Wondering how to manage stress? Chances are, you're feeling overstretched.
According to the Mind website (opens in new tab), mental stress is "our reaction to being placed under pressure - the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with." For example, the times when you have so much to do, you feel unable to do anything at all.
As a result, you might end up feeling like you don't have much control over your life or what is happening, leading to mental symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, low mood, or an inability to switch off.
Similarly, your body will present stress physically, too: it'll be different for everyone, but signs of stress (opens in new tab) often span digestive issues, difficulty breathing, or trouble sleeping. Day-to-day, you might pick your skin or nails, snap unnecessarily, or just hunch your shoulders; you might feel overwhelmed, panicked, or just a little plagued.
Sound like you or someone you know? Don't worry - you're not alone. While the World Health Organisation reassures that it's a natural human response that everyone experiences to some degree, new stats from Ciphr show that one in 14 UK adults (7%) feel stressed every single day and 74% of people feel so stressed they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Wondering what stress actually is? According to Dr Raj Arora (opens in new tab), leading medical educator and GP, stress is our body’s response to pressure. "When stressed, our body releases a hormone called adrenaline - the “fight or flight” hormone - which usually activates our immune system and helps us to respond quickly to dangerous situations." Short term, this can be helpful for overcoming stress or nerves, but if it continues to happen too regularly, can lead to adverse physical and mental effects.
A list of a hundred stress management tips went viral in 2020 after a Californian psychology teacher shared them with their students and some really stood out to me - as a Health Editor, I've used a handful of them at different points to deal with particularly stressful situations.
So, I asked some top experts to pick their favourite stress-busting tips from the list and explain why, exactly, they're so good for lowering your stress levels. Not all of the suggestions will be for you - everyone is different, and copes with stress in different ways, after all - but there are some pretty useful self care ideas on the list which might just help you unwind.
Table of Contents
How to manage stress: 27 stress management techniques that promise to help
If you're feeling on edge, this list of stress management techniques backed by top experts could help.
Your best stress-relieving methods will be totally different from another persons, so "only try what you feel comfortable with," advise the Mind team. Let the below serve as a solid reminder of some simple, free ways to manage your stress short-term, if nothing else.
1. Get up 15 minutes earlier
First up: changes to your daily routine can be a great place to start if you're feeling stressed by your day-to-day. Do you feel like you never have enough time to do everything you need to? Then shifting your wake up time even 15 minutes earlier might prove productive.
Morning routines (opens in new tab) have been found to boost productivity, mental health and more. So if you're feeling a little stressed, it might be for you.
2. Prepare for the morning the night before
Another simple way to ease stress is by preparing for your day the night before. We've all been there, rushing for the bus while trying to grab breakfast, coffee, and everything you need for work, hair still slightly damp from the shower.
As a Health Editor and marathon runner who's constantly trying to squeeze training miles in, I've done this for years now and swear by it. I lay out my gym kit, work clothes, and pack my work bag the evening before, ready to go in the morning. It means you're far less likely to forget things, too.
3. Opt for clothes that make you feel good
While this won't actively reduce your adrenaline levels, it might help boost your mood and, in turn, lower those stress levels.
What we wear and how we feel we look can have a big impact on how we feel and, in turn, how we react to stressful situations. Read our Fashion Editor's pick of the best capsule wardrobe items (opens in new tab) guaranteed to boost your mood, here.
4. Set appointments and meetings ahead of time
Hands up if you're constantly busy and sometimes feel like you're jumping from one thing to another? You're far from alone - but simple daily hacks can help you stay on top of your workload.
As entrepreneur Grace Beverley discusses in her book, Working Hard or Hardly Working, learning to be as organised as possible can be key to lowering stress levels and boosting productivity. Our round up of the best wellness planners (opens in new tab) for time blocking and more will come in handy here.
With appointments and meetings, having a clear overview of your day in advance promises to help you feel prepared for the day ahead, in turn, reducing stress levels.
