Relieving stress


While research shows constant stress harms your health, it’s possible to develop strategies that will reduce your overall stress levels and improve your well-being.


Over the past few decades, the practice of mindfulness has gained popularity in the West as a way of managing stress. The 2,000-year-old concept is attributed to Buddhist tradition and focuses on developing awareness and becoming as fully connected with the present moment as possible. 1 2

Proponents of mindfulness believe many people go through their daily lives as if they were on “auto-pilot,” absent-mindedly becoming involved in repetitive tasks and thinking distorted and unhelpful thoughts about the past or future. 1 These thoughts effect how we interpret events in our lives, and consequently how we emotionally and physically respond to stressful events.

By being mindful, a person actively pursues a moment-to-moment awareness of his or her experiences and searches for novelty in all situations, including common everyday tasks such brushing teeth or taking a shower. Focusing attention on the feelings and sensations of these experiences, such as the taste of mint on one's tongue or one's own body as he or she walks up a flight of stairs, are examples of acts of mindfulness. But listening to another intently with no on-going mind-chatter without analyzing the subject matter is an example of being mindful. 1

Being mindful or finding novelty means subduing the desire to limit uncertainty in daily life. According to mindfulness theory, accepting uncertainty is a key way of managing stress, as many worries and preoccupations arise from anxiety over an uncertain future.

Being mindful also means ceasing to engage in automatic behavior, which could include hypnotically reacting to stimuli. For example, no longer picking up the phone simply because it’s ringing, particularly when doing something else may be more efficient or rewarding. In addition, being mindful means avoiding judging yourself, others and situations, whether they be positive or negative evaluations. 1 Avoiding judgment is another key to reducing stress, as no longer judging things as “good” or “bad” can reduce anxiety over what is perceived as “bad” in our life.


Mindfulness meditation is used to engage a mindful outset. This website hosts a widely used and effective mindfulness exercise that is available to be used free of charge. Computer speakers or, preferably, earphones are required to hear the audio. Find some time when you won't be interrupted and then begin the exercise here.

In the West, adaptations of mindfulness meditation have been used therapeutically to handle stress, just as cognitive behavioral therapy has been used for anxiety and depression. 1 2 The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also recommends trying mindfulness practice for dealing with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as avoidance and hyperarousal. 3

Several studies of mindfulness meditation reveal its positive effects:

  • A 2003 clinical intervention study of cancer patients by Brown and Ryan showed that increased mindfulness over time was related to a decrease in mood disturbances and stresses among patients. 1 4
  • A 2009 study by Biegel, Brown, Shaprio and Schubert revealed that adolescents who participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program had lower levels of depressive and anxious symptoms as well as fewer bodily complaints. They also reported improved sleep quality and a more positive self-image. 1 5
  • In a 1989 study by John Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts, researchers found a mindfulness-based stress reduction program was successful in treating hospital patients experiencing chronic pain and anxiety. After engaging in mindfulness meditation over an eight-week period, patients were more resilient to stress and improved their sense of well-being. A follow-up study three years later showed patients had maintained their initial gains and made even further improvements in how they regarded the manageability of their lives. 1 6 7
  • In 1998, researchers Shapiro, Schwartz and Bonner measured the effects of mindfulness meditation on 78 premedical and medical students in a randomized controlled study. Results showed students in the meditation group had decreased levels of anxiety and depression and increased levels of empathy compared to the control group. These results continued into the students’ exam period. Also, when the control group was later given the mindfulness meditation program the findings were reproduced. 1 8


Another way to reduce your stress level is physical activity. It can clear your mind, decrease tension and raise your energy. An exercise as basic as walking, which in addition to boosting your energy, can also offer a calming change in environment. 9 The positive impact of exercise on mental health may stem from a number of mechanisms, including diversion from unpleasant circumstances, the improved sense of self-confidence and control over one’s life that arises from successfully meeting a physical challenge, and the release of “feel-good” hormones (endorphins) that improve mood. 11 The physical benefits of exercise may also mitigate some of the negative impacts that the stress response can have on your body.

