Stress Management Techniques That Work (in-depth review)

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Effective stress management techniques can offset the negative effects of stress in your life. Try these proven, fast, and reliable stress remedies.

Stress is not necessarily bad; some stress is actually a good thing.

It temporarily boosts motivation and concentration, and helps to keep your mental and physical resilience high. (1)

But when stress becomes chronic, it can leave you feeling overwhelmed, anxious, forgetful, and exhausted.

And that can make you sick. In fact …

Up to 90% of all patient visits to primary care doctors are stress-related. (2)

Stress can make you unhappy, increasing your risk for anxiety and depression.

This article presents a summary of 15 top stress management techniques that not only provide immediate relief, but also are so effective that making them a habit can reduce your stress levels permanently.

You’ll find instructions and scripts you can use right away, as well as guidance for finding digital downloads (mostly free), to make each technique easy to implement.

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Every day you take tens of thousands of breaths, so you might be surprised to learn that you probably aren’t doing it right!

If you’ve ever watched a baby or a pet sleeping, you’ll notice that their stomach rises and falls more than their chest when they breathe.

Children naturally breathe from their abdomen until the constant stress of modern life retrains them to breathe from their chest.

Diaphragmatic breathing — also called abdominal breathing or belly breathing — is the way we are meant to breathe, but few of us do.

When you’re under stress, your chest tightens and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid.

This rapid, shallow breathing (called chest or thoracic breathing) is a hardwired response that helps you respond to danger.

Chest breathing elicits the flight-or-fight response that starts a cascade of biological events.

Heart rate and blood pressure increase, blood gets directed away from the brain and to the muscles, and a flood of stress hormones is released.

Ideally, after a perceived danger has passed, your breathing returns to normal.

The problem for most of us is that chest breathing has become our normal way of breathing.

But you can change that.

Breathing is both autonomic and voluntary — meaning that it happens on its own and we can learn to control it.

Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the simplest, yet most important, stress management techniques you can master.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise

Sit comfortably or lie down.

Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.

Slowly exhale through your mouth.

Then slowly inhale through your nose, concentrating on keeping your chest still while expanding your stomach.

You should notice a fall and rise of your stomach, and not your chest, if you do this properly.

diaphragmatic breathing technique
Diaphragmatic breathing technique. (Image courtesy of Amanda Soto, Washington Post)

Learn this, and every breath you take can alleviate, rather than contribute to, stress.

Do this foundational breathing exercise 20-30 minutes per day to reduce stress and anxiety.

If you practice only one breathing exercise, this should be the one.

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2. Meditation

Meditation is one of the best and most popular stress management techniques.

Meditation makes you more resilient and less reactive to stress by decreasing the number of neurons in your amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress. (3)

It increases levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

GABA slows down brain activity, letting you relax.

Meditation helps you quiet your mind and master negative thought patterns which are often the root cause of stress. (4)

It keeps you focused on the present so that you spend less time worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.

Until you’re experienced at traditional meditation, I recommend listening to guided meditations or audio files that incorporate binaural beats.

This approach can induce a relaxed brainwave state quickly.

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3. Mindfulness Meditation

There are many kinds of meditation, and one that’s excellent for stress relief is mindfulness meditation. (5)

It’s the meditation of choice among those facing unusual levels of on-the-job stress, such as Wall Street brokers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and US military personnel. (6, 78)

Mindfulness actually builds a bigger and better brain.

It increases the amount of gray matter, the volume of the hippocampus, and the thickness of the cortex while it decreases the size of the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. (910)

It also improves connectivity between various regions of the brain. (11)

How to Do Mindfulness Meditation

Sit quietly with your eyes closed.

Breathe normally and simply notice your breath.

Saying to yourself “breathing in, breathing out” can help keep other thoughts at bay.

When you notice a random thought, simply label it as “a thought,” let it go, and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Many people think that if they have thoughts while meditating, they’re failing.

But the goal of meditation is NOT to have zero thoughts.

Thinking thoughts is what the brain does incessantly.

The goal is to simply notice them when they come up and gently push them aside.

4. Yoga

Millions of people around the world practice yoga regularly. (12)

One key reason for the explosion in interest in this ancient practice is that people are looking for a way to de-stress.

Any kind of physical exercise will reduce stress, but yoga excels at it.

Yoga slows breathing and heart rates, lowers blood pressure, and increases heart rate variability. (13)

Just a single one-hour session of yoga can increase GABA by 27%. (14)

If you’re concerned that you aren’t flexible enough, give the ancient martial arts tai chi or qi gong a try instead.

They offer similar relaxation benefits, but you won’t have to get on the floor and flexibility is not a prerequisite.

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Yoga Breathing Techniques

Besides yoga poses, there are many yoga-based breathing techniques.

One technique is Sudarshan Kriya yoga.

The breathing exercises in this type of yoga have been extensively studied and proven beneficial for: (15)

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • stress and stress-related illnesses
  • substance abuse

Dozens of scientific studies have found that these breathing exercises can enhance brain function, increase resilience to stress, alter brainwave activity, and increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that stimulates brain cell production.

