18 Simple Stress Relievers to Add to Your Mental Health Toolkit
You need relief! Stress relief, that is – and you can start calming down and achieving a more balanced mindset with these 18 stress relievers. (Or psych yourself up by turning stress into positive energy.)
1. Prep for tomorrow.
Nothing is more stressful than being unprepared. Get organized so you're ready for the next day, taking a few minutes to make a to-do list and clean up before you leave. Knowing you've got everything covered means you'll be less likely to fret about work in the evenings. When you come in the next morning, you'll have the sense that you're in control of the situation and can handle it. This sets a positive tone for the day, which can help you get more accomplished. (You can even turn your nightly beauty routine into a stress-relieving practice.)
2. Arm yourself with healthy snacks.
Raise your hand if you've ever scooped your way to the bottom of an ice cream pint, went to town on a bag (or three) of gummies, or even reached for some frozen pizza when the going got tough (think: global pandemic, impending presentation at work, a recent breakup). Everyone? Sounds about right. After all, 27 percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those report who overeat or jump on the junk food bandwagon when stressed say this behavior is a habit, according to the American Psychological Association. Here's the thing: When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol (aka the stress hormone), which "triggers cravings for pleasure, or for sweet or salty indulgent foods," Lisa Mastela, R.D., M.P.H., founder of Bumpin' Blends, a pre-made smoothie company, previously told Shape.
So if you're one of the many who consider eating to be one of your go-to stress relievers, you're not alone — and you shouldn't deprive yourself either when this stress-induced hankering comes a-knocking. Instead, keep three or four healthy snacks on hand that you know you'll probably want — e.g. peanuts if you like salty, string cheese if you crave protein, a small piece of chocolate for something sweet — so you aren't tempted to binge. (See also: How to Know If You're Stress Eating (and What You Can Do to Stop))
3. Repeat a mantra or an activity.
Doing almost any routine, repetitive activity (e.g. vacuuming, shredding paper, knitting) or reciting a word that represents how you wish you felt (such as calm) is a quick way to achieve a Zen-like state. In fact, concentrating on and repeating a sound, a word, or a statement allows for one point of focus, thereby quieting the noise in the rest of the brain, which, in turn, can act as a stress reliever and help ease anxiety. Research also shows repeating statements, such as mantras, can quiet the area of the brain responsible for self-evaluation and wandering, as well as improve mood (de-stress, reduce anxiety) and quality of sleep. The crucial elements are to focus on a word, your breathing, or a movement and to bring your attention back to your task if your mind wanders or negative thoughts intrude. (This stress reliever sound up your alley? Then you're going to want to check out these mantras for anxiety, too.)
4. Turn on some tunes.
Whether you listened to a lullaby as a child to help you fall asleep or rely on a pump-up playlist to motivate you to achieve a new PR, then you likely know that music can have a profound impact on your brain. And the same is true when you're feeling overwhelmed or nervous — only this time, you're going to want to listen to slower, more meditative tunes — which research suggests act as stress relievers — than those bass-heavy hits that keep you pounding the pavement. (BTW, pink noise can offer some stress relief too.)
5. Use the ATM once.
Limiting your cash withdrawals to once a week is a quick, easy way to monitor your spending habits. Multiple trips to the ATM make it harder to track your money. If you put yourself on an allowance and pay cash for everything, you're more aware of what you're spending and more careful about what you buy. And while thinking about your finances may be enough to send you over the edge, it turns out that getting them under control eases tension in the long run. (Money and work tied for first place as the leading sources of stress, according to the APA.) When you have a weekend afternoon free, try this take-control move: Write everything down, so you can see exactly where you stand financially: what you owe, the amount of interest, your monthly income, your budget. Not facing what you're up against creates even more stress, because it's always in the back of your mind. But once you have the information down, you can begin setting concrete goals using real figures. And taking action is sure to be a supercharged stress reliever and leave you feeling so much better.
