5 Science-Backed Ways to Fight Stress

We look at 16-plus studies to find out how to worry less.

The evidence is clear: stress is bad for you. Medicine, in the last few years especially, has worked to understand and tackle this ubiquitous problem. And the public is all ears, as stress-management is increasingly seen as important as diet and exercise are to the maintenance of everyday health.

The scientific literature on the subject is extensive, and we’re here to help you sort through it all. Here you’ll find five science-supported approaches to stress-management that will have you erring on the side of tranquility.

Take a Hike

Nature is the original stress reliever, and we need it now more than ever. Research has found that city-dwellers are 40% more likely than rural inhabitants to have an anxiety disorder. But you don’t need to live next to Yosemite to reap the benefits of nature. Even looking at green spaces can prove to be a potent anti-stress measure. One study hooked participants up to an EKG while exposing them to stressful math problems. They were then shown photos of urban green spaces, which were shown to alleviate stress significantly more than photos of normal urban environments.

Further studies have correlated being in nature with higher happiness and lower levels of cortisol. There’s even a theory that goes along with these results: biophilia. Made famous by E.O. Wilson in the 80s, the theory goes that humans have an innate bond with all living things. While hard to prove, the hypothesis appeals to intuition. In nature we find fresh air, beauty, exercise, calm, and life—all things we could use a little more of.

Cut Back on Technology

Most research linking stress and tech is correlative, but either way, the results don’t bode well for spending a lot of time on your devices. Studies have found that teenagers with 300-plus Facebook friends had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and college students who spent more time on their phones were more likely to be anxious and unhappy.

But if you still need your media fix, you might want to go analog. A study conducted at the University of Sussex found that as little as six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels as much as 68%.

Also, Cut Back on Drugs

Don’t shoot us, we’re just delivering the messages from science. And apparently, science doesn’t think you should rely on drugs to fight your anxieties, however helpful they might seem. Studies (and likely your experience) show caffeine can keep you stressed. Research has also linked alcohol consumption to elevated levels of cortisol, while stress levels were found to drop in smokers after quitting their fix.

Be Ready to Mingle

Scientists like to remind us that humans are a social animal. Which is better than being a lone or punching animal, we guess. But it’s hard to ignore them. There is something undeniably biological about our love of hanging out and cuddling. One study by the Royal Society found that social laughter releases endorphins and even makes us more tolerant of pain. Another study at Carnegie Mellon found hugging too lowers stress levels, and might even help fight respiratory illness.

But if that’s not enough, there’s even more you can be doing. Like having sex. One joint study took a sample size of 58 women and found that those who are intimate feel much better both the the day of and the day after the event. Sometimes, you’ve just got to give it to science for proving what everyone’s known all along.

Use Your Mind

Your mind got you into this stress, and you’re going to need it to get you out. And there are plenty of ways to get it to relax. Breathing exercises are a tried-and-true method for alleviating stress. There are plenty of resources online (like this guide from Harvard Medical School) if you want to familiarize yourself with effective methods and tips.

Mindfulness and meditation are among the most famous and well-respected avenues for stress relief. Because stress is most overwhelming when its gaze turns to things distant and beyond your control, mindfulness reverses the cycle, and turns your focus on the richness of the immediate. It takes practice, but a little introduction like this is sure to get you interested.

There have been many studies to tout the benefits of meditation. One Harvard neuroscientist has observed that some of the Dalai Lama’s most revered colleagues have actually changed the shape of their brain through meditation. While you might never log in your 10,000 hours and become a meditation veteran, daily meditation has been found to militate against stress and depression, according to a large study conducted by Johns Hopkins University.

Even thinking differently has a powerful effect over stress. In a paper called “The Power of Reappraisal,” researchers made participant groups go through stressful, public trials like solving math problems under the eyes of stern judges. Each of three groups was given different advice in their handling of stress. One was told to ignore it, one went unadvised, and the third was told that their stress augured well for their performance. Of the three, the group that was persuaded to acknowledge and positively confront their stress did far better.

 

Stress is inevitable. How we handle it is not. Considering all the ways it harms us, and the many choices we have in dealing with it, we should make stress-relief an important part of our lives. Otherwise, we will hurt ourselves, and even risk passing stress on to our children. But never mind that. The world inflicts stress upon everyone, what we do with it is largely up to us.