It’s November 2, 2020… and all I can think about is STRESS. So I figured, why not write about it? I feel stressed, and most of the country is incredibly anxious right now too. Current affairs aside, I’ve always been a bit of a stress case. The impressive crease between my brows will tell you the same. Even as a child, I was go-go-go, held myself to painfully high standards, and was generally a worry wart. That has spilled over into my adult life, but now I have many tools to help reduce my stress levels – in a healthy manner!
Read along for 15 ideas and ways to reduce stress, naturally. While they aren’t a magic cure, these stress reduction techniques help me a great deal when times get tough – and I hope some of them can do the same for you! Nearly every tip on this list can be accomplished for free, in a wide variety of living situations or physical ability, and are scientifically-proven to reduce stress levels.
Before we dive in, let’s briefly explore exactly what stress is and how it impacts our health. It’s important to understand the physical reaction that occurs in our body when we are stressed, because then we’re more empowered to face it head-on and proactively manage our stress response! Understanding the physiology behind it also provides a deeper insight as why these 15 stress reduction tools actually work. Smothering our stress in kettle chips and red wine (my personal vices) may help us temporarily feel better, but do nothing for long-lasting relief.
Now, let’s make sure we’re keeping some chill in Homestead and Chill, shall we?
What is Stress?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is the way that the body and brain responds to a perceived demand or threat. This includes notable stressful events such as an important exam, a significant life change, or traumatic event. Other times, stress can be caused by a combination of smaller or cumulative circumstances – like a hectic daily schedule or high-pressure work environment. Or, 2020.
Every person is susceptible to stress and its effects. Yet some people are triggered to feel stress more easily than others, or have a more difficult time coping with and overcoming stress. In small doses, stress is a totally normal part of life – and can actually be positive and motivating! Referred to as eustress, positive stress can help us prepare for exciting (but stressful) things such as buying a home, a job interview, getting married, having a child, or even going on vacation. On the other hand, extreme or prolonged negative stress (distress) can take a huge toll on our mental and physical health.
How Does Stress Affect Your Body?
When we are stressed out, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode – also known as the stress response. In this state, your brain sends signals to your adrenal glands to release increased adrenaline and cortisol hormones. Adrenaline gets the body ready for action by boosting energy, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Cortisol increases blood sugar levels in an effort to supply ample fuel for brain and muscle function. During a stress response, cortisol also suppresses or alters other physiological processes that aren’t deemed “essential” during a crisis, including our digestive system, immune systems, reproductive system, and growth processes. It also impacts how our brains regulate mood, motivation and fear.
Normally, the stress response is short-lived and self-limiting. Once the perceived (or real) stressor has passed, our internal alarm system turns off and hormone levels return to normal. But what happens when the stressor isn’t easy to escape? Prolonged stress response is incredibly taxing on our adrenal glands, and causes a cascade of negative effects to all of the body functions they regulate. There is also a related condition referred to as “adrenal fatigue” in the alternative medicine world, yet there is currently no accepted Western Medicine diagnostic for it.
Symptoms of Stress & Adrenal Fatigue
The result of stress can present itself in physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral ways. Acute (immediate and generally short-lived) symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy, tiredness, and insomnia
- Tense and sore muscles, including neck pain, a clenched jaw (TMJ) or teeth-grinding
- Gastrointestinal issues such as stomach aches, diarrhea, or nausea
- Rapid heart rate or chest pain
- Mood swings, becoming frustrated or agitated easily
- Change in appetite
- Loss of libido
- Brain fog, forgetfulness
- Inability to focus, increased distraction or procrastination
- Nervousness or shaking, abnormal sweating, clammy hands and feet
- Racing thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, having a hard time quieting your mind
- Focusing on the negative, excessive worry, and poor judgement
- Increased use or dependence on drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes
- Social isolation (voluntary), low self-esteem, and depression
- Increase in fidgeting, pacing, skin-picking, nail biting or other nervous ticks
Long-term stress has even more dire consequences. According to the Mayo Clinic, ongoing chronic stress can cause or worsen a number of serious (and sometimes irreversible) health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular disease – high blood pressure, abnormal heart beat, heart attack, heart disease or stroke
- Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders
- Hair, skin and nail problems including brittle nails, eczema, acne, psoriasis, hair thinning or even permanent hair loss
- Gastrointestinal issues including the development of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, GERD, ulcers, or gastritis
- Eating disorders or obesity
- Sexual dysfunction and menstruation issues
Yikes. As you can see, stress can impact just about every aspect of our health and well-being. That is why it is so important for us to proactively take measures to reduce stress levels in our lives, especially in the face of long-term stress!
