus, if you are turning to food to cope with stress, you may be engaging in emotional eating, or stress eating. Learn more about how to stop emotional eating.

5. Connect with loved ones

When you are feeling stressed, reaching out to your friends and family can help. Studies have found that people with less social support are more reactive to stress, exhibiting increased heart rates, blood pressure, and hormone levels, according to a 2007 review published in the journal Psychiatry. Advertisement

Having a best friend by your side might make it even easier to cope with stress. A 2011 study published in Developmental Psychology of kids ages 10 to 12 found that having a best friend nearby led to lower cortisol levels after an unpleasant situation. The researchers had kids write in a journal multiple times a day to record their experiences, and tested cortisol levels in their saliva.

Moreover, a study done at the University of North Carolina found that women who spent time with their partner, including receiving a hug from them, had higher oxytocin levels (the "feel good" hormone) and lower blood pressure when asked to then prepare and record a speech about a recent event that made them angry or stressed.

Having sex, either solo or with a partner, can also help relieve stress. Like exercise, sex triggers the release of endorphins, which boost your mood. Your body also releases oxytocin during sex, especially during a woman's orgasm. Advertisement

6. Laugh

When it comes to stress, laughter truly is one of the best medicines. Laughing actually triggers immediate changes in your body that can help counteract the stress response.

When you laugh, you take in more oxygen-rich air, which stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles. It also increases your release of endorphins, improves circulation, and helps you relax your muscles, which are often tense when you are stressed.

Hagopian says it doesn't really matter what makes you laugh, as long as you try finding ways to lift your mood when you're feeling stressed. Here are some easy ways to induce laughter:Advertisement

  • Watch a funny TV show or movie that you enjoy
  • Listen to a favorite comedy podcast or standup routine
  • Read a humorous book or satirical article
  • Talk to friends or family members who make you laugh

Takeaways

For most of us, stress is a part of our lives, but there are ways to manage and relieve it. Maintaining healthy habits will make you better able to respond to stressful situations.

If you are struggling to adopt some of these healthy habits, Hagopian suggests what he calls "habit stacking" — or trying to incorporate many of these strategies at once. For example, after your 20 minutes of exercise, do breathing exercises as you cool down. Or try exercises like yoga, that combines physical activity with mindfulness.

It's important to remember that everyone responds differently to stress, and everyone has a different threshold for managing stress. Finding what helps you relieve stress may take some trial and error, so don't get discouraged. Advertisement

Finally, Hagopian says if stress is affecting your ability to function daily, you should reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for further treatment.

Related articles from Health Reference:

{{}}