6 safe and natural, no-pill ways to find stress relief
You’d have to be a bit out of touch if you’re not stressed these days. It’s no surprise that millions of Americans down billions of dollars’ worth of anti-stress drugs, side effects be damned. Fortunately, there are safe, natural, no-pills ways to make that seemingly inescapable stress disappear.
Let’s start with one we all intuitively know, but that’s only recently been proven by research. Then we’ll review the longtime mainstays—yoga, meditation, journaling, and mindful walking.
Throw the book at stress
Are you a reader? Love getting “lost in a book you can’t put down? Congratulations. There are wonderful health benefits to reading. There are even bibliotherapists who prescribe specific books to treat specific ailments.
What is bibliotherapy?
From the Greek biblion, “book,” comes bibliotherapy—wellness through reading. It was such a powerful concept in ancient Greek culture, they called their libraries “healing places for the soul.”
Spot on, Greeks. Here are a few ways reading increases well-being and reduces stress.
This applies only to physical books, by the way, not electronic screens, which can have a negative effect on your health. And it applies only to serious, not “pop” fiction.
Non-fiction is about the realities we read to escape from, right?
Super 6-minute chill pill
We know reading is relaxing. But did you know it tested Number 1 among the most common ways people use to relax?
|Activity||Percent Stress Reduced|
|A video game||21|
|A cup of tea or coffee||54|
|Listening to music||61|
|Reading silently for 6 minutes||68|
Amazingly, just 6 minutes of reading was enough to slow heart rates and ease muscle tension. Some subjects finished the study less stressed than when they began.
How reading takes us “Lands away”
The great poet Emily Dickinson wrote:
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away …
Lovely, no? And so true.
Reading puts our brains in a relaxed state very similar to meditation. So it’s not surprising that compared to non-readers, many regular readers enjoy the same health benefits as meditators:
- Inner calm
- Lower stress levels
- Lower rates of depression
There’s another benefit we can link to reading. Research has found that we have mirror neurons in our brains. They’re activated when we notice someone do something, some action, that we’ve done ourselves. “Hey, she writes like a leftie, like me.”
It’s about the neuroscience of empathy.
Brain scans reveal that when people read about an experience, the same regions and networks of the brain are activated as when they go through the experience themselves.
This could explain why regular readers of serious fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others, that is, understand how they’re feeling in whatever situation they’re facing.
It seems that reading fiction takes people “away”. Our mirror neurons help us bond with the fictional characters we’re reading about—what they do, how they feel. And that increases our ability to empathize in real life. “I’ll bet she had the same leftie trouble as I did…”
So reading is not only a fast acting “chill pill”. It also makes us kinder and more compassionate.
Good medicine, now practiced worldwide by bibliotherapists who are recommending fiction that helps PTSD vets, depressed and grieving people, people with dementia, prison inmates, and more.
Dosage? Crack a book.
Here’s another way to up your smileage with tried, true, and natural stress reducers.
Meditation—om, sweet om
When ageless, om-chanting Tibetan monks and superstar athletes do the same thing to un-stress, there must be something good there.
Meditation is something so good, I recommend it to all my patients.
In addition to being a powerful stress reducer, research has proven that what was once accepted as common knowledge—that our brains irreversibly shrink with age—is wrong.
With the right stimulation, our brains can grow larger, age be damned.
Better still, growth occurs in regions of our brains linked to stress management.
It’s simple. Your brain is like a muscle. Challenge it, and it reacts like any other muscle—it grows.
We’ve seen this in countless studies.
One showed that 50-year old meditators had portions of the brain identical in size to healthy people half their age.
In another study, the amygdala, which reacts to stress with our “fight-or-flight” response, was reduced in size. That indicated infrequent need to fight or fly—i.e., lack of stress.
Change your mindfulness
OK, you’re convinced. You want to meditate.
Let’s keep it simple and easy as you begin.
All of the different types of meditation require “emptying the mind.” The pros in Tibet empty theirs for hours.
Mindful meditation asks you to do it for just minutes.
To begin, find a quiet place with a comfortable place to sit.