15 Natural Ways to Reduce Stress
1) Prioritize Self Care
‘Self care’ is quite the buzzword these days, so I don’t want this advice to come off as cliche…but it’s true! In order to reduce stress in your life, you have to prioritize activities or habits that do just that. Make a realistic commitment to yourself to incorporate some form of healthy, stress-reducing self care each day – even if it is only a few minutes. Amongst the chaos of life, our intentions and decisions are something we do have control over.
Also think about potentially damaging, unproductive, or bad habits that you can let go of in order to make room for better ones. My life became significantly less stressful when I learned to say “no” more confidently, and chose to focus my limited time and energy on things that support the life I’m trying to create instead.
We can’t help others when we’re running on empty ourselves!
2) Garden & Plant Therapy
(You probably didn’t see this one coming from me, did ya? Wink wink) Gardening is one of the top ways we reduce stress around here. Whether you’re outside physically working in the garden, or simply sitting with a glass of tea or wine and watching the birds and butterflies flit about, the garden is the perfect place to tune out the noise of the world and tune into nature instead. In fact, research shows that routine gardening enhances overall quality of life and reduces stress, depression, anxiety, blood pressure, risk of heart disease, stroke, and more.
No space for an outdoor garden? Or, is your garden finished up for the season? Bring nature indoors! Tending to houseplants, starting seedlings, and growing herbs or microgreens inside provide many of the same benefits to reduce stress. The simple presence of lush green plants around your home provides healing and soothing energy – and they help to purify the air!
Aerobic exercise boasts physical and mental health benefits alike. You know those stress hormones we were talking about earlier? Well, according to Harvard Health, exercise reduces both adrenaline and cortisol; the perfect antidote to the stress response. Furthermore, cardiovascular exercise also helps to stimulate the production of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that elevate mood, act as natural painkillers, and cause the infamous ‘runner’s high’. Even if I start off feeling sluggish and unmotivated, I always, always feel better after a good bout of exercise! Experts say that even a 20 minute walk can boost your mood and improve your overall health.
The type and duration of exercise is totally up to you – your schedule, preference, and ability. As long as you’re moving, it will reduce stress! Dance, walk, run, row… Before COVID, we hit the gym a few times a week after work. Now, we’ve been walking outside and also utilizing fitness videos that we can do from the comfort of our living room. YouTube is full of them, and many need nothing more than a yoga mat! I also invested in a standing desk and put a walking treadmill below it, so I can still get some movement in on extra busy workdays. Mini-trampolines are also very popular and convenient for home exercise. I’ve heard amazing things about the benefits of rebounding (jumping)!
4) Soothing or Uplifting Music
We’ve always got the good tunes groovin’ here. Calming or uplifting music can absolutely reduce stress. It’s backed by science! Much like exercise, music reduces the secretion of our primary stress hormone – cortisol. One study even found that listening to music was more effective at calming patients’ nerves before surgery than prescription drugs. Listening to music (or playing a musical instrument) can also reduce physical pain and depression, and support the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies and immune cells.
One of the best things about music (with a little help from modern technology) is that this stress reduction tool can be used just about any time and any place! While you work, exercise, clean the house, and most definitely while you’re out in the garden. Our mutual love of music was one of the key things that brought Aaron and I together in the first place, and continues to play a huge role in our lives. Feel free to listen along with our public playlists here! I’ve curated a soothing yoga and meditation playlist, a few mixed-genre options, one that is purely reggae and dub, and an extra-chill blues, jazz and classical mix.
5) Read a Good Book
Grab a novel by your favorite fiction author, cuddle up in a cozy spot, and dive in. There is nothing like getting swept up into a good story! You know, that book you just can’t put down. Or, expand your mind and knowledge with a non-fiction read of choice. Either way, reading is an excellent way to reduce stress and take your mind off things that are bothering you. I used to devour several novels a year! I haven’t had the time for that lately, but do try to grab a book instead of my phone for a few minutes in bed every night.
Need a few suggestions? Barbara Kingsolver, TC Boyle, Jodi Piccoult, Liane Moriarty, and Elin Hilderbrand are some of my favorite fiction authors (Kingsolver and Boyle also write non-fiction). You can also find a list of our favorite garden, recipe, and homesteading resource books here. Have you read a great book recently? Who are some of your favorite authors? Please share in the comments at the end of this article!
6) Yoga, Meditation, or Breathing Exercises
Gentle yoga, stretching, meditation and deep breathing all help eliminate tension from our physical bodies. They also soothe the tension in our minds! While certain forms of yoga can certainly fall into the ‘exercise’ category above, yoga offers unique benefits than other exercise. It is one of the few forms of exercise that focuses on the mind and body equally, with a combination of stretching, strengthening, deep breathing, and relaxation all at once. If you’re new to yoga, don’t be intimidated to start! Try a few beginner videos on YouTube to get a feel for it, and then simply practice at your own pace and flow. Even 10 minutes of light yoga each day is an incredible way to stay limber and reduce stress.
