Lessen your tension with these easy tips to feel better mentally and physically.

By Jennifer Aldrich
Updated December 08, 2020

Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience stress in their life. (Yes, even the seemingly most care-free and relaxed people get stressed, too.) Stress can often affect your mental health. The constant worrying can cause anxiety, irritability, and restlessness, just to name a few, according to the Mayo Clinic. But stress can also do harm physically. Headaches, high blood pressure, and obesity can even be linked to stress. But don't stress about being stressed; that could make things even worse.

You're likely feeling even more stressed out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an August poll by KFF, a non-profit organization that offers information on health-related issues, 53% of Americans said their mental health has been negatively affected by the pandemic. (That's up from 32% of people reporting the same thing in March.) And that is completely normal and totally expected. When things feel out of your control, especially when it comes to things you can't control, there are several things you can do to help you unwind. Plus, you can try all of these options while you're social distancing and staying at home.

woman meditating at home
Credit: Jasmina007/Getty Images

1. Call a Friend

Have you ever wondered why things always seem better after you talk to a good friend? Well, it turns out that friendship is as good for your health as it is for your spirit. Researchers have found that having good friends helps lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, and might even help you live longer.

In a recent study of AIDS patients, Jane Leserman, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, found that men who were supported by good friends were better able to fight the progression of AIDS. Although Leserman was not sure how a support network protected the patients' immune systems, she credits friendship with helping them decrease the stress of their illness.

Many experts list friendship as the key factor in getting through stressful times. "If you can learn to control the stress and speak to others about it, you become able to deal with a lot more," says Dr. Edward Callahan, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. One venting session with a good friend might be all that's needed to make you feel better. But if you're going through an especially rough time, a good friend will also be there for continual reassurance. "Unfortunately, people under stress may be more likely to isolate themselves," says Martha Craft-Rosenberg, Ph.D., professor and chair of parent, child, and family studies at the University of Iowa.

When reaching out to a silent stressed-out friend, keep things simple. Show your support through a smile, a hug, or a note expressing how much you care. You don't have to press them for a long talk if that's not what they need right now.

2. Divide Household Chores

A century ago, it was the woman's duty to take care of the house. Thankfully, times have changed, or have they? A study at Johns Hopkins University found that working women who take on extra responsibilities at home and receive no thanks for it are more likely to drive aggressively, a behavior commonly referred to as "road rage." The study, conducted by Dr. Barbara Curbow and Dr. Joan Griffin, found that 56% of the women surveyed admitted to driving aggressively during their commutes; 41% yelled or gestured at other drivers, and 25% said they took their frustrations out behind the wheel. Interestingly, the study found less evidence of road rage among women who received emotional rewards at home for their hard work.

Because you may not always get that needed pat on the back, other tactics can help. One way to get more help is to divvy up the chores. Dividing chores gets the whole family involved in running the household, says Craft-Rosenberg. "The resilience of a family is related to how well they can work together," she says. Even small children benefit because contributing makes them feel needed. And when others share the workload, there's less pressure to get everything done at once. "It helps me remember that I do not have to be the 'Supermom' I fantasize about," says Marti Rickel, a clinical instructor at the University of Arkansas College of Nursing and mother of a 3-year-old son. "I can be a good mother and a good nurse and a good wife, but on some days, I cannot be good at all of them at the same time."

3. Reduce Caffeine Intake

Drinking four or five cups of coffee every morning does more than open your eyes. The caffeine raises your blood pressure and increases the secretion of adrenaline, a stress hormone. In fact, the caffeine in your coffee cup imitates and even exaggerates the body's response to stress, according to James D. Lane, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

While your brain is pumping out more adrenaline, Lane says, your heart is also working harder, causing a three-point increase in blood pressure. A five-point increase in blood pressure has been associated with a 21% increased risk of heart disease, and a 34% increased risk of stroke. Although Lane is reluctant to link caffeine intake and disease, he says that the mechanisms are there.

When all is working as it should, our nervous systems have mechanisms that keep us from overreacting to stress. But caffeine, which Lane calls the most widely used drug in the world, seems to inhibit that natural function and leave the body in an agitated state for longer than normal. And because the effects of caffeine last for hours after intake—it takes 4 to 5 hours to eliminate half the caffeine present—the body never really gets a chance to function without caffeine.

The long-lasting effects of caffeine are even greater for women taking birth control pills because both estrogen and caffeine are broken down by the liver. "It may take 10 to 12 hours for women on birth control pills to lower their caffeine levels by half," Lane says. "So by the time yesterday's caffeine is gone, they have already started with this morning's coffee."

Slowly taper off caffeine by drinking a cup of decaf or herbal tea to substitute for your caffeinated cup. Or, try mixing regular with decaf beans at the grocery store. If you take it slowly, your body will hardly notice the difference.

4. Take Ten

Whether you're an executive, an at-home mom, or a cardiac surgeon, giving yourself time to unwind is vital for de-stressing your life.

"Taking 10 minutes for yourself won't solve all of life's problems, but it gives you a chance to feel calmer and find clarity," says Jill Strawn, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the College of New Rochelle School of Nursing in New York. Whether you need a nap, a bath, or a quiet place to read a book, make sure the time is spent doing exactly what you want to do.

For parents with young children, Strawn suggests having the little ones join in. Kids love to do what their parents do, she says. Listen to a relaxation tape with your child, or lie on the grass together and watch clouds in the sky. By including your children, you teach them the importance of slowing down and enjoying life.

"We're so busy running that we don't enjoy the journey along the way," says Glenda Walker, director of nursing at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. "We're waiting for the reward (of working hard), and when it finally comes, we're too exhausted to enjoy it." By spending time relaxing and realizing your strengths and joys, you learn to appreciate yourself.

5. Share a Laugh

Whether it's a tiny giggle or an all-out belly-busting whoop, laughter makes life a lot easier to handle.

By looking at the humorous side of life, you shift your thinking away from a situation, clearing the way for stress relief. Laughter initiates the release of beta-endorphins, those same natural relaxants that are released during exercise. Endorphins make you feel good and protect the immune system by decreasing cortisol, an immune system suppressor.

Dr. Edward Callahan, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis, describes laughter as the perfect antidote to tension. "Laughter helps you move away from anger and toward a positive closeness to other people, and positive social contact with others is essential for stress management."

If you tend to take yourself too seriously, recruit help. Call a friend who makes you laugh, scroll through some humorous social media accounts, or kick back and watch a comedy.

6. Get Physical

Even quick, indoor workouts can do amazing things for your body. When you exercise, beta-endorphins (the body's natural relaxants) are released. Endorphins counteract the stress hormones raging through your body. "That's why we get a really mellow feeling at the end of exercising," says JoAnne Herman, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing. When stress overloads your system, the body converts to the "fight or flight" response. If you don't have cardio machines or exercise equipment at home, there are fitness apps that require only your body to get sweating.

Besides being a break in your daily routine, exercise gets the blood circulating, boosts your mood, and eases tension. "Exercise rids the body of excess energy it really can't do anything about," says Dr. Tara Cortes, clinical director of primary care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Studies also show that active people have a decreased risk of coronary heart disease, the number-one cause of death in the United States.

7. Know Your Limits

Sometimes a reality check can show you whether you're causing yourself unnecessary stress, either through unrealistic expectations or feeling like everything is out of your control. Remember what you can control, including your reactions and how you spend your time and let go of what you cannot, like other people's actions. Although it can be difficult to practice at first, it's worth all the less stress you'll feel in the long run.


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