Whether you're stressed, anxious, or overworked, it's a miserable feeling which dampens your productivity, affects the quality of your relationships, and hampers your ability to appreciate the here and now. Regardless of your current life circumstances, a handful of behaviors are proven to help.
Get up earlier than everyone else.
Would an increase in productivity help your stress level? You'd be amazed at how much more you can get done at 4 a.m., when everyone else is still in bed. I've found this to be true: Whenever I have a mid-morning deadline which forces me to work before the sun rises, I'm free by noon to pursue activities that are good for me, such as exercising or having lunch with a friend. In fact, research shows early birds are more proactive, a character trait that lends itself to achievement. According to a study of 367 college students conducted by biologist Christoph Randler, early risers perform better on the job, attain greater career success, and reap higher wages than people who start their day later.
Exercise every day.
Countless studies prove the myriad health benefits of working out, including recent research that found strengthening your muscles releases enzymes that detoxify a substance called kynurenine, a byproduct of stress and inflammation. Hate pushing yourself physically? Trick yourself into doing it by multitasking. Ride a bike with a friend and cultivate a relationship while getting fit. Swim first thing at the gym, necessitating your morning shower. Do wall pushups in the minutes you wait for a conference call to start.
Check email less frequently.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia asked 124 people to either limit checking email to three times a day for one week or click into their inboxes as often as possible. They found that those who resisted the temptation to view their messages reported being less stressed than the group of overcheckers.
Forget wishful thinking and try mental contrasting.
According to New York University professor Gabriele Oettingen, positive thinking isn't all it's cracked up to be. She says that while envisioning something you want to happen coming to fruition can make you feel better, it's actually counterproductive because you're less likely to make a concerted effort to make your wish come true. On the other hand, dwelling on your troubles and challenges isn't helpful either. Instead, she suggests a mental contrasting tool dubbed WOOP, for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. To do it, shut your eyes and imagine your wish coming true for a few minutes. Then, imagine the main obstacle standing in the way of your desired outcome. Finally, envision the action you would take if such a barrier were to present itself. "In a study of health care providers, we found that those who used WOOP were significantly more engaged with their work and less stressed than members of a control group," Oettingen writes for HBR.org.
Consume more omega-3 fatty acids.
Numerous studies have linked chronic stress with inflammation, which can be damaging to the body. The good news: Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids--such as fish, flaxseed, and chia seeds--can reduce inflammation. "You can either be good at weathering stress or you can be brittle. And omega-3s make your stress system more flexible," researcher Joe Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health told NPR. "I think there's a very strong connection between what you eat and your mood."
A matter of focusing on the present moment rather than reliving the past or worrying about the future, this practice has been shown to reduce stress and improve performance. While proponents often suggest simply concentrating on your breathing as a good way to do it, research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that actually counting your breaths is a good way to measure mindfulness. In a study of more than 400 people, participants were asked to count nine breaths in sequence by tapping one computer key per breath and a different key for the final breath in each sequence, an activity that necessitates awareness of the breath. The researchers found a correlation between positive mood and accurate breath counting.
Hug someone every day.
A recent Carnegie Mellon University study found that the perceived social support afforded by frequent hugging protects people from the effects of stress-induced susceptibility to infection.
Make new friends.
Research shows that people who feel lonely can feel chronically threatened and are at an increased risk of death. Good news, though: studies have also been conducted on the most effective ways to make friends as an adult. Whether it's taking some kind of class or regularly hanging out in the same place at the same time, if people become accustomed to seeing your face, they're more likely to like you. Authenticity works as well, so be real about your feelings. Research conducted at Stony Brook University has found that gradually increasing the depth of questions and answers between strangers can birth friendships in less than an hour. For example, start out with an innocuous question like asking someone the last time they did something and build up to a more significant query, such as how they would handle a difficult situation.
British researchers have found an association between rising stress levels and the practice of constantly checking a smartphone. While at first it can feel stressful to disconnect from your devices and walk away from your computer, take it from someone who has on occasion spent days in the wilderness without access to the internet or a cellular connection: I've never felt more at peace than after a few days head up, under the sky, paying earnest attention to the people around me.
Get more sleep.
People under stress often struggle with this one, but it's important to check your sleep hygiene. In addition to abstaining from chemicals such as alcohol and caffeine, don't watch TV or read any kind of LED screen before bedtime. Researchers from Harvard Medical School have found that blue light, the wavelength emitted by smartphones, tablets, and devices such as an LED e-book, disrupt the body's internal clock, which can make it harder for a person to fall asleep.