We all breathe whether we think about it or not. Yet mindful deep breathing can reduce stress, blood pressure, heart rate, and tension – especially in an acutely stressful situation. Deep breathing also increases the oxygenation of our blood, heightens brain function and stimulates our immune system. While sitting or laying down, slowly breathe in deeply through your nose, filling your belly. Hold the breath for a few seconds, and then slowly exhale through your mouth with an audible whooshing sound. Repeat five to ten times.
7) CBD Oil to Reduce Stress
If you’re a CBD skeptic, hear me out on this one! I am talking about federally-legal, non-psychoactive CBD that contains less than 0.3% THC. Studies show that CBD interferes with cortisol secretion, thus can reduce cortisol spikes associated with the stress response. It also triggers our endocannabinoid system to produce a compound called anandamide – named after the Sanskrit word for “bliss” or “joy”. CBD has the ability to help ease anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders along with numerous physical ailments. While this way to reduce stress involves ‘taking something’, I still consider it a natural remedy since we’re utilizing medicinal properties from plants!
CBD oil has been a HUGE part of my self care toolkit to reduce stress in 2020. For me, it works wonders! I also use it to ease my joint pain, TMJ, and sleep problems. Unlike some of the other stress reduction tools on this list, I love that I don’t have to stop everything else to use it. It helps me get through my workday feeling more focused, comfortable, and even-keel. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t make you drowsy. However, not all CBD is created equal. There is some really funky stuff out there that is less effective, safe, and clean than other products. NuVita* is our favorite high-quality, full-spectrum, organic CBD oil. Learn how to choose and use quality CBD oil here, or get a crash course on all things CBD with this CBD 101 article.
*Use this link or the code ‘deannacat3’ to save 10% on NuVita CBD.
8) Get Outside
The benefits of any and all of these stress reduction activities are even greater if you can do them outside! When the sun is shining, take advantage of it and head outdoors to soak up some Vitamin D – even if it means bundling up, or going out for only a few minutes. The American Institute of Stress explains that outdoor excursions or spending time in nature helps to reduce stress, alleviate feelings of anxiety and time pressure, and enhances overall life satisfaction, happiness, and mindfulness. Not to mention, ample Vitamin D is scientifically proven to fight disease, promote healthy weight patterns, and reduce depression.
When you’re spending time outdoors, make a conscious effort to leave your worries behind. Meaning, don’t head out on a walk but fret over what is bothering you the whole time. (Easier said than done, I know.) The other day, someone told me a story that really hit home: She was feeling stressed so a friend told her to go for a long walk. The stressed girl got back from her walk and told the concerned friend that she didn’t feel any better. The concerned friend said, “Well, did you take your worries on your walk with you?” – and she realized she absolutely had! Now, she visualizes placing her worries in a locked box before she heads out the door.
Have you stopped to smell the roses lately? I took a moment to huff a neighbor’s pretty peach roses on yesterday’s evening walk, and it was divine! While the exact mechanisms are still unclear, health experts believe that when certain soothing aromas interact with receptors in our nose, they can trigger calming effects in our brain – including the release of serotonin, our natural feel-good chemical. Lavender, chamomile, ylang ylang, rose, bergamot, sage, frankincense, tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, and jasmine are among some of the most soothing aromas found in nature.
The careful use of essential oils is one way to reap the benefits of aromatherapy and reduce stress. I say ‘careful’ because much like CBD oil, not all essential oils are trustworthy or high-quality. While I believe they have their time and place (and real benefits!), the booming essential oil craze is causing many folks to use them liberally and with abandon.
In this home, we choose to only use USDA-certified organic essential oils since any impurities (ahem, pesticides) in the plant material will be exponentially concentrated in the extraction process along with the medicinal oil. Some oils are also cut with chemical additives. Because we have three kitties, we are cautious to use only limited pet-friendly essential oils in our EO diffuser. Based on my research, lavender, copaiba, helichrysum, and frankincense are the few cat-safe (and dog-safe) oils that I trust to diffuse at home. Tea tree, citrus, wintergreen/mint, eucalyptus, and others are toxic to pets. Learn more about pets and EOs here.
10) Cuddle a Pet
Therapy animals exist for a reason! The companionship that furry friends provide humans helps us to reduce stress, feel more secure, comforted, and calm. I have always been a crazy cat lady, and can’t imagine my life without them! The act of petting animals can instantly lower blood pressure and improve your mood.
The power that kitties have to make us feel good is especially fascinating. Did you know that the vibration of a cat’s purr purrrrfectly matches the frequency range proven to be therapeutic to humans? Referred to as vibroacoustic therapy (the same stuff that makes music so therapeutic!), studies show that low-frequency cat purrs reduce depression and anxiety. It can also help us heal from physical ailments, promoting bone growth, soft tissue repair, and healthy immune response.
