Immediate Stress Relief? Why You May Need to Change Your Approach

Fast-Acting vs. Resilience-Building to Minimize Stress in Just 20 Minutes

woman listening to music for stress relief
Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United

The goal of stress management is to minimize the negative effects of stress. This can be accomplished in several different ways, however, and the most effective strategy is to hit stress from multiple angles. This is important for several reasons as outlined below.

Stress Management Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

There is no one-size-fits-all stress management technique. Not only do different strategies resonate in unique ways with each person, but some strategies cannot be used in all situations. For example, yoga is a powerhouse of a stress reliever, but it's not practical to try yoga poses in a car to minimize the stress of traffic. Additionally, those with physical limitations may not be able to perform some yoga poses. The technique needs to fit the situation and the person.

Some Stress Relievers Work Better Together

Similarly, breathing exercises are effective in calming the body's stress response, but breathing exercises alone are not as effective for social stress or burnout as they are when paired with other techniques such as reframing or mindfulness. Here are some more stress relievers that work well when paired together: music and exercise,  aromatherapy and a warm bathcleaning and musicwalking and meditation, and breathing exercises and visualizations.

Quick Stress Relievers

Some stress relievers are fast-acting, like breathing exercises, and can help you to feel calmer in minutes. Some evidence shows that a quick meditation or a few minutes of exercise can calm the body's stress response, and send you on your way to a relaxed state. This is important because you can function differently when stressed versus when you are relaxed. When your stress response is triggered, you are in a state of being that is more focused and prepared to fight or run. This state of being is calibrated to work well for physical attacks, but not as well for the types of social and psychological stressors that we tend to face now: a boss that needs to be pleased, a child that needs to be soothed, a deadline that needs to be met well enough to stand up to scrutiny of peers or evaluators. So fast-acting stress relievers are important in that they can help you to get to a more calm state of mind, and they can work quickly. Then you can move on and take care of the rest.  

Quick stress relievers are a bit lacking in other ways, though. They don't work as well on a one-time basis as some stress relievers that build resilience to stress or provide you with resources to meet the challenges you face. Some stress relievers, for example, can help you to be less reactive toward stress when it occurs, if you practice them regularly. Meditation, exercise, and journaling are known for this. So while quick stress relievers are wonderful, they do not cover all the bases.

Resilience-Building Stress Relievers

Studies have found that those who practice meditation over time (such as Buddhist monks) have experienced alterations in their brain that make them more resilient toward stress. Physical exercise has a cumulative effect as well, though both strategies can be useful in shorter sessions. The problem with with resilience-building stress relievers are that they tend to require practice over time to be effective in building resilience, or at least this is what has been believed.

One important question is, how helpful can a short-term stress reliever be in building resilience if it is practiced one time? Also important is an understanding of how long this stress relief technique needs to be practiced before it can help with resilience. Fortunately, some research shows good news on both fronts.

The Good News

A study from the University of Connecticut found that 20 minutes was an effective amount of time to build resilience toward future stress, and that 20 minutes can be enough time for a mindfulness-based strategy or a physical relaxation-based strategy, which is good news for many people who may be drawn to one type of stress reliever or the other. More great news about this research is that the stress in question was social stress, which is known to be one of the more taxing forms of stress we experience, and a type of stress that most of us experience regularly in daily life.

This study divided 120 college students into three groups: one that practiced mindfulness-based stress relievers for 20 minutes, one that practiced physical relaxation techniques for the same period of time, and a control group that practiced neither. They were then exposed to a stressful social situation: they had to solve math problems and deliver speeches where they were evaluated and questioned, a situation that has been shown to create significant stress for virtually everyone. Then they reported how stressed they felt and their levels of cortisol (a hormone related to the body's stress response) was measured, so determine if they felt subjectively stressed or experienced stress that could be measured physically.

