Healthy Living

Stressed Out? Try These Science-Backed Ways to Stress Less

Feb. 9, 2024

“New year, new me!”

Mick Krasner

That’s the idea behind many resolutions, but we all know it’s not so easy. The pressures of life don’t disappear when the calendar turns over, and trying to stick to difficult resolutions can even add to our stress levels.

We spoke with two experts for some practical solutions to feeling stressed. Michael (Mick) Krasner, MD, professor emeritus of Medicine at UR Medicine, coaches health care providers in mindful practice.

Jennifer Lee, CPT, TTS, is the lead lifestyle counselor with URMC’s Center for Community Health & Prevention. They shared ways to think about stress differently and to calm yourself in difficult moments.

How can we approach stress in a better way?

First of all, we can change the way we talk about and view stress. Because it’s an uncomfortable feeling, people often say “I need to get rid of this,” which can make us feel like we’re doing something wrong. But stress is actually the body’s way of protecting us from danger. The problem is, our bodies don’t distinguish between “real” vs “imagined” stress—between something like facing a venomous snake in front of you versus a thought in your mind, like self-criticism or recalling an embarrassing moment.

So instead of needing to “fix” it, look at stress with curiosity and compassion for yourself. Learning to recognize stress and react to it with empathy when it’s just an imagined danger will build your resilience. Over time, your body will learn to react more calmly to triggers, because the stress won’t seem so threatening anymore.

Jennifer Lee
Jennifer Lee

How does stress affect the body?

Stress happens when we’re faced with a situation that feels threatening, either to our bodies or to our sense of well-being. And people with mental-health conditions tend to create even more stress for themselves.

When our mind perceives a threat, real or imagined, it initiates the stress response, which is also known as “fight, flight, or freeze.” This is your body physiologically getting ready to either run away, defend itself, or turn inward to become small/unnoticeable. During this time, your blood flow is redirected to organs that need it the most, your brain, heart, and lungs. That’s why you feel a rapid heart rate or experience faster breathing.

That physical response evolved so we could stay alive when facing that venomous snake. But many of us are reacting to “imaginary” danger instead, so our body is ready for action but there’s no actual fight or need to run. We’re left with stress as an uncomfortable feeling if we don’t look at it in a new way.

According to research from University of Rochester psychologists, reevaluating how one perceives stress can make a big difference to a person’s mental health, wellbeing, and success.

Health Hacks: How to Calm a Stressful Moment

Here are some tips to calm your body and mind when stress is overwhelming you:

STOP stress
  • S.T.O.P
    • This acronym can help in those “in the moment” stresses
    • S = Stop. Take a literal or figurative pause in what you’re doing
    • T = Take a breath—a good deep one
    • O = Observe: What’s going on? How am I feeling? Assess the situation with logic
    • P = Proceed. Let go of the emotion you’ve been feeling and focus on moving forward
  • Box Breathing
    • Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold that for four seconds before breathing in again. Repeat several times until you feel calm
    • You can imagine drawing a box with each four-second step
    • When stressed, the body’s response is to shorten your breath. Box breathing invites your nervous system to calm down
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  • Affirmations
    • Saying phrases, either out loud or in your head, that are self-compassionate. This helps you physically and mentally by acknowledging your feelings. But rather than wishing them away, you can sit with the message that your experience is not wrong. Say:
      • “What I’m feeling is not wrong”
      • “I’m doing my best”
      • “My imperfections make me human”
      • “I can handle discomfort”
      • “Nobody is perfect all the time”
      • “I’m worthy of forgiveness and understanding”
  • Social Connection
    • When we experience stress, recognize it, and then choose to respond by connecting with others, our body releases the hormone oxytocin, nicknamed “the cuddle hormone” or “love hormone.” It reinforces this urge to connect with other people—what some call the “tend and befriend” part of our stress response
    • A sense of belonging leads to psychological safety
    • Find creative ways to be with people: religious groups, sports, shopping, cafes, libraries, meetup groups, or even online communities

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