Alternate nostril breathing is a yoga breathing technique that goes by the Sanskrit name of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama which means “energy purification breathing technique.”

Did you know that during much of the day you breathe through just one nostril at a time?

Every hour or so, you change dominant nostrils.

Research shows that consciously controlling the breath through each nostril reduces stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure, while improving attention and other cognitive skills. (16, 1718)

This breathing exercise looks a little strange so you might want to skip doing it in public!

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Push your thumb or one finger on the side of one nostril, closing it off.

Inhale slowly through the open nostril for a count of 5.

Now close the other nostril and breathe out slowly.

Repeat starting with the opposite nostril this time.

Do as many rounds as you’d like.

5. Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a mental technique that uses the innate power of visualization to achieve goals and improve performance.

It’s most commonly used for stress reduction, healing, and changing behaviors.

Guided imagery is so beneficial that it’s even covered by some insurance plans. (19)

Over 200 studies have confirmed its many health benefits. (20)

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According to the Cleveland Clinic, a renowned nonprofit academic medical center, guided imagery is beneficial for:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • enhanced immunity
  • high blood pressure
  • pain management
  • self-confidence
  • sleep
  • stress management

Another popular use for guided imagery is personal development and performance enhancement.

Guided visualization can be used to release limiting thoughts and emotions, increase self-esteem, gain mental clarity, and meet both personal and business goals.

Some of the most successful people in the world use guided imagery.

It’s a particularly valuable training tool for many world-class athletes. 

The most competitive Olympic teams now travel with an entourage of sports psychologists who use guided visualization and related mind-body tools such as meditation, self-hypnosis, and autogenic training to help athletes achieve peak performance.

Legendary sports figures like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Muhammad Ali have all used visualization. (21, 22)

Sources

If you want to reduce stress or increase your focus, there are many sources for free guided imagery audio files.

Several university websites offer them as part of their stress management services to their students.

Most of these are created under the guidance of mental health professionals.

You can listen to or download free guided imagery MP3s here:

University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center recommends using guided imagery along with conventional medical treatments to reduce stress, improve sleep, boost immune function, and ease pain.

The Center has a guided imagery library for cancer patients that’s available free to the public.

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6. Self-Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a trance-like state characterized by extreme relaxation, increased suggestibility, and heightened imagination.

For self-hypnosis, you intentionally put yourself in this state without the help of a hypnotherapist.

If you’ve ever found yourself entranced by a crackling fire or ocean waves, you’ve experienced self-hypnosis.

A huge volume of research confirms the benefits of hypnosis for anxiety and other disorders with a stress-related component. (23)

There are self-hypnosis scripts that you can perform from memory or record and follow along to your own voice.

You’ll find a simple self-hypnosis script here.

There are also prerecorded self-hypnosis MP3s and apps.

For maximum benefits, be sure to use audio programs developed by a professional with hypnosis training and accreditation.

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7. Autogenic Training

Autogenic training is a little-known but highly effective type of self-hypnosis that teaches you to regulate functions that are normally under subconscious control, such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

It works by calming down your overactive stress response and placing your mind in a relaxed brainwave state similar to meditation.

An analysis of over 60 studies found autogenic training beneficial for stress-related disorders including anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure. (24)

It has been used by military personnel, pilots, and NASA astronauts to enhance performance and minimize the extreme environmental and psychological stress experienced in space. (25)

Give it a try with one of the free autogenic training MP3s offered by the University of Melbourne or McMaster University.

8. Personal Biofeedback

Biofeedback is another technique that teaches you how to manage your breathing, heart rate, and blood flow to stop the stress response.

It enables you to monitor what your body is doing in real-time by measuring functions like heart rate, blood pressure, brainwave state, skin temperature, and muscle tension.

Besides stress relief, biofeedback can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health and brain-related disorders, including: (26)

  • addictions
  • anxiety disorders
  • attention disorders
  • brain injury
  • depression
  • memory loss
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • sleep disorders

Traditional biofeedback is expensive and time-consuming, but there are effective personal biofeedback devices that work by measuring various functions such as blood pressure (RESPeRATE) or heart rate variability (HeartMath emWave2).

Biofeedback devices that measure brainwave patterns are called neurofeedback devices and require you to wear a headset.

These are gaining in popularity; some brand name products include Muse, NeuroSky, and Versus.

With the assistance of a personal biofeedback or neurofeedback device, you can learn to relax on command anytime, anywhere.

9. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

It’s no secret that when you get stressed, your muscles get tight.

You may be feeling it in your back, neck, or shoulders as you read this.

And these tight muscles are not only caused by stress, they contribute to stress.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple technique that involves tensing and relaxing groups of muscles in a systematic way to break the vicious cycle of stress and muscle tension. (27)

If you suffer from tight muscles, you’ll find a free progressive muscle relaxation session along with many other kinds of relaxation recordings on the websites of many universities including Dartmouth CollegeUniversity of Illinois, Brigham Young University, and University of Houston.

10. Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique)

Emotional Freedom Technique, generally known as tapping or EFT, is a form of acupressure that works by stimulating meridian points with your fingertips.

Tapping can be used for almost anything that ails you, physically or emotionally, including stress and stress-related issues.

One session of tapping can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol by an impressive 50%. (28)

Watch the Video

Here’s a YouTube video that guides you through a tapping session specifically for stress relief.

Once you learn this simple routine, you no longer have to follow the video.

You can tap away stress anytime you want.

11. Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a healing and relaxation technique that makes use of the scent of essential oils.

The US National Library of Medicine lists thousands of scientific research studies involving the use of essential oils. (29)

Dozens of essential oils deliver stress relief, but you can’t go wrong with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).

Lavender is the most studied and possibly the most versatile of all essential oils. (30)

Put a few drops on your wrists, dab some under your nose, or diffuse it into the air for instant stress relief.

Besides being generally relaxing, lavender shows anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and mood stabilizing properties. (31)

Other essential oils with anti-stress properties include Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), neroli (Citrus aurantium), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). (32, 33)

Bergamot essential oil, which provides the unique flavoring in Earl Grey tea, increases GABA, the neurotransmitter of relaxation, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. (34)

12. Enjoyable Pastimes

You probably already have a favorite stress reduction strategy.

What is it you love to do in your spare time that gets you in the zone and makes time fade away?

(Binge watching your favorite Netflix show doesn’t count, you must be actively engaged.) 

Creating art, playing music, or getting absorbed in a favorite hobby are all legitimate stress management techniques.

Hobbies as diverse as knitting, woodworking, gardening, and home repair reduce stress and induce a relaxed state. (35)

Adult coloring books, a recent trend, can significantly reduce stress and depression. (36)

An additional bonus is that engaging in these activities before going to sleep at night can help you relax and fall asleep faster than using a laptop or tablet which emit sleep-disruptive blue light. (37)

13. Nature

Spend some time in nature.

It will lower your cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate, while increasing heart rate variability. (38)

This doesn’t have to be a major outing.

Simply spending a few minutes in your yard or at a park on your lunch break can help.

When you do this, leave your smartphone behind or at least turned off.

Research has confirmed what most of us suspect anyway — that trying to do more than one thing at once is stressful. 

Heart rate and cortisol levels go up when you constantly check your email. (39)

If you can’t get outdoors, take a few minutes to just look at pictures of nature or admire a houseplant. 

Even these substitutes for getting outside can reduce stress levels and put you in a better mood. (40)

14. Gratitude

Expressing gratitude creates a surge of feel-good brain chemicals that can make you happier and more relaxed.

A common way of expressing gratitude is journaling — writing about things you are grateful for — but I find that sharing grateful thoughts with others even better.

This benefits both you and the recipient.

You can thank a friend by phone, text, email, or put pen to paper (gasp!) and write a thank-you note for words of encouragement, an act of kindness, or any other “gift” you’ve received.

(Can you guess which kind of “thank you” your friend will treasure the most?)

Feeling and expressing gratitude reduces stress and increases emotional resilience. (41)

And it will help you relax and sleep better if you do it right before you go to bed.

15. Green Tea (Instead of Coffee)

This one is a little different than all the other stress reduction techniques listed here.

But caffeine is such an integral part of our always-on-the-go society, its role deserves special consideration.

Millions of people get through the day, not on naturally generated energy, but on the artificial boost they get from caffeine.

While caffeine can be part of a healthy lifestyle, it also increases stress hormones and reduces calming brain chemicals, while restricting blood flow to the brain. (42)

Caffeine is even linked to four recognized psychiatric disorders. (43)

So, if you are feeling stressed, grabbing a caffeine-laden cup of coffee, a soda, or an energy drink is the wrong thing to do.

Instead, make your next drink a cup of green tea.

Green tea contains a little caffeine — about 25 mg per 8-ounce serving — which should be enough to keep you from full-blown caffeine withdrawal.

But green tea provides focus and energy while it relaxes you, thanks to l-theanine and EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate).

L-theanine is an amino acid that increases resilience to stress. (44)

It causes an increase in alpha brainwave activity that’s similar to that experienced during meditation. (4546)

EGCG is a flavonoid, a plant-based compound with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

EGCG normalizes activity of the calming neurotransmitter GABA. (47)

Like theanine, EGCG also changes brainwave patterns to put you in a relaxed, yet attentive, state. (48)

Stress Management Techniques: Take the Next Step

Stress is a necessary part of life, but chronic stress can make you sick and unhappy.

Fortunately, there’s a wide variety of proven stress management techniques that can bring relief quickly and, if practiced regularly, even permanently.

The 15 stress reduction techniques featured in this article can be started immediately, be done anytime, and require little or no investment on your part other than a little time each day.

Learn more about each technique by clicking our “Read more” links.