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9 Stress Relief Tips for Busy People Who Don't Have Time to Meditate

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It would be great to wake up 20 minutes earlier to meditate or take your lunch break outside to reap the stress-sapping benefits of nature. But since reality looks more like you waking up with barely enough time to brush your hair and eating sad desk salads for lunch at your desk every day, the modern #girlboss has to find ways to multitask stress relief into your day. (Like coloring, perhaps.)

It is super important that you do take the time, though.

Think of your body like a car, says Cynthia Ackrill, M.D., stress management and leadership coach. When you've been speeding along at 65 miles per hour, pulling off the highway into a 35 mph zone suddenly feels like a snail's pace. "If you're zooming ahead all day, you wear out your metaphorical transmission and lose awareness of what the lower gears or neutral feels like," she explains.

These lower gears are where your mind reboots, the chemicals replenish, and your thoughts reorganize, she adds. Plus, it's crucial for balancing your sympathetic nervous system—that fight-or-flight response—with your parasympathetic nervous system, or "rest and digest." (Not to mention all these scary ways stress affects your health.)

To top it off, the side effects of stress build throughout the day, says Jordan Friedman, M.P.H., stress management coach and author of The Stress Manager's Manual. "It's vital to take breaks—even brief ones—to prevent eye strain from turning into a migraine, a bad mood from turning into depressed feelings, and overwhelm to turn into mistakes, panic episodes, or exhaustion."

So how can you lower your stress when you don't have time to spare? Try these nine ways.

Take a breath at every threshold.

Literally—every time you walk through a doorway or get onto the elevator, take a deep breath and check in with yourself, says Ackrill. "This lets your brain disengage from the busyness of your last activity, and you can even ask who you want to be on the other side of that door," she adds. After all, boundaries and intention are stress antidotes.

Practice mindfulness while you get ready in the morning.

You do have five minutes to practice relaxation techniques—you just have to find it within your other to-dos, points out Jennifer Wolkin, Ph.D., New York–based licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness meditation practitioner. The great thing about mindfulness is that, not only do studies show it can help lower stress levels, but you can apply the principles to daily tasks. As you put your makeup on in the morning, feel the brush bristles on your skin. As you eat breakfast, think about each bite and really enjoy the flavors and textures. "Just taking five to practice mindfulness will ultimately be so beneficial in terms of decreased stress levels that it will give someone many quality hours back in return," says Wolkin.

Set a break timer.

Instead of grinding through an entire proposal in one sitting, set a timer for a chunk of productivity followed by a reprieve. Ackrill suggests using the Pomodoro technique, a time management method that asks you to work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. During the lull, get up and move. Whether dancing in your office or going through a few stretches, this can offset the physical stress that sitting causes on your body and give your mind a break to shift back into neutral for a bit. (ICYDK, sitting is really bad for you.)

Opt for GIFs over words.

Think that sending GIFs to coworkers over email or office chat is unprofessional? For starters, everyone loves a good GIF or meme (it's so irrefutable, science doesn't even need to prove it). But sending (or receiving) one will actually lower your stress: "Laughing elicits endorphins—those same feel-good chemicals released during exercise," explains Wolkin. A 2015 Australian study found that being exposed to something funny at work can even make you more productive. Whether it's sending someone a funny image or seeking out the office jokester, take a quick second to just laugh—yes, out loud. (P.S. Did you see this magical GIF that works as a de-stressing tool?)

Say thank you for the small things.

"Doing something nice for another can elicit what psychologists call the 'helper's high,' which engages the portions of the brain associated with reward, increasing dopamine, and social bonding, increasing oxytocin," says Wolkin. Plus, cortisol levels in those who express gratitude are 23 percent lower than in those who don't, according to research from UC Davis.

Create a chill cue.

Pick a song that becomes your "chill cue"—something that lets your brain know it's break time, says Ackrill. Then, pop in earphones and listen to it on the way to your big meetings. A 2013 study in PLoS One found listening to music before a stressful event resulted in less work for your autonomic nervous system—that physiological stress response—and led to faster recovery.

Smile. That's it.

Force yourself to smile, says Friedman. It has the power to change brain chemistry and attitude, and to boost other feelings impacted by stress, he says. When people smile during a taxing situation—even if they aren't actually happy—their heart rates were lower, reports a study in Psychological Science. Plus, studies show people who smile appear more likable and competent and that smiling is contagious—two things that can significantly reduce stress around you.

Take a breath before a meeting.

Your breath has powerful control over your autonomic nervous system. Before you give a presentation or go into a stressful work meeting, Ackrill suggests taking in a breath for a count of five, holding for five, then exhaling for five. If it's your meeting, consider one big group breath at the beginning—even at the risk of being that woo-woo boss. Starting a meeting with a long, slow, deep breath helps you calm down and others pay attention, says Ackrill.

Feel your senses.

When you're feeling anxious, try the 5×5 method, suggests Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., psychologist and cofounder of The Center for Mindful Living in West Los Angeles. Go through each of your senses and name five things that you notice about them—what you're seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and hearing. "This helps interrupt the automatic catastrophic thinking that's fueling the anxiety," he explains. Plus, you can do it anywhere from sitting in your office to driving carpool.

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