6. Hit the pool.
A Swedish study published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that floating in water triggers the body's relaxation response, helping lower stress hormone levels. Even better, nearly 80 percent of the subjects showed improvements such as feeling less tense and depressed. And while you might not live in an area where pools are open all year long (ugh @ winter), you might want to swap your usual post-work exercise routine for a pool-focused one when you're feeling particularly under pressure. Once done with, say, this no-laps, full-body workout, take some time to just float and enjoy the water as a study-backed way to relieve stress. (Related: How to Use Water to Reduce Stress and Soothe Your Mind)
7. Put away your phone.
Thanks to smartphones, email, Slack, and countless other forms of technology, it can often feel like your job never truly ends. The increasingly blurry boundaries between work and home life leave you with less downtime than ever before (and in some cases, no downtime!). And then there's social media: From Twitter and TikTok to Facebook and Instagram, the nearly incessant scrolling on these platforms has been shown to negatively impact mental health. In other words, advances in technology are generally considered a significant source of stress — even more so, when devices or services don't work, according to a recent survey from the APA.
That being said, throwing your phone out the window and taking a bat to your laptop isn't necessarily going to make matters better. (Although, let's be honest, smashing your device into a million little pieces after a particularly tough day might provide some stress relief in the moment.) To make technology work for you, screen calls with caller ID or, better yet, limit your cell phone and e-mail use to working hours only. Can't kick that Instagram habit? Take advantage of your phone's screen time tool or the app's activity timer, both of which will help you curb the amount of time you spend scrolling aimlessly by sending reminders once you reach your chosen amount of time spent on the app. (See also: I Tried the New Apple Screen Time Tools to Cut Back On Social Media)
8. Recall a past success.
Taking five minutes to reflect on how you pulled through other stressful situations such as your last breakup or when you switched jobs can help you reconnect with your resilient side. In the moment, it may feel as though you'll never get over your present problem, but when you look back, you realize that you felt similarly before and found a way to overcome it. If you're going through a divorce or recently lost a loved one, you also may want to seek out a support group, as talking with peers can be just as or even more beneficial than one-on-one counseling in the initial months after a loss. (That being said, if you are truly struggling with grief, then you might need more than one of these stress relievers to properly process your emotions — and that's totally okay.)
9. Do yoga in your pajamas.
Wondering "how to relieve stress before bed?" Then listen up! A simple spinal twist can help you get a better night's sleep. It alleviates tension that's built up in your lower back throughout the day. Sitting on your bed with legs crossed, place your right hand down on the bed behind you and rest your left hand on your right knee. Sit up straight and inhale for four to eight counts, lengthening your spine as you breathe. On your exhale, begin to twist toward your right hand (don't strain your neck). Hold this position for four more full breaths, lengthening your spine on the inhales and deepening your twist on the exhales, if it feels comfortable. Repeat yoga asanas on the opposite side. (These stress-reducing yoga poses also help calm anxiety.)
10. Focus on your senses.
For a few minutes a day — whether during a workout or a mid-day break from your job — practice being mindful by focusing only on what's going on in the present. Try taking a short walk and instead of thinking about what's worrying you, pay attention to your senses: what you see, feel, hear, smell. This can make a huge difference in your emotional and physical well-being when done daily.
11. Write about your worries.
Writing about the things that prey on you — in a diary or even on a journal app on your phone — can help you calm down and, in the long term, feel less alone and helpless. In fact, multiple experts — and studies — suggest that keeping a so-called worry journal allows you to dig deeper to find out why certain worries occur and, in turn, how to relieve the stress going forward. And while taking a few minutes before bed to jot down your feelings can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with sleep, there's no one time you should use this stress reliever. Overwhelmed in the middle of the day? Put pen to paper (literally, such as in a journal, or figuratively, such as in a note on your phone) and let your thoughts and feelings flow. Doing a brain dump like such can act as a stress reliever and lighten the emotional burden you might be feeling in the moment and, as mentioned above, help resolve any issues going forward. (See more: All the Ways a Worry Journal Could Make Your Life Better)
12. Remember to sweat.
Working out is one of the most effective stress relievers. For one, exercise boosts endorphins and other feel-happy hormones (cue Legally Blonde). Research also shows that working out in a group class setting — even if just for 30 minutes — can provide major stress relief. And the mental health benefits don't stop there: Breaking a sweat on the regular can also boost your mental toughness or resilience, increasing your capacity to handle challenges in the future. Can't hit the gym or class? Even a brisk 30-minute walk at lunch or getting up several times a day to stretch and walk around can be stress relievers.
