Interest in meditation and mindfulness as ways to reduce stress have exploded in popularity, and they’re great tools to have in your mental health toolkit. But what if these techniques don’t work for you? Psychologist Dr Sarah McKay shares some practical alternatives for switching off your stress response and finding peace of mind.
Not all stress is bad. We need an optimum level of stress to function effectively. Positive or beneficial stress is called ‘eustress’ and is defined by how you perceive that stressor. For example, what may be a negative threat to one person (e.g. sitting a test) may be perceived as a positive challenge to another person.
However, excessive or chronic levels of stress or ‘distress’ negatively affect both our physical and mental health. Too much distress is associated with autoimmune diseases, migraines, obesity, muscle tension and backache, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.
We can’t avoid all sources of stress in our lives, nor would we want to. But we can develop healthier ways of responding. Learning to ‘switch off’ your stress response and ‘switch on’ your relaxation response is key to promoting mental health and physical wellbeing.
Many people practise meditation to reduce psychological stress and stress-related health problems. Popular meditation techniques include transcendental meditation, which emphasises the use of a mantra; or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which emphasises training in present-focused awareness or ‘mindfulness’.
There is ample evidence to support MBSR as a stress-reduction tool. A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine pooled data from 47 trials of the health effects of meditation programs on over 3,500 people. After carefully controlling for the placebo effect, the authors found that MBSR resulted in moderate improvements in anxiety, depression and pain. Another 2015 systematic review of 2668 healthy individuals in 29 different studies found large buffering effects of MBSR against stress, moderate effects on anxiety, depression, distress, and quality of life, and small effects on burnout.
For all its lauded benefits, meditation is not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps you don’t have the time or resources to attend an eight-week MBSR course, or you’re in need of immediate mental health first aid. Or, like me, you struggle with the practice thereby inadvertently increasing your distress? The Black Dog Insitute recognises some people also encounter problems with ‘letting go’ and can become panicky when they try and relax. Because different stress management techniques appeal to different people, here are five simple evidence-based alternatives to meditation.
- Identify your triggers. Make a list of events that leave you emotionally drained, with one or two ways to reduce the stress for each. When they occur, use them as an opportunity to practise your stress reduction techniques, then, keep notes on what works for next time.
- Walk in nature. Gentle repetitive exercise such as walking, swimming, and cycling are good to relieve stress and can be thought of like meditation in motion. Exercise works most effectively to reduce stress when done away from urban settings in natural environments such as forests. Exposure to natural environments can also improve mood, reduce blood pressure and heart activity and improve your ability to concentrate.
- Breathe in a box. Slow, deep-breathing exercises evoke the relaxation response. One useful way to practice deep breathing is to use the ‘box breathing’ technique: Breath in for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. Then pause for four seconds before taking your next breath.
- Relax, muscle by muscle. In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense up particular muscles and then relax them. Starting with the muscles in your legs and gradually work your way up your body. Tense each muscle group in turn. Make sure you can feel the tension, but not so much that you feel a great deal of pain. Keep the muscle tensed for about five seconds. Relax the muscles and keep them relaxed for approximately 10 seconds. It may be helpful to say something like “Relax” as you relax the muscle.
- Listen to music. Listening to music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on the mind and body. Slow, quiet classical music can slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease levels of stress hormones.
For some strategies on boosting your love hormone, see this article from Dr Cris Beer here.
Dr Sarah McKay is an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, director of The Neuroscience Academy, TEDx speaker, and author of The Women’s Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness. Sarah simplifies insights from neuroscience research into smart actionable strategies for peak performance, creativity, health, and wellbeing. You can check her website out here.