13) Talk it out, then talk it up!
The simple act of voicing your frustrations or fears out loud can often help them fade. I hope you all have someone you can confide in, be it a friend, family member, therapist, or even a connection you made online. Remember, you are not alone! For me, talking through my issues usually helps me come to some sort of resolution, or at least gain perspective.
Once you have the opportunity to vent, try to return to gratitude. Don’t dwell and continue a cycle of negative self-talk – that will only make you feel worse! Many times, we can’t change circumstances around us, but can change our perspective. Practicing positive self-talk and choosing to focus on the good things in our life is a powerful way to reduce stress, build self-confidence, and enhance happiness.
12) Get Creative to Reduce Stress
You know what they say about idle hands, right? Tapping into your creative side while also keeping yourself busy with a productive task can be incredibly therapeutic – and rewarding! Perfect examples include painting, drawing, building, knitting, crafting, sewing, and cooking or baking. Those are all fabulous mentally-stimulating and creative hobbies (but not draining). Heck, even taking a quick break to clean the bathroom or kitchen makes me feel less stressed sometimes! Is that weird? Though I enjoy cooking and making sourdough bread much more. Despite it being part of my “job” now, crafting homemade salves and balms for our shop has become one of my favorite weekend activities!
Need some crafty ideas? Check out these fun and simple tutorials. They also make wonderful homemade gifts!
- DIY Fruit & Veggie Stamped Tea Towels
- Homemade Rice Heating Pack (or Cold Pack)
- How to Make Homemade Calendula Salve
- Homemade Lavender Salve Tutorial
13) Bath Time
Stress and tense or sore muscles often go hand-in-hand. A warm bath can ease muscle tension. A nice long soak is also the perfect place to unwind and clear your mind. Several of the other stress reduction techniques we’ve explored today can easily be incorporated into your bath routine for even deeper relief: aromatherapy, soothing music, deep breathing, positive affirmations, and even stretching.
To take it a step further, consider adding epsom salt to your bath. Chemically-speaking, epsom salt is comprised of magnesium sulfate – totally different stuff than sea salt or table salt. Soaking in an epsom salt bath can reduce inflammation, joint pain, sore muscles, and soothe arthritis and fibromyalgia. Add epsom salt to your bath water according the the instructions on the package (usually about 1 to 2 cups for a standard tub). Or, treat yourself with the addition of a special bath bomb! These organic bath bombs contain epsom salt, shea butter, cocoa butter, kaolin clay, and essential oils – to soothe your muscles, nerves, and skin all at once.
Maintaining a healthy limit with screen time and social media is always a good idea, and even more so when you’re feeling stress. Whether you need a break from politics, drama, or if you struggle with social comparison, making an effort to unplug can immediately reduce stress. Instead, tune in to the people and things you love in your immediate surroundings – and self care of course! In addition to the negative psychological effects that devices and social media can cause, staring at a screen for a prolonged period of time can cause eye strain, headaches, mental and physical fatigue, and other health issues. Not to mention the potentially dangerous electromagnetic radiation that most devices emit!
Between this blog, my ‘real life’ job, and my presence on Instagram, it is difficult (okay, downright unrealistic) for me to unplug as much as I’d like to! So I do a number of things to protect myself (partially, at least) from the effects of screens and EMF. First, I use the blue-light filter on my phone screen – especially in the evening time. Blue light glasses can offer the same protection. You may think I’m nuts here, but I also use shungite (a mineralite that is 99% carbon) to absorb radiation from devices. I wear this shungite necklace while I work, and keep a shungite desk pyramid on my nightstand between my head and my phone.
15) Laugh & Smile
Even when times get rough, don’t allow negativity to steal all your joy. Try to find humor in challenging situations. Studies show that the more you smile, the happier you feel. Even if you’re not feeling elated at the moment, the simple physical act of smiling triggers responses in the brain that reduce stress, lift your mood, strengthen your immune system, and potentially prolong your life. After my Dad passed away from cancer, our family and friends started a practice of recalling and sharing the most silly memories we had of him every time we got together. Even now in the midst of this stressful election, exchanging hilarious non-partisan memes with friends is helping to lighten the mood. Laughter really is the best medicine. And, it’s contagious.
And that concludes my top 15 tips to reduce stress.
Hang in there! I truly hope that you found this useful, and that you’re able to implement some of these stress reduction techniques in to your daily life. Remember to eat well, get adequate sleep, and drink plenty of water too. Are there ways that you like to unwind that I didn’t mention? Share in the comments below. Also please feel free to share this article in order to help others. Take care of yourself – you’re worth it!