Take a deep breath. Unclench that jaw. We πŸ‘ can πŸ‘ do πŸ‘ thisπŸ‘ .

Karla Walsh
July 13, 2021
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Inhale. Exhale. No really... when was the last time you took a true, deep-lung, full breath?

So often, we're running around trying to juggle the constant phone pings, work to-dos, family obligations, personal errands and more that we forget to even fully breathe, let alone be in the moment. And our current go-go-go environment and the overbooked nature of easing back into post-pandemic social life and work obligations is doing a number on our mental health: Nearly 1 in 5 adults say their mental health is worse than it was in 2019, according to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America™ 2020 survey. This is mainly due to increased stress, anxiety and overall uncertainty about the future.

Of course, seeking professional help for serious mental illness (or even if you could use a neutral party to talk through challenges with) is a wise idea. But for everyday stresses, small changes can make a big difference.

What is Stress, Exactly?

While stress can raise our blood pressure, make us feel harried or exhausted and can have some damaging physical consequences overtime, "it actually serves an evolutionary purpose," explains Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and the owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group in Towson, Maryland. "Stress is a signal to our bodies to prepare to respond to threats. When we prepare physically for threats our bodies can release stress hormones like adrenaline that cause a variety of responses including narrowing your field of vision, quickening your heartbeat and muscle tension. Once in a while, this stress response can be adaptive."

Read on for some science-backed stress-relievers that can help in short order.

Woman doing the Cobra Pose
Credit: Getty Images / Marko Geber

7 Proven Ways to Relieve Stress in 10 Minutes or Less

No one stress-relieving strategy will fit each person, Lyons says. So try one strategy for three days. If it still isn't helping you relax (or worse, is creating more stress), it's time to try something else.

"However, first try to figure out what it is about a particular strategy that isn't helpful. Is your mind wandering? If so, focus on your body with a strategy like exercising or focusing on your breath. Do you lack the motivation to engage in an activity? If so, find ways to lower the barrier to engagement," Lyons suggests, like meeting a pal for a lunch break walk, so you'll enjoy the social time as you enjoy the fresh air.

1. Breathe deep

Lyons loves deep, diaphragmatic breathing as a way to recenter, and it takes just seconds to try. Science stands behind this strategy: One study in the journal Cognition and Emotion demonstrated that different emotional states are associated with specific respiration patterns, and other research has found that emotions correspond to certain breathing patterns (often quicker and shorter). On the flip side, deep breathing delivers more oxygen to the brain and may lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. To put this into practice, inhale slowly and deeply through the nose for 5 seconds. Then, engage the diaphragm (the muscles along the top of your abdomen that suck the lungs down as they draw in air and push them out as they release it) and exhale slowly to empty the lungs completely.

2. Try progressive muscle relaxation

If you've taken a meditation class, you may have tried this: Progressive muscle relaxation is a guided pattern of holding and releasing tension in muscles throughout the body; often toe to head or head to toe. "When we're in stress our body responds physically, in part, by tensing muscles. Muscle relaxation is incompatible with feelings of stress so when you engage in muscle relaxation, you'll likely feel more relaxed afterwards," Lyons says.

3. Give yoga a go

In related news, slow flow yoga (yin yoga is Lyons' fave, and yoga nidra is another fantastic choice) allows you to hold certain poses, tensing up muscles, and release them while breathing slowly yet deeply. Just 10 minutes can ease your light-or-fight response and interrupt the body's stress mechanisms, and research published in The International Journal of Yoga proves that being a poser can promote feelings of well-being, improve body image, lower irritability, plus reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

4. Tidy up

Outer order, inner calm, some happiness experts say, and one study in the journal Mindfulness hints that this may be true for many people. Participants who washed dishes felt more mindful and positive than their non-cleaning peers. Whether it's doing the dishes, folding laundry, wiping down the counters or vacuuming, this unitasking time will help you feel like you've checked one item off your to-do list and will lift that future task off your shoulders.

5. Use your nose

While tension and anxiety often manifests in how our body feels, our other senses can help turn the stress ship around. Try inhaling essential oils or other nostalgic scents (say, with a batch of grandma's go-to cookie recipe) to counteract stress. This form of aromatherapy is scientifically-proven to benefit certain populations. These scents are among the most beneficial for stress-reduction:

  • Bitter orange
  • Bergamot
  • Frankincense
  • Lavender
  • Rose
  • Sandalwood
  • Vetiver
  • Ylang ylang

6. Take it outside.

Needing a breath of fresh air is more than just a saying; it's a fact. Since we spend 90% of our time indoors, taking a breath of crisp fresh air can really pivot your neurochemistry. As little as 10 minutes of sitting or walking in nature can lower stress and improve mental health, according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

7. Express gratitude

When the weight of stress is bearing down, it can feel like the universe is working against you. To combat these feelings of overwhelm and down-in-the-dumps, jot down 3 to 5 things you're grateful for—or write a thank you note to a friend, family member or colleague who you appreciate. Counting your blessings can increase happiness and positive emotions, buffer stress and might even lead to healthier food choices, research suggests. Now that's an prescription we can stand behind!