In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to de-stress.
What to do.
What not to do.
(And most important of all) how you can de-stress your life so you can focus on what really matters.
We have a lot to cover so let’s get started.
First of all, the backstory
Stress began as a lifesaving way to cope with hostility or danger.
Simply put, in stressful situations, the body releases hormones which get you ready to do battle for your life or get out of there fast. You may have heard this called the ‘fight or flight response’.
In ancient times, threats were physically real and immediate. Organisms needed to take action ASAP.
Since ancient threats were physically real and immediate, there was an optimum cycle: a short turning on and (more importantly) a long turning off of the body’s ‘under stress mode’.
For biology buffs: the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for releasing the hormones (mainly adrenaline and noradrenaline) while the parasympathetic nervous system has the job of stopping the flow.
Now, the current story
For many people, modern life is all about chronic stress, a never-ending series of situations which trigger their body’s fight or flight responses again and again.
Few of these situations are physically real and immediate. Most of them are ongoing, long-term conditions at work or home.
The result is that many modern bodies do not get enough ‘rest and digest time’ to recover from the effects of the ‘fight or flight’ hormones.
In other words, there is no optimum cycle.
Chronic stress is a cause of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems.
Besides having a direct effect on our health, cardiovascular problems can lead to a long list of other negative health conditions.
Our bodies are built to handle occasional stress. They are not built to handle it as a constant condition.
Logically, then, you should make stress an infrequent visitor.
Here are 8 suggestions to do just that.
1. Decorate your day
Prescription to de-stress: Take two doses of beauty daily.
Sounds a little strange, right? Yet, the data shows that beauty can help a person feel happier, calmer, and less stressed.
Research has found a positive connection between aesthetics (“the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty”) and wellbeing.
Aesthetics and wellbeing
The results showed that after completing the program, all patients showed significant improvements in motivation.
The researchers suggest the following reason: connection with the arts allowed the participants to connect with “sensory experiences such as: relief, joy and peace of mind”.
Finding ways to increase aesthetics in your life is not as complicated as you might think.
Here are two suggestions.
1. Walk in nature
Ever notice how a stroll in the garden, on the beach or in the woods is calming?
Besides the stillness and sounds of the wildlife, there are an abundance of fractals.
What is a fractal?
In 1975, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coined this phrase to describe a pattern of identical shapes which become progressively bigger or smaller. Often, the pattern is in a spiral or curved form.
It’s ok…as soon as you think about the examples, you’ll realize you know what a fractal is.
So, some classic examples in nature:
Fern leaves—A fern leaf is made up of smaller leaves called ‘fronds’. At the bottom the fronds are larger, decreasing in size as they move up to the tip of the overall leaf. Each frond is identical, just the size changes.
Nautilus shells—Cut a shell in half and a series of chambers (sections) is revealed. Starting from the center and moving outward, the chambers get larger and larger. Again, identical in shape but not size.
Sunflowers—This plant has two main fractals: the seed pattern in the center of the flower and the petals all around.
Trees—The way in which the trees ‘branch out’ is a classic fractal structure. The branches repeat their exact form, just getting smaller as they reach the top.
Fractals are not only outside in nature, they are inside the human body, too. Our lungs, brains, and circulatory system are all fractal structures.
Why should we care about fractals?
Besides being beautiful and connecting with our aesthetic appreciation, fractals have been found to lower stress levels.
Simply put, when we look at fractals, there are more alpha waves in our brain.
Alpha waves are associated with higher serotonin levels. In other words, the more alpha waves in the brain, the more serotonin is produced.
Serotonin is a chemical which helps to keep you ‘balanced’. For example, it plays a big part in regulating your mood, appetite, sleep, social behavior, memory and sexual desire.
Often, people who are depressed have low serotonin levels.
And that’s why the fractals in nature can de-stress you.
Improve the interiors you live in
In their book, Wellbeing in Interiors: Philosophy, Design and Value in Practice, Elina Grigoriou and Richard Francis explain that there are design elements which make an interior more beautiful, more aesthetically pleasing.
As a result, these design elements can enhance wellbeing.
Here are several of them with the definitions of the authors:
Elegance—”Features look as if less physical effort was needed.” Example: a floating shelf—in this type of shelf, a bar with two rods sticking out is screwed onto the wall; the shelf has two holes at the back which allow the shelf to slide onto the rods)
Proportion—The objects are placed into the space with a definite plan: balanced, symmetrical or asymmetrical, not just thrown in haphazardly.
Repetition—”The patterns, shapes or arrangements contain repetition. Repetition creates trust.”
Authentic—Things in the interior speak to the “personality and needs” of the occupants.
Does your workspace incorporate these elements? What about your home?
Often, there is no need for a complete makeover with a large budget. Small tweaks can make big changes.
Think about the furniture and equipment. Are they arranged to be as useful and elegant as possible?