Many studies reveal the relationship between physical activity and well-being:

  • A 2012 study of 621 participants examined associations between perceived stress and physical activity. It was noted that study participants that engaged in less physical activity had higher levels of perceived stress. 12
  • A 2005 randomized controlled trial of 134 patients with cardiovascular disease found that patients engaging in aerobic exercise for 35 minutes three times a week over a course of 16 weeks reported less general distress and depression. 13
  • In a 1998 study, 73 individuals kept mood and exercise diaries, also noting daily stressors over the course of 12 days. It was found that there were lower rates of depression and higher rated positive moods on days where participants exercised. Additionally, participants experienced more potentially stressful events as non-stressful on days where they participated in physical exercise. 14

While it would be ideal to dedicate time each day to physical activity, some simple ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine and stay motivated include:

  • Walking to work or to the store instead of driving
  • Engaging in short bursts of exercise, such as the 7-Minute Workout
  • Run up the and down the stairs a few times during the day
  • When socializing, go for a walk
  • Lift weights while watching TV
  • Walk around your house while talking on the phone instead of sitting
  • Keep an exercise diary
  • Set goals with a friend
  • Wear a pedometer (which can cost as little as $5) and try to increase the number of steps you take each day


Being social can also relieve stress. Making the time to do activities and see people who make you happy can help you feel fulfilled and enjoy life. 9


Deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing) is a wonderful activity that can counteract the effects of stress. It increases the flow of oxygen in your bloodstream and makes your body release endorphins that relax and renew your energy level. 9

  • A 2009 randomized controlled study found that patients with hypertension (high blood pressure) who practiced slow breathing exercises over 3 months substantially reduced their blood pressure. 15


Maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet is another preventative measure against stress. Consuming high levels of sugar, caffeine and fat can agitate the body and make someone less capable of dealing with daily challenges. 9

  • In a 2013 study of 9255 participants, researchers found that the consumption of more vegetables, fruit, olive oil, nuts, and legumes was associated with a more positive mood, while the consumption of sweets and fast food was associated with negative mood. 16
  • In a study of nearly 300,000 Canadians between 2000 and 2009, greater fruit and vegetable intake was associated with lower odds of depression, distress, and perceived poor mental health status. 17

For guidance on what makes a healthy diet, consult the Canada Food Guide. Some examples of easy ways to improve your diet are the following:

  • Keep cut up vegetables ready in the fridge for when you want a snack
  • Simply not purchasing junk food is an easy way to avoid temptation
  • Be mindful while you eat, eat slowly, and enjoy each bite
  • Don’t eat while on the computer or watching TV – it is easy to lose track of portions
  • Plan your meals ahead to avoid grabbing fast food out of convenience
  • Try ‘Once a Month Cooking’ or ‘Freezer Meals’ so that you have healthy meals easily available. A quick search on the Internet will bring up lots of recipes!
  • Read nutrition labels at the grocery store and avoid products high in sodium and sugar
  • A handful of almonds makes a healthy and filling snack
  • Instead of cookies or candy, satisfy a sugar craving with fruit
  • Instead of eating out of the package, put everything on a plate so that you can see how much you are eating
  • Replace soda with sparkling water and lemon for flavor
  • Don’t skip breakfast! Low blood sugar later in the day can lead you to make poor choices at lunch
  • Frozen vegetables are easy to prepare and often cheaper than fresh


Getting good sleep is also crucial for beating stress. The hormones responsible for stimulating your system during stress drop when you are asleep. As a result, if someone experiences good quality sleep on a regular basis he or she will be less likely to suffer from constant worry. 9 10

  • One 2012 study of 53 healthy adult volunteers found that one night of total sleep deprivation resulted in participants reporting greater subjective stress, anxiety, and anger than their well-rested counterparts after exposure to a low-stressor condition. Study authors concluded that their findings suggest that sleep deprivation lowers the psychological threshold for perceived stress. 18
  • A study investigating the relationship between self-reported sleep quality and measures of stress and mood found that poor sleepers experienced more depressive symptoms and greater perceived stress in response to fearful facial expressions. 19

Sleeping well and for long enough can be challenging when our lives are busy. Some ways to improve your sleep include the following:

  • Going to bed and waking at the same times, every day
  • Use your bed only for sex and sleep – not for reading or watching TV
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening
  • Avoid alcohol before bed – while many people believe a ‘nightcap’ will help them to fall asleep, it can actually worsen sleep quality
  • Avoid any “screen time” for a few hours before bed, as the glow from your computer or TV can interrupt the secretion of hormones that would normally cue us to sleep
  • Avoid napping during the day, as it can negatively impact your sleep at nighttime

For a simple observation exercise that can be used daily and in moments of stress, click here.

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Ford, P. A., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Lee, J. W., Youngberg, W., and S. Tonstad. “Intake of Mediterranean foods associated with positive affect and low negative affect.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2013 Feb;74(2):142-148.
McMartin, S.E., Jacka, F. N., and I. Colman. “The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: evidence from five waves of a national survey of Canadians.” Preventive Medicine. 2013 Mar;56(3-4):225-230.
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Prather, A. A., Bogdan, R., and A. R. Hariri. “Impact of sleep quality on amygdala reactivity, negative affect, and perceived stress.” Psychosomatic Medicine. 2013 May;75(4):350-358.

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Richard Tytus

Written in conjunction with Richard Tytus, MD

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