New Year, New Healthy Habits: 4 Science-Backed Ways to Help Beat Stress in 2019
It can often feel like stress is just an accepted part of life, but that doesn't mean it has to control your life. A few easy behavior tweaks can help set you up for calmer days. This Johnson & Johnson behavior scientist should know.
It’s no secret that January can sometimes be a bit of a downer. The holiday excitement has dwindled. Your finances may be running low, thanks to end-of-year travel and gift-giving. And your only plans on the horizon are sifting through that giant stack of papers on your desk.
But the month also offers a fresh start—there’s a reason why people resolve to kick their vices come January.
With that in mind, over the next few weeks, we’re launching a series of articles for how to tackle common bad health habits by adopting some simple behavior change techniques.
First up: not letting stress get the best of you!
It may not rank as high on your New Year's resolutions list as, say, hitting the gym, but it’s crucial for well-being. “Chronic stress can be toxic,” says Matthew Miller, Ph.D., Manager of Behavior Science, Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions. It's been linked to all sorts of health problems, including heart disease, obesity and depression.
The irony? “We’ve never known more about how to mitigate stress, or had as much evidence for what to do when we’re feeling stressed than we do now,” says Miller. “Yet we tend to build situations that don’t allow us to behave in our best interest.”
To that point, we asked Miller to share his expert insight on common stress-inducing behaviors—and behavior change-based tips on how to combat them.
Take a Break from Social Media …
Sure, seeing how friends spent their holidays is nice, but it can also make you feel inadequate. If budget constraints forced you to stick around your freezing-cold hometown, for example, do you really need to see pictures of your buddies frolicking on a Mexican beach?
“To be in touch with people who are remote from you is a beautiful idea, but it can also be debilitating,” says Miller. “Seeing your friends traveling to magical places and looking super buff lends itself to being stressful. If you’re feeling sensitive and worked up after you’ve been looking at social media, consider that you may not be using it in the healthiest way.”
The behavior change hack: a brief hiatus from social media. Steer clear of Facebook and the like for three or four days, and each day, check in with yourself and see how you feel. Are you less anxious? Not as irritable? More able to engage with your surroundings? If so, try to impose limits on social media going forward—say, you’ll only log on for 10 minutes every other day.
“A lot of people find that the less time they spend on social media, the better their ability is to de-stress and be less critical and more present in the moment,” says Miller.
When you’re feeling stressed, your instinct may be to curl up in bed and pull the covers over your head—but doing the exact opposite is far more beneficial.
“We couldn’t be more certain that if you want to manage negative emotions and boost positive ones, one of the most helpful things you can do is engage in physical activity,” says Miller. “It’s not a cure-all, but if you want to relieve stress, step one is moving more.”
There’s no exact formula for keeping stress at bay, but if you’re typically active, adding an extra workout to your usual routine can help do the trick.
And even if you rarely (or never) set foot in a gym, simply moving for a short time every 60 to 90 minutes—what Miller calls “microbursts” of activity—can help relieve tension. That can mean anything from taking a quick walk around the block to getting up from your desk to refill your water bottle every hour.
“The more microbursts, the stronger sense of energy you have, which can help you manage stress,” says Miller. “That little movement can be enough of a tipping point to help interrupt the cascade of negative emotions you’re feeling.”
Set a Consistent Sleep Routine
When it comes to keeping stress in check, getting enough rest is crucial. Lack of sleep affects everything from mood to memory and judgment, and adults who log fewer than eight hours per night are more likely to report symptoms of stress, like feeling irritable and overwhelmed, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association.
“Want your emotional management skills to be better? Go to bed,” says Miller. “We could not have more evidence to suggest the importance of sleep.”
One caveat: Being stressed may make it harder to sleep, which in turn triggers even more stress. The key, says Miller, is to have a “healthy sleep routine” in place before hard times hit.
This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, and imposing a “wind-down period” at night, when you do relaxing activities like taking a bath or reading a book. Just be sure to keep it tech-free—screens can stimulate your brain, making it harder to fall asleep!
Be Mindful … and Grateful
When the going gets tough, acknowledge it—then take a minute to consider all the good things in your life. Practicing mindfulness (being aware of your thoughts and feelings in any given moment, a tactic that helps emotions from spiraling) and gratefulness (recognizing the things and people you’re thankful for) can help stop stress in its tracks.
“Mindfulness does a great job of helping people manage negative emotions, and gratefulness does a great job of helping people boost the positive emotions they’re feeling,” says Miller. “It’s not rocket science, which is one of the beautiful things about it.”
Showing gratitude can be as easy as thanking your friend for listening to you vent last week, or treating a helpful colleague to a cup of coffee. “When you feel stress start to creep in,” says Miller, “put your ‘gratitude eyes’ back on and look for how to see the world in a positive way.”
Another stress-busting technique: shifting your perspective. It’s natural to think of stress as debilitating, but seeing it as an opportunity for growth has benefits. Recent research from a psychology professor at Stanford University found that people who view stress as “enhancing” show greater performance at work and fewer negative health effects.
“When you change your perception of experiences, you can change the level of risk you interpret them as having,” explains Miller. “That can change the way your body responds to stress, which is profound.”