5. Don’t rely on your memory – write it down
As above, writing things down can be really key for reducing stress. Think about it - if you've got all of your notes handily in one place, then you can switch off far easier knowing you don't need to be wracking your brains in case you've forgotten something.
I swear by my daily planner for daily to do lists, ongoing to do lists, my calendar for the week, and more.
6. Make duplicate keys (the more, the merrier)
So simple but so important - ever been locked out of your house with no idea as to where you might have put yours?
Having a handy few sets around the house (and at, say, your neighbours) alleviates the stress of getting locked out altogether.
7. Say “no” more often
This is a vital tool in tackling stress, explains Dr. Arora.
"Recognising that you can't do everything is really important," she shares. "Saying no more often allows you to have more time to yourself and prevents you from getting overwhelmed. Trying to do too many things at once we can start to feel out of control, which in turn can raise stress levels rising and result in mental and physical side effects."
Lesley Cooper, workplace wellbeing expert and founder of WorkingWell (opens in new tab) agrees, adding: "Often we feel overwhelmed because we are! We say yes to too many (often conflicting) tasks, challenges and demands and the default response is often to just try and go faster, do three things at once and do everything to an at least acceptable standard."
"The issue here is that there is no challenge to the belief that you can actually achieve all the things in our mental list of "jobs for today." A list of ten things to do and only two ticked off by the end of the day, leaves a sense of failure. We don’t have time to really examine whether the other eight tasks should have been on the list in the first place. We set ourselves up to feel defeated, when we may have triumphed on two challenging tasks. This is energy-draining in itself."
Try this: To reduce your stress levels, be mindful of your commitments and try not to overbook, where possible. "It's important to know you've scheduled quality time for yourself," Dr. Arora adds.
8. Set priorities in your life
Knowing which task (or tasks) to devote limited time and energy to requires you to know what's really important to you, shares Cooper.
Start by asking yourself this: what are the priorities you set for yourself in your life? What is your personal mission and purpose? What are you hoping to achieve or what direction do you want to be going in?
"We're usually too busy reacting and responding to the demands of others to ask ourselves these questions but knowing the answers enables us to prioritise the work and life activities that take us in the right direction," she explains.
There’s an additional benefit to this, she continues - doing something that is aligned with, and which contributes directly to personal goals, feels different to flogging yourself on tasks that don’t. "We are all scarce and precious individual resources," she explains. "The better you are, the more people will ask from you, so we can all get better at questioning the necessity of involvement in all the things people ask from us, and using our "personal purpose compass" to help choose the right things to focus on."
Not to mention the fact that if you get better at setting priorities and only doing tasks you're truly needed for, your stress levels will likely reduce tenfold.
9. Avoid negative people
Easier said than done sometimes, sure, but if you can actively identify that a person is having a negative impact on your life and general wellbeing, it might be worth reducing the amount of time you spend around that individual.
"Research (opens in new tab) highlights that being around negative people with negative thoughts can impact your own thinking and mood, even showing that small amounts of negative brain activity can lead to a weaker immune system," shares Dr. Arora. That's right - negativity can impact your mental but also physical wellbeing.
Being physically present with positive people and building relationships can create a strong emotional bond to help you through the stresses of levels, and provide you with a good support system.
Her advice? "Surround yourself with people who will lift you and who help you focus on the positivity of a situation," she encourages. "It’s important to be able to look forward and see beyond an adverse event."
10. Use your time wisely
As above with point number nine, knowing how to use your time is absolutely essential when it comes to keeping your stress levels in check.
How so? Well, you're only one person, and despite what Molly Mae thinks, there are only so many hours in a day. Using helpful tools like time blocking and prioritising your to do lists can both be useful for boosting productivity and in turn, lowering stress levels.
11. Simplify your meal times
By this, we mean by acknowledging that healthy doesn't need to include 20+ ingredients - eating foods that both nourish your body and fill your soul with joy is key here.
