Most of us deal with stress in our lives at some point or another. And while stress may exist for a good reason, our modern lives tend to lead to chronic stress, which is unhealthy and unpleasant.
If you’re finding your workday too often includes feelings of stress, try these tips to overcome it.
Think about a happy memory
Before you write this advice off as trite, let me tell you about a study that actually tested this. The study first induced a stressful situation by having participants plunge their hands into freezing-cold water. This kind of situation, like public speaking, or a confrontation with a colleague, causes your body to fire up its stress response, which includes flooding your body with a stress-related hormone called cortisol.
The researchers then divided the participants into two groups. One group was asked to think about a neutral memory—for instance, remembering doing a mundane task.
The other group was instructed to remember a happy event from their lives.
Afterwards, the researchers tested both groups for cortisol levels and found that those in the neutral memory group had experienced a huge bump in cortisol from the stressful experience, while those in the happy memory group showed only a minor increase.
Both groups were expected to have higher cortisol levels as their bodies responded to the stressful situation they were in, but it seems thinking about a happy memory helped to offset that stress response somewhat.
So when you’re struggling with a stressful situation, try taking a few minutes to think about a happy memory. You may not relax completely, but it may help you turn down your stress response to a more manageable level.
Find solace in others who are also stressed
If you’re experiencing stress with others, you’re in luck. Sharing your stressed feelings with other people in the same situation can offset some of your own stress.
A small study tested this by asking participants to give a speech (commonly known to be stress-inducing for most people) while being filmed (even worse). Before giving their speech, participants were encouraged to discuss their feelings with others.
The researchers in this study also used cortisol measurements to check stress levels. Participants had their cortisol monitored before, during, and after giving their speech.
The study found that “sharing a threatening situation with a person who is in a similar emotional state…buffers individuals from experiencing the heightened levels of stress that typically accompany threat.”
So when you’re working on a team or your family is facing a stressful situation together, don’t be afraid to share how you feel—you may end up better for it.
Get (and give) more hugs
Another way support from others can help alleviate your stress response is through hugs. While researchers aren’t sure if it’s the actual physical sensation of a hug that helps relieve stress or the way hugs make us feel more socially supported, the bottom line is: hugs work.
A study tested this by conducting phone interviews every night for two weeks, asking participants about any interpersonal conflict they’d experienced that day, and how many hugs they’d received. Participants also reported at the beginning of the study how socially supported they felt overall.
After the two weeks of phone surveys, participants were exposed to a common cold and kept in quarantine so their symptoms could be observed.
Those who received more hugs and felt more socially supported developed less severe cold symptoms. But here’s the kicker: this was the case regardless of how much interpersonal conflict they reported during the phone interviews. Hugs and social support simply seemed to make the biggest difference to participants’ severity of symptoms.
So when you’re stressed, seek out friends and family for some stress-reducing hugs. And when you’re not, offer a hug to those who are.
Plan something fun to look forward to
It’s fun to go on holiday, or go to a special event, or even go to the movies when you’ve been hanging out to see a new film. What we don’t often realize is that we actually get more enjoyment from anticipating fun experiences than we do from the experiences themselves.
A study from the Netherlands, for instance, examined how happy employees were before, during, and after taking a vacation. The researchers found happiness levels peaked before the vacation, while employees were still planning and anticipating it.
We actually get more enjoyment from anticipating fun experiences than we do from the experiences themselves.
Another study found that when participants were told they’d be watching a funny film later on, their stress levels were lower than participants who weren’t expecting a laugh-fest. Just anticipating having a good time can be a mood-booster.
If you’re someone who tends to decide to do fun, stress-reducing activities at the last minute, try changing your habits. Plan a few days ahead to watch a funny film or attend a fun event, and enjoy the stress-relieving anticipation that follows.
What works best for you in stressful situations?