Learn how to beat stress and bring balance to every aspect of your life
You've been through it more times than you'd care to count: As you try to manage your growing stress throughout the chaos of a busy workday, there's (always!) at least one person who is keeping their cool. Have you ever wondered how those de-stressed, ever-calm people keep it all together on a daily basis? The truth is, they're neither superhuman nor oblivious—they just practice daily habits that keep their stress levels under control. And the good news is that you can learn from them. According to Michelle Carlstrom, the senior director of the Office of Work, Life and Engagement at Johns Hopkins University, it's all about tailoring tricks to fit your needs.
"My No. 1 recommendation is you have to find the strategies that work for you and work to make those strategies a habit," Carlstrom told The Huffington Post. "I think people feel less stressed—even when they're really busy—if they're able to live out personal values that matter to their life. Whatever your values are, if you don't get to practice them its hard to feel calm."
By adopting your own personal stress-busters, the chaos of life can become a lot more manageable. But how to start? Carlstrom says relaxed people take an inventory of how they deal with stress and then figure out healthy strategies to balance out coping mechanisms that aren't beneficial. Read on for seven simple strategies calm people make an effort to integrate into their lives every day.
When calm people start to feel anxious, they turn to the one person who can make them feel better—their BFF. Spending some time with your friends can reduce your stress and buffer the effects of negative experiences, according to a 2011 study. Researchers monitored a group of children and found that those participants who were with their best friends during unpleasant experiences logged lower cortisol levels than the rest of the participants in the study.
Recent research also found that becoming friends with your co-workers can help you feel calmer at work. According to the Lancaster University study, people form the strongest, most emotionally-supportive friendships in their work environments, which helps create a buffer in high-stress workplaces. Carlstrom suggests burning off some steam with people you feel closest to, whether that's friends, co-workers or family, "as long as there's a diversity in your social relationships."
It’s no secret that meditation and mindfulness produce numerous health benefits, but perhaps the practice’s most significant impact is the effect it has on stress. People who stay de-stressed find their center through stillness—whether it’s through meditation, simply concentrating on their breath, or even prayer, Carlstrom says. "[These practices] help a person push pause, reflect, and try to stay in that moment to reduce racing thoughts and reduce interruptions. I believe any strategy that aims to do that absolutely reduces stress."
Meditation and spirituality even help some of the busiest people in the world unwind. Oprah Winfrey, Lena Dunham, Russell Brand, and Paul McCartney have all spoken out on how they’ve benefited from the practice—proving that the activity can fit into even the craziest of schedules.
Calm people don’t have everything together 24 hours a day, they just know how to manage their energy in a healthy way. The key, Carlstrom says, is figuring out if what's stressing you out is as serious as you believe it is in the moment. "It's important to realize that everyone is functioning at a really fast pace but carrying a lot of stressors," she says. "Pause, count to 10, and say 'Is this something I need to tackle? How significant is this going to be in three months?' Ask yourself questions to frame it and get perspective. Find out if this stress is real or if it's perceived."
Letting in a little stress isn't all bad—in fact, it may even help. According to research conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, acute stress can prime the brain for improved performance. Just don't let it go beyond a few short moments, especially if you're prone to poor coping mechanisms.
Carlstrom says that while everyone has bad stress habits—whether it be eating, smoking, shopping, or otherwise—it's important that you recognize when they appear in order to manage them. "Take an inventory of what you do when you're stressed and discover what's healthy and what isn't," she says. "The trick is to have a mix of healthy strategies [on top of] those coping mechanisms."
Zen people know the value of being out-of-touch for a little while. With the constant alerts, texts, and emails, taking some time to disconnect from devices and reconnect with the real world is vital in managing stress. A study conducted at the University of California, Irvine found that taking an email vacation can significantly reduce a worker's stress and allow them to focus better in the long-run.
Taking a moment to ditch your phone and pay attention to the world around you can actually be an eye-opening experience. According to HopeLab President and CEO Pat Christen, you may discover what you've been missing out on when you've been staring at your screen. "I realized several years ago that I had stopped looking in my children's eyes," Christen said at the 2013 AdWeek Huffington Post panel. "And it was shocking to me."
Despite all the literature on why it's healthy to unplug, many Americans still rarely take a break from their work—even when they're on vacation. "It's our culture to be 24/7," Carlstrom says. "People have to give themselves permission to put down their smartphone, tablet, and laptop and do something else."
Instead of staying up all night or hitting the snooze button all morning, extremely relaxed people get the proper amount of sleep in order to curb their stress. Not catching the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night can severely affect stress and your physical health, according to research published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The study showed that severe sleep loss had the same negative effect on the immune system as exposure to stress, decreasing the white blood cell counts of those sleep-deprived participants.
Naps can also be an instant stress reliever. Studies have shown that taking naps can reduce cortisol levels, as well as boost productivity and creativity—as long as they’re kept short. Professionals recommend fitting in a short, 30-minute siesta early enough in the day so it doesn’t affect your sleep cycle at night.
There's nothing in the world like taking a break from your busy schedule and unwinding on a warm beach—and it's something extremely de-stressed people make a priority. Taking your vacation days and giving yourself some time to recharge isn't just a luxury, but a crucial component in a stress-free lifestyle. Trips can help you lower your blood pressure, improve your immune system, and even help you live longer.
Taking your vacation days can also help avoid burnout at work. However if the idea of dropping your responsibilities and doing nothing makes you more stressed out, Carlstrom recommends formulating a vacation plan that works around your work habits. "There is nothing wrong with someone who wants to sprint toward a deadline at work, but the same person needs to realize that, just like a run, sprinting requires recovery," she says. "Recovery might mean taking time off or it might mean slowing down your pace for a little while. Making sure you prioritize self-care [should be] a standard."
Expressing gratitude doesn’t just make you feel good—it has a direct effect on stress hormones in the body. Research has found that those who were taught to cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions experienced a 23 percent reduction in cortisol—the key stress hormone—than those who did not. And research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that those who record what they are grateful for not only feel happier and more energized, they also have fewer complaints about their health.
According to gratitude researcher Dr. Robert Emmons, there are plenty of benefits in being thankful that contribute to overall well-being. "Philosophers for millennia have talked about gratitude as a virtue that makes life better for self and others, so it seemed to me that if one could cultivate gratefulness it could contribute to happiness, well-being, flourishing—all of these positive outcomes," Emmons said in a 2010 talk at the GreaterGood Science Center. "What we found in these [gratitude] experiments three categories of benefits: psychological, physical, and social." During his study on gratitude, Emmons found that those who practiced gratitude also exercised more frequently—a key component in keeping stress in check.