The results showed that both types of stress relievers — in a single 20-minute dose — were effective not only in reducing the subjects' perceived levels of stress in the challenges that followed, but they were also effective in minimizing the physical stress response in these subjects, both of which are signs of increased resilience to social stress.

How to Build Resilience in 20 Minutes — One Time

More studies can provide a clearer picture, but this is important in demonstrating how a stress relief technique practiced for 20 minutes in the morning, at lunch, or before a stressful event can make the challenges of the day less stressful.  If you are someone who has been reluctant to try those resilience-building techniques that work over time, this is the news that should convince you to try a new stress reliever for 20 minutes and see what happens.  (If you like what you feel, you just may start practicing it regularly, but you don't need to do so before you can enjoy the benefits!) The following are stress relievers that were used in the study:

Mindfulness Exercises for Stress Management

The group that practiced mindfulness techniques were really in an "enhanced mindfulness" group in that they were provided with some brief education in how stress and anxiety work in the mind and body.   They were also educated about experiential avoidance—how our attempts to avoid certain thoughts or emotional experiences can make us feel better in the short term, but can cause long-term problems for us—and cognitive fusion—how we tend to pair thoughts with certain behaviors, and if we can break this pattern in specific situations, we can often free ourselves of the stress we feel when new experiences trigger feelings of stress from past ones.  (You can read more about experiential avoidance and cognitive fusion in this piece about acceptance and commitment therapy.)  Finally, they were given information on basic coping strategies for stress, including acceptance and other cognitive strategies.

After this brief education in how our thoughts and our emotional coping strategies can affect us, subjects were led in mindfulness strategies for stress relief. The following are strategies similar to the ones found to be effective in the study. You can practice each of these for 20 minutes, or practice a combination of them for a total of 20 minutes. Conversely, although this wasn't part of the study, it would likely be effective to combine some of these activities with one or more of the physical relaxation strategies discussed in the next section.

  • Label your thoughts. This mindfulness technique involves detaching from thought patterns by recognizing and labeling your thoughts, then letting them go, rather than engaging in following the train of thought and engaging in the thinking process. 
  • Envision negative thoughts as waves. Another mindfulness technique that allows you to disengage from your thoughts is the strategy of imagining negative thoughts, thought patterns, or emotions as waves that you can ride out, gliding along the top of them and watching them pass and dissipate.  Imagine that they can wash over you and wash past you, but you don't need to engage in them, as they will roll off your skin like water.
  • Try more mindfulness activities.  There are many different ways to practice mindfulness.  These techniques help you to focus on different physical sensations. 

Physical Relaxation Strategies for Stress Management

Those in the somatic-relaxation group were taught about the effects of physical relaxation on the mind, and led in autogenic training exercises. (I recommend that you read about autogenic training first, and then try some or all of the following exercises for 20 minutes.)  The following are similar exercises that can be used to relax your mind and body.  Begin in a relaxed position, set a timer, and practice the following.

  • Notice and relax your body. Focus on the sensations in your body. Repeat to yourself statements like, "I feel physically relaxed." "My arms are relaxed. My hands are relaxed. My fingers are relaxed." You may start at the top of your head and work through major areas of your body until you reach your feet, repeating to yourself that each area of your body feels relaxed. As you go, release the physical tension you feel in each area.
  • Try to warm your body. Using the same order (head to toe), try to warm your body from the inside. Focus on feeling a soothing heat in each area, and let the comforting feeling of warmth run from your trunk through your arms and legs to your hands and feet. (This works well for relaxation because the body's stress response redirects blood flow in a way that can produce cold hands and feet. This warms you up and soothes your body at the same time.)
  • Feel the heaviness of your limbs. Following the same pattern, imagine that your limbs are getting heavier as your body relaxes. Focus on the sensations in your body, and release tension as you go.

    While these strategies aren't the only ones that can relieve stress, they are proven techniques you can use to make yourself feel more relaxed right now, and keep some extra stress-relieving strength with you for later. That definitely makes it worth the 20 minutes of your time!

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