Americans are seriously stressed out. Stress is making us sick and killing us, so much so that the The World Health Organization has called it the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” and estimated that it costs American businesses up to $300 billion a year.
Stress is part of life — we can’t stop stressful things from happening. But, there is a distinction between the stress triggers in our lives and how we react to them. We can learn to respond to the stress of everyday life and cope better. If we want to be healthier, saner, and happier we need to take action to manage the stress in our lives. We need to slow down, learn to relax, and incorporate downtime into our schedules.
The good news is that by incorporating some very simple habits we can make a significant dent in our stress levels. A few years ago I reflected on a stressful year and realized that I had to take action to lower the stress in my life. I incorporated a few techniques that seemed to help. But the added stresses of a pandemic and societal upheavals made me realize I needed to do even more. Over the last few months, I’ve made lowering my stress a top priority and I want to share five simple, easy, and free things that I have found helpful in lowering stress.
Be Still and Meditate for 5 Minutes (or more) Each Day
The medical community recognizes that mediation is an effective way to reduce stress. Some people may dismiss the idea of meditating as too new age (I did for a while) or too difficult. But if you can accept the idea of taking a few minutes each day to just sit still and calm your mind, it can make a dent in your stress.
To get started, keep it simple. Don’t worry about sitting cross-legged on the floor while burning incense and chanting a mantra. Just find a comfortable chair and sit up straight for 5 minutes while focusing on your breathing for a count to ten; e.g. inhale = 1, exhale = 2, inhale = 3, exhale = 4, etc. Do this to a count of ten, then repeat. If five minutes is too daunting, start with two minutes each day and add more time.
I started doing this a couple of years ago and have found it very helpful in managing my stress. I just sit in a chair with my eyes closed for 5–10 minutes and focus on counting my breathing. When my mind inevitably starts to wander, I pop out of that thought by mentally picturing the thoughts as cars driving by and imagining myself stepping back from the road and just observing those thoughts as they go by.
When incorporating something like meditation into your daily routine to make it a new habit, it can be very helpful to ‘anchor’ it to some other daily routine. In other words, incorporate this new activity before or after some other activity that you already do. For example, add the daily meditation right after you eat breakfast or lunch. Or maybe anchor it your morning coffee routine — start your coffee brewing then go sit in a quiet place for five minutes while your coffee brews. You get the idea. Think about your daily routine and find a five minute chunk of time when you can add a moment of calm stillness to your daily life.
Hack Your Vagus Nerve with 2 Minutes of Focused Breathing
The body’s autonomic nervous system plays a major role in our response to stress. It’s composed of the sympathetic nerve system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nerve system (PNS). When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nerve system kicks in with the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nerve system plays the opposite role, calming us down with the “rest and digest” response.
The vagus nerve connects your brain to your heart, lungs, and other organs. It governs the parasympathetic nerve system and has the capacity to halt stress’s fight or flight response and activate the ‘rest and digest’ response. Stimulating the vagus activates the parasympathetic nerve system and calms us down. And it turns out, there’s an easy way to hack your vagus nerve to kick off that process — breathing techniques.
In a 2019 Psychology Today article, author Christopher Berland found that “based on the latest research, practicing rVNS (respiratory vagus nerve stimulation) breathing via longer exhalations for just two minutes appears to be an easy way to hack the vagus nerve and calm one’s nervous system.”
A 2018 paper in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience studied the effects of breathing techniques on the vagus nerve and found, “The breathing techniques used in ContAct [Contemplative Activities] include, but are not restricted to, slowing down respiration cycles, shifting to longer exhalations compared to inhalations, shifting the main locus of respiration from the thorax to the abdomen (diaphragmatic breathing), or paying attention to “natural” breathing.” The article goes on to say, “Slow breathing techniques with long exhalation will signal a state of relaxation by VN (vagus nerve), resulting in more VN activity and further relaxation.”
There are several variations of breathing techniques that can stimulate the vagus nerve and calm you down, but the one I’ve settled on for myself is the 4:8 breathing technique. In 4:8 breathing, you inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight in a two minute session. When doing this, it’s helpful to breathe in through your nose, and exhale through your mouth in order to extend the exhalation to double that of the inhalation. Some variations have you hold your breath for four seconds between the inhalation and exhalation.
