Psychological stress can be a useful phenomenon in the short-term, but when overwhelming and prolonged it can lead to profound medical and mental health issues.
Stress management is therefore an essential skill to develop to ensure optimal health and wellbeing. And the ability to rapidly de-stress is an important one, in order to hopefully avoid the regular and persistent stress that can be so damaging to health in the long-term.
In this article, we will briefly review ten indispensable ways to rapidly de-stress based on the latest research evidence.
The use of breathing strategies can be invaluable in supporting a rapid shift into parasympathetic mode. The greater the parasympathetic shift, the less stress you will feel. Examples of these breathing strategies are found in yoga, for instance, which was shown to improve self-reported measures of perceived stress, sleep, social connectedness, distress, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem, among others [1,2].
Mastering breath control using slow breathing techniques can enhance autonomic, cerebral, and psychological flexibility that can promote stress reduction. By pacing breathing, a calm and relaxed state can be effectively promoted and sustained . What’s more, breathing more deeply is a noted technique for reducing stress and improving mood. A study of 38 university students found that a 90 min “Anti-Stress Protocol” employing deep breathing improved self-reported stress and mood whilst also reducing heart rate and saliva cortisol (a useful biomarker of stress) . When fully engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm when breathing (“diaphragmatic breathing”), stress can be decreased as shown by physiological markers and self-report tools [5,6].
Cold therapy triggers a drop in heart rate while also increasing (improve) heart rate variability (i.e., the amount of time between each heartbeat fluctuates slightly – this can only be detected with special machines). These effects are due to parasympathetic activation via the vagus nerve . In addition, sympathetic activation leads to the release of endorphins, hormones that are released during pain, stress, or pleasurable activities. Natural endocannabinoids like Anandamide, our bliss neurotransmitter, are also released. Taking cold showers regularly could help reduce anxiety due to the effects of the water on the peripheral circulation, as well as the levels of certain hormones .
Saunas induce sympathetic activation with endorphin and endocannabinoid release (as in cold therapy, above) as well as rebound parasympathetic dominance after leaving the hot environment. Cortisol, a well-known hormone associated with stress, also drops during sauna sessions. With repeated sessions, sauna use optimizes stress responses via hormesis and heat shock proteins .
Orgasms release oxytocin, a hormone that decreases other stress-associated hormones like cortisol, reduces blood pressure, increases resistance to pain, lowers anxiety, and makes you feel more connected, or bonded, to your partner . Plus, you want to cuddle. What’s not to like? Research has shown that daily stress and relationship satisfaction is negatively correlated with sexual activity  (i.e. the more stress, the less sex…don’t let this be you!)
Gardening and Time in Outdoor Spaces
A study from 2011 observed that 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading on an allotment plot reduced saliva cortisol and self-reported mood, with stronger decreases in the gardening group. Notably, this was one of the first studies to show that gardening can aid in recovery from acute psychological stress .
More recent research has shown that the provision of outdoor respite areas and garden facilities at hospitals during the pandemic aided in combatting the stress and anxiety experienced by healthcare staff .
Physical exercise can rapidly reduce psychological distress. Research from the early 1990s showed that an acute bout (~40 min) of aerobic training dampened the blood pressure response to psychosocial stress, and reduced the frequency and intensity of anxiety-related thoughts in healthy women between 25 and 40 years of age . A more recent study also showed that acute exercise improves physiological and psychological measures of stress reactivity in adolescents .
Meditation is another famous way to rapidly de-stress by increasing parasympathetic tone. Several notable celebrities and influential figures swear by its ability to calm and lower stress levels. There are many techniques and variations of meditation, some that use breath, others that use movement including yoga or dance, whereas others use tantric practice for instance [12–14].
In healthcare workers, a profession renowned for being associated with high levels of stress and burnout, three months of transcendental meditation practiced twice daily for 20 minutes reduced burnout, insomnia, and anxiety, suggesting that it can relieve chronic stress in this population . Other research has shown that mindfulness meditation can improve the physiological markers of stress, such as cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, blood lipids (fats) and peripheral cytokine (inflammatory proteins) concentrations .
For some of us, watching horror movies can decrease stress and anxiety. This is because of the amazing (and somewhat surprising!) benefits of screaming. The continuing buildup and release of tension by screaming resets our autonomic nervous system and releases endorphins, those very important “feel good” hormones.
Can you make yourself belly laugh? When we laugh our intake of oxygen-rich air is enhanced and there is an intake in endorphin release by our brain. A good laugh also increases and then rapidly decreases sympathetic tone . A recent study combined laughter with yoga and found that it effectively reduced perceived stress and burnout while also increasing life satisfaction in nurses during the pandemic . In a similar group of nursing students during the pandemic, laughter therapy was found to reduce anxiety and improve psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction .
Find a Puppy, Stat!
Petting and rolling around with the closest puppy you can find when stressed will quickly decrease cortisol levels and subjective levels of stress. A meta-analysis (pooled study of all available research evidence on a given topic) found that pet therapy lowered heart rate, self-reported anxiety, and self-reported stress in a total sample of 1,310 participants . This is why you tend to find service animals at hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers, and anywhere else where stress or loneliness is high . So-called ‘canine therapy’ has also been explored as a strategy to help military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), showing a large effect on symptom severity scores .
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