Consider color. Perhaps you can choose one color which usually lifts your mood and repeat it: on an accent wall, in blinds or curtains, as a chair cushion, for a plant holder, etc.
Who would have thought that the placement and color of your couch could make sure a difference?
2. Ease on down the road
One of the songs in the hit musical, The Wiz contains the following two sections of lyrics which can help you de-stress:
I. The road you’re walking
Might be long sometimes
You just keep on steppin’
And you’ll just be fine, yeah
II. Don’t you carry nothing
That might be a load
Just ease on down, ease on down the road.
Is your road long? Does it feel like you are never going to get to the end?
That’s ok. Everyone feels like that at times.
People often say, “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.”
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, we DO want to get where we’re going, to accomplish our goals.
On the other, there is wisdom in not focusing on the end 24/7, enjoying the trip in a calm way, not getting totally stressed out with how long it is going to take or losing it over any challenges along the way.
As long as “you just keep on stepping” (as the song says), “you’ll be just fine”—and indeed you will.
The well-known study by Angela Duckworth et. al. shows that people with grit (“perseverance and passion for long-term goals”) tend to succeed even when the odds are against them.
Which loads are YOU carrying that do not serve you?
All of us carry burdens which we cannot put down, but what about those which we could?
Take some time to examine each and every one of the life loads on your shoulders. Things such as:
Are your expectations realistic? Are they even YOURS? Many of us are burdened with the unrealistic expectations of others.
How many responsibilities do you have? Are all of them absolutely necessary? Even a small thing such as installing an automatic watering system in a back garden can free up time to actually sit in that garden, enjoying the view…and the fractals.
Who are you carrying with you on your journey? Are all of them doing their best to cheer you on? No matter who they are, toxic people are, well, toxic. Find better ‘travel companions’, the ones you deserve.
3. Strive less
Marketers have done a super job. Most of us are conditioned to want MORE.
Not only do we want more, we want NEWER as well.
Striving for the next and the newer translates to not being satisfied with what you already have.
Kind of sad, really. Instead of enjoying what you have earned or accomplished, your eyes are on the next prize.
Naturally, this leads to lots of stress—the stress of how are you going to get it, when is it going to happen, in which way are people going to look at you in the meantime.
What would happen if…
You used the same mobile phone for another year? Same story for your car, computer, TV, etc.?
You reduced your clothes to half the number you own now…just items you always feel good in and love wearing?
Your decision was not to climb up another step on that corporate ladder, thus opening up time to spend on yourself and with your loved ones?
What are some outcomes of striving less?
“Real luxury is not working like a maniac to take an expensive vacation–it is living a life you enjoy every day.”― Kathy Gottberg
“It’s surprising how much free time and productivity you gain when you lose the busyness in your mind.”― Brittany Burgunder
“Happiness is being content with what you have, living in freedom and liberty, having a good family life and good friends.”―Divyanka Tripathi
4. Treat yourself tenderly
Are you your own best friend? Or are you a super saboteur?
When you’ve messed something up, is that voice in your head negative or positive?
Are you your own worst critic, your harshest judge or your biggest fan?
A great way to de-stress is developing self-compassion. In other words, being gentle with yourself.
Practical ways to be tender with yourself:
1. Praise Yourself
Be an entire cheerleading squad. No matter what happens, think something encouraging and only then give yourself advice for next time.
2. Be Authentic
Be honest about how you feel, especially when it’s negative. When you are feeling sad, angry, frustrated, jealous, hurt, etc., acknowledge it.
Feel what you feel in all its intensity. Realize that everyone has those feelings sometimes.
Putting bandaids on cuts hide what is happening underneath. If you leave the bandaid on too long, the cut will usually get infected.
Same thing when we deny our negative feelings. They burst forth in all kinds of self-destructive ways.
One of those is a lot of stress.
Once you have relaxed, think about what caused your feelings. What can you learn going forward?
3. Play often
Do fun things for small reasons..or for no reason. Playing is a great way to de-stress.
It can be silly things like buying a bottle of bubbles and blowing them at random people with a big smile on your face.
Perhaps something more ‘serious’ such as treating a friend to a meal at that new cafe everyone is talking about.
Singing along at the top of your lungs while cleaning the house; jumping into that pile of leaves you just raked; lying out under the stars with your partner and talking about your dreams and goals; catching your kids (grandkids, nieces/nephews, your sibling’s kids) and tickling them…
Every time you play, you connect with your more carefree, less stressed, inner child.
5. Relax more
Were you expecting suggestions such as taking a hot bath, getting a massage, watching something on Netflix?
These are all great ideas, but no.
Turn off the news.
In her book, Fragile: Why we are feeling more stressed, anxious and overwhelmed than ever, Stella O’Malley defines anxiety as “an overestimation of danger combined with an underestimation of our ability to cope”.
American Psychological Association (APA) Survey
This recent investigation found that 63 percent of Americans surveyed said that the future of the U.S. is causing them a lot of stress.
