17 July 2019
5 Science-Proven Ways to Reduce Stress
According to experts, stress can have a wide range of – predominantly negative – effects on our physiological health. So what can you do to bring your stress levels down and your happiness levels up?
Work deadlines, family dramas, delayed trains, money worries, wet towels on the bedroom floor; little or large, there are all manner of things that can raise our stress levels throughout the day. In a fast-paced world, we often bounce from one situation to the next, not having time to process the last irritant, and frequently absorbing the energy of those around us. How often have you arrived at work feeling perfectly calm, only for your boss to have a meltdown about something irrelevant? Before you know it, you’re feeling stressed too.
According to a review on the impact of stress on bodily function (1), it can have a wide range of – predominantly negative – effects on our physiological health. Among them, impairing the immune system, creating hormone imbalances, impacting on memory and cognitive function, leading to loss of appetite and/or emotional eating, contributing to inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions and even slowing the production of the body’s growth hormone. Other experts have pointed to a wider range of symptoms arising from stress, including accelerated ageing
So what can you do to bring your stress levels down and your happiness levels up?
Play with puppies
For most people this one will take little to no convincing, but research from Washington State University has shown that petting animals for just 10 minutes a day can significantly reduce stress hormone levels. While therapy dogs have been used in schools and courtrooms for some time now, this was the first study of its kind to look directly at levels of the stress hormone cortisol, collecting samples from 249 college students, before and after playing with cats and dogs. Impressively, even those who didn’t physically play with the pets, just saw them, also experienced a drop in their cortisol levels (2).
Spend 20 minutes outside a day
Most people will be willing to accept by now that there’s a correlation between going for nice, sunny – or even blustery – walk and feeling that little bit better. However, until now there has been more limited research into the relationship between the actual duration of time spent outside and the reduction of cortisol levels. It’s good news for the time-poor: scientists at the University of Michigan deduced that the optimum amount of time was between 20 and 30 minutes per day, three times per week, which reduced cortisol by 21% and another key stress enzyme, alpha-amylase, by 28%.
Or more specifically… go forest bathing
In the past few years, there’s been an increase in the practice of ‘forest bathing’, which requires participants to embrace “mindful exploration” in a forest. This doesn’t just mean a pleasant walk in the woods, but touching the bark, stopping to hear the birdsong, squelching in the mud.
Based on the Japanese tradition of ‘shinrin-yoku’, it was actually introduced as part of a national health programme by the Japanese government many years ago; now we’re not saying it’s all down to the trees, but the country does have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. The theory behind it is not only rooted in the fact that being outside is beneficial to mental health, but that trees releases chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system.
Once the preserve of hippies, meditation has become mainstream among those looking to improve their overall wellbeing, with everything from meditation apps to gong baths now easily accessible and en vogue. As it turns out the hippies were on to something, with repeated studies drawning a link between mindful meditation and the reduction of cortisol levels, as well as lowering anxiety, anger and fatigue (3).
With this in mind, swap your morning Insta-scroll for some guided breathing could be the first step. Not only will the act of meditation itself make you feel better, but social media could be playing havoc with your stress levels too, and studies have shown that taking time away from social media improves wellbeing and emotional positivity.
Oh, and delete your work email from your phone: the world won’t collapse, the sky won’t fall in and if your boss really needs you then they’ll call. You will, on the other hand, probably sleep a little bit better. Enjoy!
Scientific studies have found that the act of writing down your thoughts, feelings and emotions and then immediately throwing them away can be an effective way of clearing your mind. Not only that, but there's something about seeing your worries on paper that makes creating a plan to tackle them that bit easier - admittedly, it’s not realistic to expect to change everything that’s making you stressed, but if you can make small changes then every little helps.
Perhaps the best thing about journalling is that there's no need to keep it up - dipping in and out when you feel like it, whether that's once a day, once a month or even once a year can still have a positive effect on reducing stress and anxiety.
Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057–1072. Published 2017 Jul 21. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480
Pendry, P., & Vandagriff, J. L. (2019). Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. AERA Open
University of Oregon. "Body-mind Meditation Boosts Performance, Reduces Stress." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 October 2007.