3 psychologist-approved hacks to dramatically reduce stress and anxiety

This article was originally published by Body & Soul
By Amantha Imber

April 8, 2020

It’s easy to worry about the coronavirus health crisis. If you’re suffering from stress and anxiety, here’s three science-backed tips you should incorporate into your life starting from today.

During the last few weeks, it’s been hard to do anything other than worry. Worry about ourselves, our family and friends, our work, and the world.

And worrying, of course, makes us stressed and anxious.

But the thing about worrying is that it doesn’t actually do any good – it tends to just make us feel worse.

To dramatically reduce the stress you might currently be experiencing thanks to an overdose of worrying, try these science-backed strategies.

Tip one: Dedicate time to worrying

Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive, but there is science behind it.

Psychologists in the field of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy recommend a strategy called Stimulus Control. The strategy involves noting down any worries that pop into your mind during the day, and then setting aside time to actually dedicate to worrying. Ideally, this time is in the same location and same time of day, every day.

Research conducted by Sarah Kate McGowan from the University of Illinois and Associate Professor Evelyn Behar found that 30 minutes per day of Stimulus Control reduced stress levels significantly over a two week period.

One explanation as to why this technique has been shown to work effectively is due to “increased stimulus specificity”. For worriers who indiscriminately worry about things throughout the day, many things can acts as triggers. Certain environments, people, images, words – anything, really – can trigger stressful thoughts. But when we confine our worrying to a specific time of day, location and length of time, we start to narrow our triggers.

In a research study I led through my year-long project My Year of Better with a sample of over 300 people, Stimulus Control lead to a huge 15 per cent reduction in worrying over the course of just one week. Based on the data, all it took was a brief (five to 10 minute) session a handful of times per week, done in any location and any time of day.

So if you are looking to significantly decrease stress in your life, make a note of your worries, and dedicate five to 10 minutes a few times a week spending time thinking about them.

Tip two: Lock yourself out of sites that trigger stress

Let’s face it: checking your local news website is going to make you stressed right now.

Yet many of us are compulsively checking for updates and hitting refresh every few minutes. This is doing no one (other than the media companies) any good.

However, simply telling yourself to check the news less often is futile, thanks to willpower being a limited resource. While this may work for you in the morning, our willpower depletes over the course of the day and come the afternoon, you’ll probably be back hitting refresh while biting your fingernails in response to what you are reading.

Check out website blocking software such as Freedom.to and program it to block you out of news websites for the majority of the day. And when you do check the news, set a timer to limit the amount of time you spend on the site.

Tip three: Perform a kind act

If you have been scrolling through your social media feed in the last few weeks, you’ll probably have read about many acts of kindness that are being performed. And by joining in the fun, you’ll actually reduce stress.

Professor Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia lead research into the impact of people performing six small, kind acts per week for four weeks. She found that happiness increased almost three-fold within the first week. From there, the increase was sustained for the remaining three weeks. People’s satisfaction with relationships in their life also increased significantly.

So to tone down your stress levels, book in time to worry, block yourself out of news sites, and perform a kind act or two this week.