Stress is an an unavoidable fact of life. And some of it is actually good for us, helping us develop resilience and fueling motivation and productivity. But the constant stream of somber news and a never-ending to do list can also create high levels of chronic stress that has a negative affect on our health.
In fact, as previously covered by TODAY, Americans reported their highest stress level in the 15-year history of a poll conducted for the American Psychological Association.
The good news is there are simple steps you can take to regain some calm in your life. Here are six ways to reduce stress and anxiety in five minutes or less.
1. Focus on your breathing.
According to Dr. Marlynn Wei, a psychiatrist based in New York City, rhythmic breathing is a good stress-reducing exercise that doesn’t take too much practice to start using.
Here’s how to do it:
- Set a timer for three minutes.
- Focus on your breath.
- Take a deep breath through your nose while you count to five.
- Hold your breath for five counts.
- Exhale for five counts.
- Repeat for the remaining time, and notice how your breath becomes deeper.
“I think that it’s easy to use and great for beginners,” Wei says.
If you’re not only stressed, but tired as well, Wei recommends doing this breathing exercise while you walk. Try to time your breath with your walking pace.
“When you’re able to calm your fight-or-flight response, you reduce your cortisol levels over time,” she says. “Almost immediately, however, you will notice that your heart rate will go down and your blood pressure will go down.”
2. Take a break from your phone.
Constantly checking your phone for the latest notification can overwhelm you, according to Kristine Carlson, co-author of the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff," which she wrote with her late husband Richard Carlson.
“We are so tied to our technology,” she says. “Email, text message, checking your Instagram — all of that, it’s very addictive.”
Instead, she advises, “really unplug from your email or phone” and take what Carlson refers to as a “golden pause.”
By snoozing your notifications, you create the mental space to focus on yourself and how you’re feeling. While you focus on yourself, practice breathing slowly, closing your eyes and turning your thoughts toward something you’re grateful for, Carlson suggests.
Research backs up this up: Focusing on gratitude has been shown to increase a person’s level of happiness.
3. Use an app to help you learn how to meditate.
There are many free meditation apps out there that can help you tune out for the five minutes you need to relax.
Popular apps like Headspace or Insight Timer have hundreds of guided meditation options that can help you deal with any emotion you may be feeling. Research suggests meditation can help ease anxiety and depression.
Nick Allen, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon, suggests you try to build a meditation practice when you're not feeling stressed. The more you work beforehand, he says, either by yourself or with a professional, the better results you’ll see when you’re in a pinch.
4. Listen to a relaxing song.
Emmeline Edwards, Ph.D., Director of the Division of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health, says music therapy can also be a great way to relax wherever you are.
“The auditory cortex is connected to other areas of the brain that are connected to our reward system, motor systems, centers for motivation and emotion regulation,” Edwards says.
In fact, research shows music can help people dealing with stress-related disorders, mild depression and anxiety.
5. Have a relaxing cup of tea.
“Have a hot cup of tea, preferably with no caffeine,” Wei says. “And put the smart phone away and just spend a few minutes focusing on the flavor of tea, the temperature, noticing everything about the cup.”
This mindfulness practice helps you tune out other thoughts, helping you focus on something that’s calming. This can be a great tactic to reduce stress at work; while you can't necessarily step away from the stressors completely, you can use a cup of tea as a signal to press pause for a moment.
6. Go outside for a few minutes.
Dr. Monique Tello, an internal medicine physician at Women's Health Associates in Boston, Massachusetts, says that sometimes, getting outside for a quick walk or fresh air is a great option to reduce stress quickly.
“If someone is feeling very stressed and they have the chance to change their environment, get fresh air, see nature — water, trees — they should,” Tello tells TODAY. “Exercise, take a brisk walk.”
This strategy is great for people who feel restless or unable to concentrate and there are studies to support its effectiveness, she adds.