Incorporating 4:8 breathing into your everyday life can be very simple. As in meditation, outlined above, anchor it to everyday activities that you do. Try it while showering, doing dishes, waiting in line, lying in bed when you wake up in the morning, etc.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how effective this simple technique can be. I’ve made it a habit to do it as part of my routine a couple of times a day. On days when I notice that I’m feeling extra stressed or anxious, I add in some extra sets of this technique to help get through the situation.
If you’re still skeptical that breathing a certain way can make a significant impact, consider this. The US Navy Seals use breathing techniques to force the body to be more relaxed in the high pressure situations they operate in. You can bet the Navy Seals know a thing or two about stressful situations. If they find breathing techniques help them, it’s a good bet they’ll work for you too.
Think about your daily routine and identify two or three daily rituals where you can incorporate two minutes of focused breathing.
Walk 30 Minutes Each Day Outside
Exercise in general is a great way to reduce stress. Exercise increases the production of the feel good, stress-reducing hormone endorphin. Scientists have also found that exercise activates neurons in the brain that can calm us down. If you’re already exercising regularly, you’re already incorporating a great method to reduce stress in your life. If you’re not regularly exercising however (or even if you are), there’s an easy activity to add to your daily routine — walking.
The benefits of walking are well documented in the health and wellness community. Walking is recommended by the likes of the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, and more. Walking is perhaps the simplest thing you can do to improve your health.
In addition to the endorphin-producing effect of exercise, walking has the added benefit of getting some distance from the things that are stressing us out. Getting away from the stress triggers and moving helps to loosen up tense muscles. Getting some fresh air and new scenery can help our brains detach from the stresses we’ve been obsessing over.
To amplify the beneficial effects of walking on stress, walk outdoors in a natural setting like a forested park, rather than on a treadmill. Scientists have shown that walking outdoors in a forest environment reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
I’ve made walking a daily habit for years. I’ve found that walking outside is a great way to divert my mind and relieve stress. Within five minutes of the walk my mind begins to wander, relinquishing its grasp on the nagging, stressful issue(s) de jour. It’s calming and acts like a reset button for my brain.
Some people may balk at the idea of carving out 30 minutes from an already busy day to go for a walk. But, your health and sanity should be a priority in your life. Our lives have been so disrupted by the Covid pandemic that it’s an ideal time to re-evaluate priorities and routines and commit to improving wellness. For instance, many people are now working from home. Take that time that you used to spend commuting and go for a walk.
Stop the Deluge of Digital Distractions
“Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you.” — Austin Kleon, Keep Going
We’re bombarded by distractions from our digital devices. Between our smartphones, smart watches, and computers we’re inundated with dozens of interrupting push notifications throughout the day. These interruptions detract from our productivity and they also negatively affect our wellbeing.
A 2016 joint study between Telefonica Research and Carnegie Mellon University found, “Interruptions in the workplace have been linked to frustration and stress. In the context of notifications, information workers felt significantly less stressed without email, without email notifications, or when checking work email was restricted to 3 times per day.”
The report further found that “Stress levels were found to positively correlate with the number of mobile phone notifications from, in particular, email clients, which indicates that email notifications are particularly problematic.” and concluded that the “absence of notifications will reduce stress and other negative emotions.”
How many times a day are you distracted by a new incoming email or social media notification while you’re trying to focus on a task? While we can’t do anything to stop the never-ending attempts for our attention, there are easy ways to stop them from stealing our attention.
The easiest way to get started is to disable push notifications on your smartphone. If this seems like too big of a step, start with the low-hanging fruit, the notifications that are the lowest priority to you. Maybe it’s breaking news alerts from your news app. Or maybe it’s a social media platform that you’re not super engaged with. Start there by turning off all notifications from those apps.
But, for real stress reduction I recommend disabling all, or nearly all, notifications on your smartphone, including email. There was a time not long ago when I’d get annoyed throughout the day while I was trying to focus on a task as my smartphone buzzed in my pocket. These intrusive notifications did little more than ratchet up my blood pressure as I got frustrated with yet another distracting attempt to steal my attention. Sure, I could try to ignore it, but I’ve found a much better fix — just turn off most notifications on my phone. In fact, the only notifications I have enabled on my phone now are phone calls and text messages. Everything else, I have to manually go and tap into the app and check.
Sometimes even that isn’t enough. For ultra distraction free focus, embrace the power of Airplane Mode. Sometimes you just need to focus on something for a couple of hours. Constantly responding to notifications while trying to focus on a task at hand is bound to add stress. In those cases, close your email on your computer and put your phone in airplane mode.