Even worse, 59 percent reported that they “consider this the lowest point in U.S. history”.
We can compare these results with two other big stress factors: work (61 percent) and money (62 percent).
Of the three, the state of the nation is probably the one issue people feel least able to do something about.
As we mentioned earlier, that creates anxiety.
Yes. Data shows that news with negative energy causes people to have less social trust.
In other words, they have less trust towards individual people and in turn, social structures made up of people (such as governments).
So, a steady diet of negative news makes us overly worried about issues that we have little (or no) control over. Small wonder then that negative news is causing people a lot of stress.
Ask yourself: how much do you really need to hear? And what is the most positive way to get the information you DO require?
6. Eat well
You probably know about the importance of good nutrition, but did you know that certain foods can help you de-stress?
Here is a partial list:
Complex Carbohydrates: These long-chain sugar molecules can activate the brain to release more serotonin (Just to refresh, we spoke about serotonin in Item #1 above. Briefly, those with depression usually have low levels of serotonin.)
Complex carbs also help keep our blood pressure stable. Can be found in: fruits, vegetables, whole grains.
Dark Chocolate: Studies show that this type of chocolate may help people keep their blood pressure lower during stressful situations.
Magnesium: This mineral reduces headaches and fatigue (a general feeling of tiredness).
It may also help older people get a better night’s sleep. Can be found in: soybeans, salmon, leafy greens such as spinach.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: This group reins in stress hormones, preventing them from getting out of control. Can be found in: nuts (almonds, walnuts), seeds (flax, chia) and fatty fish (tuna, salmon).
There is also a vegan option from algae.
Vitamin C: Besides fighting colds and the flu, Vitamin C helps lower our body’s cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a stress hormone produced during anxious situations. Cortisol increases blood pressure.
7. Simplify your life
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)
This U.S. Navy principle can help you de-stress.
Uncomplicate your life by saying ‘No’ to any requests which don’t serve you in a positive way.
Simple to say; quite challenging to do. The main reasons are feelings of obligation and guilt.
Those ‘ever-widening circles’ in our lives like to tell us what we need to do.
There are human circles such as your own circle of one, then your family, neighborhood, friends, colleagues, town or city, country, etc.
Other circles include ethnic, religious, and gender backgrounds.
We tend to take for granted what they have told us. Perhaps it is time to question some of it?
Of course, the ‘payoff’ for not fulfilling these obligations (or even questioning them) is the feeling that we are not good people.
Guilt is a very persuasive emotion. It is super at forcing us to do things that we totally do not want or think we need to do.
Consider the following situations:
I. Your partner is invited to the wedding of the daughter of a friend of a friend. He’s going and expects you to go because partners should go to weddings together.
You don’t know the friend, the friend of the friend, nor anyone else besides your partner.
Do you have to go?
II. Your mother calls. She needs a ride. It’s nothing urgent.
Her schedule conflicts with yours, and she’s not willing to be flexible.
You offer to arrange and pay for an Uber or a cab. She says she needs you.
Must you drive her to where she needs to go?
III. Your colleagues at work ask for help on a project. These colleagues are leeches—taking from others and never giving back.
You know this because you’ve helped them several times before. Yet, when you’ve asked them for a hand, they’ve always got an excuse.
Your company has a significant ‘team player’ ethic, and these colleagues have big mouths.
Do you have to pitch in again?
Saying ‘No’ is one of the most difficult things you will ever need to do, but it is a powerful way to keep your life stress-free.
Surrender is one of those problematic words.
Just as ‘forgiveness’ does not mean you condone (approve of) someone’s bad behavior, ‘surrender’ does not mean you give up.
What are we letting go of?
To begin the answer, let’s look at Eckhart Tolle’s Surrender Strategy:
In any undesirable situation you have three choices:
- Change the situation (if you can).
- Leave the situation (if you can).
- If you can’t do either of the above, accept it as it is.
Options 1 and 2 mean that you have control. Option 3 means you don’t.
Trying to control things you have little (or no) control over is an exercise in futility (uselessness) and creates a great deal of stress.
When you accept a situation as it is, you let go of the stress of fighting it. This means you have more energy for creatively working within the challenge itself.
Accepting a situation gives you space to breathe. Even though you are 200% on-task, you realize that you might not achieve your goal due to circumstances out of your control.
A mindset of true acceptance keeps you focused. Instead of getting distracted by fears and regrets, you are more able to keep your eye firmly on your journey, wishing others well as you pass them by.
To sum up about de-stressors…
Can you envision a life that is more aesthetically pleasing, one in which you are hauling fewer burdens and taking greater satisfaction in what you have now?
Are you able to think about being more gentle with yourself, creating a more relaxed environment by watching less negative news and enriching yourself with stress-reducing foods?
Does your picture include a simpler life, a journey made easier by surrendering your need to try to control situations out of your control?
Good for you. You are now ready to put these suggestions into practice and de-stress your life.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Using Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy for a Better Life
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