According to David Wiener, training and nutrition specialist at Freeletics (opens in new tab), when we feel down or stressed, we often skip food or eat foods that aren't particularly nutrient-dense. "This often makes you feel worse," he adds. "If you’re eating processed, carbohydrate-heavy foods, you may find yourself feeling sluggish or unproductive. Replace these food choices with more balanced options and you'll instantly improve your mood."
Try this: aim to focus on foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, which are brilliant for the cell membranes in your brain and in turn help to ease your stress and anxiety levels and therefore improve your mood.
If you're not sure where to start with healthy meals, follow a simple formula of carb, protein, fibre and fat at every meal. That might look like:
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with avocado, toast and spinach
- Lunch: Tuna wraps with seeds, tomatoes and cucumber
- Dinner: Tofu stir fry with walnuts, noodles and peppers.
12. Anticipate your needs
By that, we mean be realistic with your time and energy levels.
If you've got a jam packed weekend lined up, meeting a work client Monday evening or booking a 6am gym class might not be the best idea. After all, you're only human, and treating yourself with compassion and grace is important.
13. Ask for help with the jobs you feel you can’t do
We've all been there - handed a work request that we don't know how to manage, but a key stress management technique is asking for help when you need it.
This could be at work, at home, or with friends. Remember: you are not alone.
14. Break large tasks into bite-size portions
Feeling overwhelmed at one particular to do list? Top tip: break it down into manageable chunks, or order your to do list in terms of priority.
This promises to boost productivity and ease potential stress.
15. Pay someone a compliment
Did you know? Studies - including this 2021 paper (opens in new tab) published in the Front Psychol. journal - show that people who act with kindness and compassion have fewer mental health issues. "Lifting someone else's spirit and seeing them smile can lift your own mood, in turn leaving you feeling less stressed and more positive," shares Dr. Arora.
Wiener adds: "Saying something nice to someone can have a really positive effect on your mood. It reminds you to trade negative thoughts into positive ones and improves your own self-empathy and compassion. It can also help decrease your blood pressure and cortisol, which in turn can lower stress levels."
16. Believe in yourself
While it's natural to feel a little imposter syndrome here and there, severely lacking self belief will only exacerbate stress levels, shares Dr. Arora.
"It's all too easy to become pessimistic about life and life goals if you don't believe in yourself," she explains. "That said, truly believing in yourself and your own worth can not only boost your mental health, but have a positive impact on how one may manage a stressful life event."
Think about it: if you work on your self confidence enough to know that you can and you will manage hard times, when they happen, you'll feel more well equipped and able to cope.
Bear with us on this one - because yep, dancing has actually been scientifically proven to help release feel-good endorphins and happy hormones in the brain.
Why? In short, because dancing is a physical activity which releases endorphins and neurotransmitters from the brain that alleviate stress, shares Dr. Arora. "Research highlights that dancing reduces stress hormones like cortisol and boosts mood, so combining movement, music and feel-good emotion can lead to reduced physical and mental stress."
Case in point: one comprehensive 2022 study (opens in new tab) found that dancing provides both physiological and psychological benefits and even called for it to be included in more school curriculums to boost children's mental health.
Try this: put your favourite song on in the morning and dance while you're getting ready for work. We're not advising a Salsa or Tango (as great as they'd be) - just a simple bop around while you're brushing your teeth has the power to boost your mood.
18. Practice your breathwork
You'll likely know by now that breathwork training (opens in new tab) is one of the easiest ways to reduce stress levels - various studies have shown that it slows heart rate, racing thoughts and more.
Wiener explains: "It’s extremely easy to get swept away with the pressures of life and be trying to get things done, so much so we can forget to breathe (metaphorically of course)."
Stopping what you’re doing to take a minute to focus on your breathing can enable more airflow, which in turn will help you feel calmer, less stressed, and less anxious. But why is it so beneficial? "It activates the calmness in your nervous system and slows down your heart rate," Wiener adds.
"When your nervous system is on high alert, your heart rate can go up," explains Dr. Arora. "If this continues to happen over a longer period, it can lead to significant health implications."
Try this: breathe slowly and regulate your breathing when you feel yourself getting stressed. "Bringing your heart rate down is key to reducing stress," the doctor concludes.
