Stress is a part of life. That’s an indisputable fact. But too much of it can do significant harm to our physical and emotional well-being. And while a lot of studies tend to focus on the bad news related to stress, 2019 brought plenty of good news, too — in the ways research offered us new insights about coping with our stress before it becomes a problem. What’s more, these studies prove that you don’t need to make major changes your day-to-day — or spend your days chilling out under a mango tree — to ease feelings of overwhelm. Simply taking a few minutes to be present with the people and places around us, or making ever-so-slight changes to our daily routines, can have a dramatic impact on how our bodies and minds respond to stress.

Thinking of someone you love can do wonders for your stress levels

We’ve long known that social support can make stressful situations less damaging to our mental and physical health. But 2019 research found that the power of our loved ones to help us cope with stress exists even when they’re not physically there. The study by University of Arizona psychologists discovered that when it comes to managing the body’s cardiovascular response to stressful situations, visualizing your significant other may be just as effective as having them in the room with you for keeping your blood pressure in check. While previous studies have shown that a partner’s presence can help people manage their body’s stress response, it’s great to know that simply thinking about your S.O. and bringing them to mind during a tense moment could also do wonders for your well-being.

Yes, it really is possible to “pet your stress away” 

We don’t need science to tell us that having a furry friend (or two) can make us happy, but a 2019 study showed the stress-busting powers of a pet are even stronger than we originally thought. Scientists at Washington State University decided to test how exposure to cats and dogs — specifically being able to pet them — impacts stress hormones among college students. “We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions. What we wanted to learn was whether this exposure would help students reduce their stress in a less subjective way,” Patricia Pendry, Ph.D., an associate professor in Washington State University’s department of human development, told Science Daily. The result: Students who interacted with pets for just 10 minutes showed a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. 

Taking a “nature pill” can lower stress hormones  

Often when we hear about the positive effects of nature on our well-being, things like “forest bathing” or being by the ocean are encouraged. But here’s the thing: taking a walk through the woods or escaping to the sea aren’t always realistic in our everyday stressed-out moments — like at work. That’s why this 2019 study from the University of Michigan was so encouraging. Over the course of eight weeks, study participants were asked to take a “nature pill” — a nature experience lasting at least 10 minutes — at least three times a week. “Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature. There were a few constraints to minimize factors known to influence stress: Take the nature pill in daylight, no aerobic exercise, and avoid the use of social media, internet, phone calls, conversations, and reading,” MaryCarol Hunter, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, writes for Thrive. Hunter and her team found that a 20-minute nature experience was enough to lower participants’ cortisol levels, and 30 minutes or more caused the levels to drop at their greatest rate. 

Sleep can do wonders for calming your anxiety

All it takes is one night of bad, restless sleep to put your emotions on high the next day. And with that, things that you may be able to have a healthy perspective about can suddenly add unnecessary stress to your days. That’s just one of the reasons sleep is so important for well-being and managing stress. One stage of sleep that’s been of particular interest for researchers this year is called deep sleep. (Quick science lesson: Sleep is divided into periods of REM sleep, characterized by rapid eyeball movements and dreaming, and longer periods of non-REM sleep.) Researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that the type of sleep most likely to calm a stressed-out, anxious brain is the latter: “We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” said Matthew Walker, one of the study authors and a U.C. Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.” New 2020 mantra: Sleep more, stress less.

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