Handling stress sounds like it should be so easy, doesn’t it? Just meditate. But as we all know, in real life, preventing stress is a much more complicated equation.
The effects of stress aren’t just annoying in the moment. Cumulatively, chronic stress can take a real toll on your health both mentally and physically, as in changing your brain. Research shows that job stress, in particular, is linked to cardiovascular disease—so yeah, constantly feeling like you’re one email away from an office breakdown really is a problem.
Luckily, science has a few concrete tricks for handling stress that you can turn into long-term habits to prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed in the first place—no meditating required. But just to clear the air, we’re not anti-meditation; we are aware that it might not work for everyone. Here are some other ideas.
Build These 3 Habits to Get Better at Handling Stress
1. Make more time for your friends
Consider this your excuse to spend more time with the people who know you best.
Why: Two of the strongest stress prevention tools involve hanging with your favorite people, according to a 2016 research analysis. The authors point to prior research that found social support and the kind of happiness boost you get from time spent with your pals are effective ways to ward off stress.
That might be because cultivating a healthy social network makes you less likely to stress out in the first place. Another analysis of research on stress and social support found that your social connections help make you more mentally resilient. So you’re less susceptible to stress effects.
How: Remember the basics of habit-building:
- Start small
- Track your progress
- Tweak your environment
- Plan for obstacles
Then think about how you can apply these steps to make your social support stronger. For example…
Step 1: Maybe you choose to set a bi-weekly hang-out with a friend you’re dying to see more. Make it a reoccurring appointment on your calendar.
Step 2: At the end of every few months, track how many times it happened and how many times it didn’t. Aim to up that number until its close to non-negotiable.
Step 3: Use your surroundings to your advantage. Maybe you head to their place straight from work to avoid the couch trap.
Step 4: What happens when you’re tired? Too busy? Can you set aside a backup date or make a 30-minute rule? Thinking through the ways you might bail can help you work around them.
Bonus: Make your friend date a workout. Research continues to find that regular exercise is a powerful tool for preventing stress. Add in the happiness boost you get from spending time with one of your besties, and you’ll be practically stress-proof.
2. Be supportive
It’s not hard to see how getting support can help with handling stress. But in a research twist, scientists found that giving others support—like by volunteering or getting involved with a cause—is even more effective at preventing stress.
Why: To examine how giving and receiving support impacts your response to stress, researchers split participants into two groups: one who reported seeking support from friends when they felt down and another who reported looking for ways to cheer other people up in the same situation. Then they put each group in a few situations, one of which induced stress (i.e., doing mental math while in an fMRI machine). (And if mental math isn’t stressful, we don’t know what is.) They found that participants who reported giving support had a greater reduction of activity in the areas of the brain related to stress response than those receiving support, according to the findings published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
The study concluded that …”support giving is an overlooked contributor to how social support can benefit health.”
How: To get the Teflon-like effects on your brain, you gotta give. Volunteer for something you care about to prevent stress. Hint: Protesting in support of your favorite cause totally counts.
Or go a little smaller, especially as you make it a habit. Pick up coffee for your coworker, help your sister brainstorm ideas for her next big project over lunch, or leave five nice comments a day on your favorite Instagram accounts. Just remember that getting maximum benefits from support-giving means making it a habit. So pick something you can repeat and keep track of. And get giving.
3. Make laughter a priority
We’ll spare you the cliche about laughter being the best medicine, but according to recent research, it really can help inoculate you against stress. Not only does it make sense—the feel-good boost you get from laughing is pretty much the opposite of feeling stressed—but science shows laughter actually causes physiological changes to help ward off stress.
Why: In a study of older adults, researchers took saliva samples from two groups of participants: one who had just spent 20 minutes sitting calmly and another who had spent that time watching funny videos. From the spit samples, the researchers measured each participants’ cortisol levels (aka the stress hormone). The “humor group” showed significantly lower cortisol levels than the calm crew.
How: Make it part of your daily routine. Instead of scrolling through social media when you need a mental break, watch a funny YouTube video or throw on an episode of that show that gets you every time while you prep dinner.
To make sure laughter hits habitual level, have a plan for getting (or finding) some humor most days. This might include coming up with a rotation of ways to induce laughter: a funny show one night, a podcast the next, a chat with your goofiest friend, or even reading the news as written by humorous hosts. And find a way to incorporate humor into the things you already do every day like hitting up that funny podcast during your commute.
Here are some of our favorite ways to lighten the load:
- Watch John Oliver every week
- Follow Instagram accounts with memes that hit just close enough to home: We’re looking at you, @mytherapistsays and @mattsurelee
- Text our most sarcastic college friends one-line daily updates…and wait patiently for their undoubtedly funnier summaries
- Have daily cat-video viewing parties
Handling stress before it starts is about building better habits
Look, stress is going to happen. But that doesn’t mean it has to be overwhelming or that we’re powerless to change it. By building habits that are proven to minimize stress effects, we can stay a few steps ahead. Or at least have the tools to push back. So pick a science-backed strategy, begin to turn it into a habit, and keep going. The more stress-prevention habits you have, the better off you’ll be. Stress = handled.
Your turn: What habits do you have for handling stress before it starts? And how did you make them part of your daily life? Tell us more in the comments.
Now what about reducing stress if it’s already arrived? Try this 1 Simple Science-Backed Secret
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.