19. Get outside in nature
Did you know? Studies (opens in new tab) are now continuing to show that being outside in nature and around trees has the power to reduce your stress hormones, explains Dr. Arora.
"Research indicates that as little as three to four minutes in a green leafy environment each day can have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing," she continues. Feeling more connected to nature and the outdoors both have proven health benefits - your sign to lace up and enjoy some fresh air, when you can.
20. Practice self care
Whether that's yoga, meditation or beginning to ease yourself away from a bad habit, our extensive list of self care ideas (opens in new tab) will help you unwind.
21. Find support from others
Having a support network of people, places, and things is key here - that is, knowing you have people you can rely on when things do get tough.
As a doctor, I always encourage my patients to open up and talk about their feelings and emotions with those they feel comfortable with. It also forms the basis of talking therapy we often refer patients to. It is an invaluable way of managing your own stress but also checking in with friends and family.
Remember that you always have options and that this feeling will pass.
22. Reframe negative thoughts
Everyone experiences negative thoughts from time to time, but working on adopting a more positive outlook and identifying when you experience negative emotions can boost your wellbeing.
Wiener advises practicing positive self-talk daily, taking part in mindfulness techniques, and being kind to yourself. "Being kind to yourself reinforces the positive chemicals flowing through our bodies and minds, which can help extend our life span," he shares.
23. Prioritise good quality sleep
Often, when you're stressed, good quality sleep is one of the first things to go. If you've ever been kept up at night by a long mental to do list, then you'll know what we're talking about.
That said, getting eight hours of quality sleep a night is key to being well-rested enough to tackle stressful situations head-on, with one major 2021 study (opens in new tab) all but proving that improving sleep quality leads to better mental health.
Dr. Ozcan explains: "Good quality sleep is essential for stress management as it helps you feel refreshed and ready to tackle a new day. Research by the American psychological association shows that adults have higher levels of stress if they sleep for less than eight hours a night compared to those sleeping for more than that."
Dr. Arora agrees, adding: "A lack of sleep can cause the body to behave as though it is in distress, releasing more stress hormones in the form of cortisol. Research shows that good quality sleep can have a hugely positive impact on our physical and mental health and decreases our risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, too."
24. Keep a journal
If you've read our guide to journaling for anxiety (opens in new tab), you know it can be a great self help tool. Not only does it help you process your emotions and offload any daily worries, it promises to impact your stress levels positively, too.
Dr. Arora agrees, adding: "Journaling is a highly effective tool to reduce stress levels. Why? Well, releasing emotions and putting pen to paper is similar to counselling in that it helps you to release emotions and further, help you identify what the trigger of your stress might be. This, in turn, can reduce stress hormone levels in the body."
Do note, here: journaling isn't a replacement for counselling or therapy but it's a great way of processing your emotions at home.
Stretching is a fantastic way to decrease your stress levels, shares Wiener. "Taking sixty seconds out of your day to stop and do a few stretches is all you need to increase your serotonin levels, which help stabilise mood and reduce stress levels," he explains.
Try this: carve some time out to focus on deep breathing every day. You'll notice the benefits in no time.
Sounds obvious, right? But when you're feeling up to your eyeballs in stress, we often forget to even smile.
"We’re all guilty of not smiling enough, but smiling can improve our health and wellbeing in more than one way," shares Wiener. "It might feel silly to just randomly smile, but when you do, your brain will be releasing neuropeptides, which help fight off feeling stressed and anxious. Not only that, but it is a great endorphin release too."
27. Develop your sense of humour
And finally, did you know? Studies - including this 2019 paper (opens in new tab) published in the Journal of Health Management - have shown that a sense of humour can build resilience and shift your overall perspective on a situation, shares Dr. Arora. "Resilience can also lead to you feeling less stressed and letting the negative impacts of stress affect your overall wellbeing."
Do, of course, book an appointment with your GP if you feel like stress behaviours are impacting your day-to-day behaviour.