Let your body relax and concentrate on something like your breath—listen to it, feel it as you slowly, deliberately inhale and exhale. Or watch a candle flicker and dance, or listen to calming music or the sound of rain.
Sudden thoughts will try to break your concentration. “Uh oh, I forgot to do X.”
The magic of meditation is that you can choose to ignore those thoughts—and keep concentrating on your breath or candle or music. It takes practice to completely “empty” the mind, so be patient. Acknowledge you’re having a thought and then simply tell your mind “Shhhhh … not now.” Then get back to focusing on your breath.
That’s called “staying in the moment.”
You can double meditation’s benefits by adding exercise and practicing mindful walking. It’s doing the same thing, staying in the moment—while walking. Wherever you are, be there, and only there, now, noticing every detail, savoring every color and every step. Ignore interruptive thoughts.
As with other forms of meditation, it’s initially hard to let “let go” of those thoughts, but like any exercise, you improve with repetition.
At first, set a timer and try meditating or mindful walking for 5 or 10 minutes. If you’re having trouble staying focused, many sites online offer help.
There’s no prescribed “dose” of meditation, and there’s no such thing as too little or too much.
Try it—for a happier, healthier life.
Keeping a diary, or journaling, is another proven way to relieve stress. Research tells us that people who do it realize significant physical and emotional benefits—and even add years to their lives.
Paper or a computer screen. Pen or a keyboard.
How do you do it?
Write what you feel, without worry about writing “well’ or “correctly.” No one but you will see your journal. It’s your thoughts and emotions that count.
Angry at someone, now or in the distant past? Let ’em have it. Write what you wouldn’t say in person to, for instance, “You lying so-and-so!” Then let the emotions fly—write it all.
Grieving the loss of a loved one? Write your love—and your pain. “You were my joy, my life, I’m empty without you.” Then spell out your love.
Lost your job, worried about your future? Write it all down, every step of the story.
Research hasn’t pinned down exactly how journaling relieves stress, but it’s easy to see the benefits:
- Helps you better understand your feelings and emotions
- Provides an outlet for expressing difficult emotions, such as anger and frustration, without hurting anyone
- Helps you express, then let go of negative thoughts and emotions
There are no rules, no deadlines, though choosing a time each day or week helps many people find a rhythm for their writing. Just write what you think and feel.
Get it all off your chest … and into your journal.
As you probably know, there are many different types of yoga. Some focus on building strength, some on increasing energy. Some are beautifully slow and gentle, some are fast-paced and intense.
All of them relieve stress in their different ways.
So before starting yoga for stress relief, make sure you’re choosing the most suitable type for you. You should also clear it with your doctor, though it’s unlikely he or she will advise against it. One of yoga’s many strengths is that, when done properly, with the guidance of a trained yoga teacher, it’s really hard to hurt yourself.
And the benefits, of course, are profound. Yoga is proven to:
- Reduce stress and tension
- Increase strength and balance
- Increase flexibility
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce stress hormone cortisol levels
I consider yoga essential for everyone—especially anyone with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, depression, or heart disease. In many instances, it’s improved the effectiveness of medical treatments, and has even been more effective, on its own, than some conventional treatments.
Take good care.
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- Watson, Stephanie “Yoga” WebMD. Published NA.
- Gregoire, Carolyn. “The 10 Best Yoga Poses For Stress Relief” Huffington Post. Published April 6, 2015. Last accessed July 15, 2017.
- Dallas, Mary Elizabeth. “Hold That Pose: Yoga May Ease Tough Depression” HealthDay News. Published NA. Last accessed July 15, 2017.
- Seliger, Susan. “Yoga for Stress Management” WebMD. Published NA. Last accessed July 15, 2017.
- McCoy, Krisha. “Journal Your Way to Stress Relief” everyday health. Reviewed July 14, 2010. Last accessed July 15, 2017.
- “Reading ‘can help reduce stress’” The Telegraph. Published July 10, 2017. Last accessed July 14, 2017
- Ceridwen, Dovey. “Can Reading Make You Happier?” The New Yorker. PublishedJune 9, 2015. Last accessed July 14, 2107.
Last Updated: June 2, 2020
Originally Published: August 11, 2017