I recognize that this technique, though very simple, is going to be an incredible challenge for many. But, I think you’ll find that it can be very effective in reducing stress in your life. Try it for a week and see what you think.
Set Time Boundaries on Your Work Life
The always on, always connected nature of our digital lives makes it all too easy to constantly engage with email, social media, and app notifications. This digital hyper-connectivity has the effect of blurring the boundaries between our work lives and our private lives.
The blurring and overlapping of work and non-work roles is exacerbated by a pervasive “hustle culture,” the idea that it’s admirable, even cool, to always be working, grinding and hustling. It has become a badge of honor to skip time off, vacation time, leisure activities, even sleep.
But this always on, boundaryless work life is bad for us. A 2006 British paper on the impact of remote e-working on work-life balance found “Adverse impacts were found on well-being, due to over-working and a lack of time for recuperation.”
A 2017 paper in the journal Occupational Medicine found, “Excessive weekly working time has negative effects on workers’ health, including increasing the risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, chronic infection, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression.”
By effectively learning to manage work-life boundaries we can reduce our stress and improve our overall well being. In the 2016 paper “Managing work — life Boundaries in the Digital Age,” author Ellen Ernst Kossek concludes that “Effectively managing work — life boundaries can not only reduce work — life conflicts, but can also reduce stress, burnout, addictions, mood disorders, and enhance mental and physical health.”
To make a course correction from this destructive lifestyle we need to prioritize down time and regain control of our lives. When we take control of our lives and set boundaries rather than being slaves to hustle culture our health will benefit. Pioneering medical doctor and author of “How to Make Disease Disappear,” Dr. Rangan Chatterjee goes so far as prescribing time off to relax. “I want you to give daily relaxation as high a priority as food, movement, and sleep. I think our lack of routine switch-off time is one the most pressing issues in modern society. For your health, it could hardly be more critical.”
Start by setting a daily routine with scheduled downtime — time away from work and away from digital distractions, such as email, news, and social media. Maybe it’s lunchtime, happy hour, dinner time — find at least a half an hour to one hour in your daily routine where you can close off your work life and recharge. You can even combine this time with walking or meditating to be more efficient.
Scheduling a longer stretch of downtime on a weekly basis, like the weekend, will also help you. If you can’t take off the full weekend, aim for at least one 24 hour period each week where you don’t work, but instead take time to unwind and recharge.
While scheduling in downtime from work life is important, defining a hard boundary between work and private life is especially crucial before going to bed. Sleep plays a critical role in our health and wellbeing, but too often our digital distractions and lack of boundaries impact the quality of our sleep. Setting a hard boundary of an hour or two before trying to sleep by avoiding emails and other digital distractions not only creates downtime, it gives your mind a chance to unwind before trying to sleep so that your thoughts have less of a chance to keep you from falling asleep.
In the past year I’ve incorporated this approach by avoiding all work-related activity on the computer and smartphone after dinner. By avoiding email and social media late in the evening I avoid the inevitable thoughts that used to run through my brain as I was trying to go to sleep.
I also avoid checking work email until at least a half an hour after getting up in the morning. By giving myself time to wake up, get some coffee, and adjust to the day, I’m more prepared to address what the inbox has in store for me that day.
I’ve been working from home for over 20 years, first telecommuting for a software startup, and then as a freelancer. For many of those years, I intermixed work and non-work throughout the day. For a long time, I considered this a benefit of freelancing and working from home. But, over the last couple of years, I’ve come to believe that failing to set specific limits on work from private time lets stress accumulate. I’ve also found that it is a major contributing factor to insomnia.
Setting boundaries between work and private life, though very simple and straightforward, can be a challenge. But the science and my own personal experience have proven to me that it’s an effective, and critical method in reducing stress. Start small if you need to, but by setting boundaries in your life, your health and wellbeing will improve.
Stress is a serious issue that we all need to address. It’s a fact of life that we can’t run away from. But, we can intentionally and actively take steps to reduce its impact on our lives. Cultivating calm, breathing, walking, limiting digital distractions, and setting boundaries — these are five simple techniques that you can incorporate into your life to reduce stress.
Obviously all of these won’t work for anyone. If you work as a social media manager, then turning off your social media notifications may not be an option for you. In those cases, focus on those that you can fit in. Start with the one that you think you can most easily incorporate and stick to it.
There will always be stressful events in our lives. But if you’re like me, by incorporating these techniques into your daily routine, you’ll have a much better reaction to and control of the stress in your life. You’ll be happier, healthier, and saner.