When stress strikes, it’s hard to rationalize a way out of the hole it feels like you’re buried in. The best you can do is prepare in advance so that when you are in over your head, whether it’s from work, relationships, finances, or just a stalled subway car, you know exactly what to do to crawl out of that dark hole. To help you nail down a stress survival plan, we booked some time with three of the best stress doctors out there, who shared these 15 quick-hits for getting out of a maddening situation.
1. Go Outside: Fresh air is nature’s antistress medication. Use this as an excuse to set aside time for your favorite adventures, like hiking, biking, or surfing. “If you like the activity, then you’ll be more inclined to do it more frequently, which will help ward off stress,” says Ari Novick, Ph.D., a therapist specializing in stress management.
2. Master Time Management: “Those who plan well tend to feel less stressed,” notes Novick. He suggests going at your tasks like this: Tackle more difficult to-do-list items early in the day, week, or month, and save easier duties for later in the day, week, or month. “We have more time and more energy earlier in the day, week, or month than if we wait until a deadline,” he explains.
3. Set Boundaries: Learn the power of saying no. “While most people like to please others, doing it too often results in overextension, which leads to stress,” warns Novick. Don’t commit to things you can’t or don’t want to do. You’ll thank yourself for it later.
4. Hit the Gym: Any doctor will tell you that breaking a sweat is one of the best ways to reduce stress. “Pick your favorite music, find a gym, and hit it hard. Your brain chemistry will do the rest,” assures licensed psychologist L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D.
5. Take Time Off: “A long weekend or a day at the beach can do wonders for reducing stress,” says Novick. Don’t feel bad about taking PTO, you’ll be much more productive when you return.
6. Avoid Caffeine: You know the jittery feeling that goes along with downing a few too many cups of Joe. Drinks with caffeine raise your blood pressure and heart rate, thus mimicking the body’s response to stress, explains Novick. If you’re experiencing an intense day, resist the temptation to power through it with a pot of coffee.
7. Put It on Paper: Stress is usually future-oriented (think: “what if”), and involves thoughts of uncontrolability and unpredictability, according to Chapman. “When we experience stress and the negative emotions associated with it, we typically stay in our own heads and do little to address our thinking. But a process called ‘objective recording’ forces us to view our circumstances and thoughts from an outsider’s perspective,” he says. Rather than focusing on how horrible a situation is, Chapman suggests writing down your thoughts to evaluate whether or not they’re accurate. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. At the top of the left column, write down “Negative things I am saying to myself.” In the right column, write “Alternatives.” Fill out both columns. “When we simply acknowledge what we’re saying to ourselves out of stress, we often realize how silly we are being.” This process will help put your stress into perspective—or at least provide a good laugh.
8. Turn in Early: Research shows that most adults need about eight hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation reduces stress tolerance and can make you behave more impulsively—and become more irritable. So when you feel like pulling an all-nighter will help you get things done, think again.
9. Record Hot/Cold Thoughts: Create two columns on a piece of paper. Place “Hot Thoughts” at the top of the left column and “Cold Thoughts” at the top of the right column. Write down all of your stress-induced negative thoughts under the Hot Thoughts column. “Typically there is one hot thought that seems to be driving the negative emotion,” Chapman points out. Circle this thought. Then in the right column, write alternative or Cold Thoughts—things that take the sting out of the one hot thought that is fueling the fire. “The cold thoughts will be different, more realistic ways to view the situation. We feel better immediately if we’re honest with ourselves.”
10. Divert and Distract: Find a simple activity, like listening to your favorite band, and use it as a distraction when you start to feel frazzled. In this case, you could have a playlist ready and pull it up when stress piles on.
11. Schedule “Worry Time”: “Give yourself a designated time to stress about a particular thing, to get it out of the way, and learn to control it,” suggests Chapman. One way to spend worry time is to write out extremely detailed accounts of what you’re freaking out about. Read what you’ve written aloud, visualizing the situation until you feel like you have control over it.
12. Implement Thought-Stopping and Substitution: When you catch yourself having unwanted thoughts, yell something sharp, loud, and jarring, like “stop” or “cut it out,” to snap yourself out of that thought. “You don’t have to do it loudly or for very long,” assures David Posen, M.D., author of The Little Book of Stress Relief. And obviously, it’s a better idea to do this when you’re alone. The next part is “thought substitution:” Purposely direct your attention to something pleasant.
13. Take a Power Nap: If you can’t log a full eight hours at night, squeeze in a super short midday snooze. “If you can take a power nap for 5–20 minutes, it will not only restore energy but also lower your stress levels in a very short period of time,” Posen says.
14. Make up a Mantra: So often, causes of stress are trivial and short-lived, and all you need to feel better are a few reassuring words. Posen suggests common ones like, “These things happen,” or “This won’t matter tomorrow.”
15. Take a Deep Breath: Next time you’re stressed, note your breathing. Most likely, your breaths are short and shallow. But according to Chapman, “deep, controlled, and slowed breathing from the diaphragm combats many of the physiological symptoms that we experience when stressed.” While you might not be able to control what is stressing you out, you can control your breathing, and feeling in control of just one thing will make you feel immensely better. Either sit or lay comfortably, close your eyes, deeply inhale through your nose, and count “1.” Then exhale and think the word “relax.” Continue this up to 10. “I would suggest doing this two to three times a day, especially during stressful periods,” says Chapman.