I believe that in our world today, people need to learn how to de-stress more than they need anything else. Therefore, I have created this collection of evidence-based stress management techniques in order to help. Each section below includes at least one link to a scholarly, peer-reviewed article in order to support the assertion that the technique will actually help to reduce stress.
1. Low-Intensity Exercise
Exercise is probably the fastest and cheapest way to relieve stress. The body is meant to be active, and many studies have shown that repeated exercise is just as beneficial to the mind as it is to the body. In particular, the best form of exercise is an aerobic exercise that does not strain the body too much, including walking, cycling, or swimming. Researchers at Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky concluded that, “low-intensity exercise training appears to be a more effective stimulus than moderate-intensity exercise training in reducing resting blood pressure and blood pressure responses to stress,” in their article, “Differential effects of exercise training intensity on blood pressure and cardiovascular responses to stress in borderline hypertensive humans.” In this particular study, the subjects exercised three times per week for 12 weeks, but in another study from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Psychobiology Group, University College London, “The effect of acute aerobic exercise on stress related blood pressure responses: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” the researchers found that a single aerobic session was able to reduce blood pressure significantly. At the same time, in their meta-analysis of many studies that had been performed, the researchers found that the more an individual exercises, the greater the benefits.
Believe it or not, scholarly research has also strongly supported the use of dancing as a stress reduction technique, particularly the use of Dance Movement Therapy (DMT), which is basically a form of dance that involves movement of the whole body. Regular dancing isn’t very different, and so it reasonably works just as well. Even if DMT’s particular movements have extra benefits, the research is still strong: one study called, “Dance movement therapy group intervention in stress treatment: A randomized controlled trial (RCT),” involved 162 subjects who reported themselves as stressed-out, and the DMT group showed statistically vast improvement compared to the control group. These reductions in stress levels were seen both in the long-term and short-term, with the short-term much more pronounced, and there were actually also significant reductions in depression, obsessive compulsive, and phobic anxiety. Other studies were less optimistic, but a Psychiatrist at a University in the UK published an article, “Body oriented psychotherapy. The state of the art in empirical research and evidence-based practice: A clinical perspective,” in which he attempts to explain why body-oriented psychotherapies like dancing are able to alleviate all sorts of distress. In my opinion, he sums it up best with a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is basically a way of identifying thoughts and replacing them with other thoughts. The idea is to treat thoughts as if they are behaviors in order to correct the undesired behaviors. For example, if an individual were depressed, then he or she could identify the problem thought (“I can’t find a job”) and replace it with a more desired one (“I will find a job eventually if I keep trying”). As another example, “I have too much going on right now,” may be replaced with something more practical like, “I need to make a to-do list, breaking it up into small tasks, and then do one task at a time.” Or a student could take the thought, “I’m going to fail this test,” with something more along the lines of, “I need to just breathe deeply, relax, and do the best that I can.”
Studies have shown that this form of treatment is very successful at helping with not only stress but also depression and anxiety. A study titled, “The effectiveness of stress management training program on depression, anxiety and stress of the nursing students,” 68 nursing students were given CBT session twice per week, with 2 hours per session, for 4 weeks, and the results showed significant effects of CBT in reducing depression, alleviating anxiety, and de-stressing in general. Even after a one-month follow-up, the effects were still observed, and the authors concluded that, “Cognitive-behavioral coping strategies are the most effective methods to reduce stress.” Another study used 10 CBT treatments to examine the stress levels of 50 homesick University students, and in this study, “Effectiveness of Cognitive–Behavioural Management of Stress on Students’ Homesickness,” the results were significant as well. In a more generalized study at the University of Zurich and published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology journal, “Randomized controlled evaluation of the effects of cognitive-behavioral stress management on cortisol responses to acute stress in healthy subjects,” of the 48 subjects who received the CBT training, the responses to acute stress were lower for both psychological and physical measures, implying that CBT can help to prevent illness related to both mind and body.
4. Basic Meditation
According to the research, meditation is one of the best ways to reduce work stress and school stress. In a study titled, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Meditation for Work Stress, Anxiety and Depressed Mood in Full-Time Workers,” which was published in the journal, Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, the researchers found that of the 178 subjects studied, the group that meditated in order to obtain mental quiet experienced a greater reduction in stress than the group that was muscle-relaxation-based. The authors explain that this could be due to the benefits of thought reduction in an environment that is conducive to over-thinking. Likewise, a study of 150 young adults titled, “Meditation induces a positive response during stress events in young Indian adults,” compared a muscle-relaxation-based stress reduction technique with a stress management technique that is aimed at quieting the mind through meditation. The doctors found that the meditation-based technique was significantly more effective, and that these effects were noticeable even 8 months after the original training. Meditation can even be very helpful immediately before a stressful event, as shown in the study, “Effect of meditation on stress-induced changes in cognitive functions,” which examined many different indicators of stress before and after playing a stressful computer game. This showed that meditation can be especially useful for students before a test.
Personally, I first learned how to meditate when I was 13 years old, and I feel that the methods still benefit me. I read a book by Ram Dass called, “The Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook,” and I took his advice that I should imagine myself as a large rock in the middle of a stream, where the water flowing by me represents my thoughts. The key was to not hold on to the thoughts nor try to change them, but instead just observe them as they pass. However, I find that the biggest downside to this meditation method is that I need to have my eyes closed when I do it. Also, it’s important to be in a place that is relatively quiet and free of other outside distractions. If you currently find yourself in these conditions, I encourage you to try this meditation right now: close your eyes, and for just five minutes, breathe deeply in and out, simply watching your thoughts flow by as you imagine that you are a large rock in the middle of the river. Maybe your thoughts are a to-do list, or maybe your thoughts are all related to a single problem or issue in your life right now, but no matter what, try to avoid judging your thoughts.
More To Come
For now, I have only put together a few ways of answering the question, “How do I de-stress?” However, I am planning on adding more in the very near future, including how to de-stress using yoga, transcendental meditation, and laughter. However, in the meantime, please feel free to add your own methods of stress reduction in the comments section below. Thanks!