13. Make time for a massage.
Having your body pressed and prodded can work wonders on your muscles, yes, but also your mind. In fact, multiple studies suggest that massage therapy is a powerful way to relieve stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. And while luxury spas and upscale health clubs are stereotypically associated with ultra-effective massages, you don't have to book an hour-long appointment and pay a ton to reap the stress-relieving benefits of being touched. A 2020 study found that a 10-minute massage can be enough to help you overcome angst. You can also treat yourself to the occasional pedicure, manicure, or facial — all of which are nurturing, hands-on treatments that offer some of the mind-body benefits of massage.
14. Avoid negative self-talk.
People who handle stress well tend to employ what stress experts call an "optimistic explanatory style." They don't beat themselves up when things don't work out in their favor. So instead of using statements that catastrophize an incident, such as "I'm a complete failure," they might say to themselves, "I need to work on my backhand." Or they'll transfer blame to an external source. Rather than saying, "I really blew that presentation," it's, "That was a tough group to engage." Replace the word "expect" with "hope." Expectations can only be used for those things over which you have the greatest personal control. You can expect to quench your thirst with a drink of water. You cannot expect to get the job you just interviewed for. You can hope to get it. (Related: Your Negative Self-Talk Could Be Harming Your Health — Here's How to Stop)
15. Don't be so serious.
There's nothing like anxiety to annihilate your sense of humor. It would follow, then, that it's impossible to feel stressed when you're hunched over in a fit of giggles. Studies have shown, in fact, that laughter not only relieves tension but it actually improves immune function, according to Mayo Clinic. Can't seem to chuckle? Try to at least smile, as it has the power to change brain chemistry and attitude, and to boost other feelings impacted by stress, Jordan Friedman, M.P.H., stress management coach and author of The Stress Manager's Manual, previously told Shape. So, if you're wondering how to relieve stress, remember that simply taking things a little less seriously — and showing off those pearly whites — might help you feel better.
16. Take breaks.
When you're having a hell of a day — good or bad — checking out for 10-15 minutes is revitalizing. Find a place where you can be alone (and definitely ditch the cell phone) — the attic, the bathroom, a quiet cafe, a big oak tree — and wipe the slate clean for a few minutes. Do whatever it is that relaxes you: Meditate, read a novel, or simply sip tea. It's crucial to take just a few minutes every day to de-stress. It's not how much time you allot, but being consistent that's important. (Need even more proof that pressing pause can be a stress reliever? Here's why it's important to schedule downtime for your brain, according to experts.)
17. Find the positive — no matter how small.
It's a scenario played out every evening all over the country: Come home from work and start venting to your spouse or roommate about your day. Instead of creating a negative atmosphere the minute you walk in the door, try starting off the evening by exchanging good news. That's not to say that every day you're going to come home with some sort of big announcement about, say, a promotion or health breakthrough. But simply calling out something that went well — be it receiving an extra shot in your coffee for free or scoring a seat on the subway — can act as a stress reliever and help boost your mood. (After all, even science says the power of positive thinking is legit.)
18. Take the stress in and release it.
Literally embrace whatever it is you're going through and then let it go. Try doing a tai chi exercise known as "embracing the tiger," where you take your arms, spread them wide, put your hands together, and then draw them — and everything around you — toward your navel, the center of your being. Doing this allows you to take the good with the bad. (Just take it from Naomi Campbell who's said she loves tai chi for its mental effects.) Then reverse your hands and push them out, releasing your tension. When you can control stress, it can no longer control you. (Follow it with this progressive muscle relaxation technique to reduce stress.)