If you’re like 99 percent of the rest of the population, you could do with a little less stress in your life. One solution is to take actions that help you balance levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Many people think of cortisol as “bad.” In fact, cortisol is absolutely essential for life and you would die without it. Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland to help you cope with stress by freeing fuel stores to provide energy when blood sugar gets low.
However, when stress becomes an all-the-time thing, cortisol becomes unnecessarily elevated, which has many negative effects on the body, including fat gain around the abdominal area, junk food cravings, poor athletic performance, anxiety, illness, allergies, GI problems, and low mood, among others.
Typically, we recommend sensible actions that can help manage stress and decrease cortisol. But the reality is that sometimes you just need a little relief. Meditation, abstaining from alcohol, and skipping caffeine just aren’t on the agenda. Fortunately, there are a number of everyday activities that are legitimately fun and can help lower cortisol for real life stress reduction.
Humor and the laughter that it produces have powerful effects on mood, productivity, and stress. Studies show that when people view funny videos that make them laugh out lout cortisol is significantly reduced.
Tip: Don’t let yourself get sucked into deep procrastination with prolonged internet browsing—the best breaks are easy to engage and disengage from, so instead of randomly browsing Youtube cat videos, watch your very favorite really funny video.
#2: Play A Game
Playing computer games, whether it’s solitaire, Pokémon Go, or Tetris can positively affect both stress and creativity, significantly lowering cortisol and improving hormone balance.
Tip: Play for a set period of time instead of bingeing on your favorite game. After all, you don’t want to create more stress for yourself by indefinitely putting off other important tasks!
#3: Do The Little Things
You know how when you have a massive to do list and you want to start with the hardest things first, but then you end up procrastinating until you’re practically tearing your hair out from the stress of it all?
In this situation, try the 2-minute rule: If it takes less than 2 minutes, then do it now.
It’s surprising how many things you can cross off your list: Writing checks, washing your dishes, taking out the trash, putting in the laundry, sending that one email, texting your mom back, etc. Best of all, the 2-minute rule gets the ball rolling and gives you momentum so that in no time you’ve lowered your stress level and gotten a bunch of stuff done.
Tip: Include even the little things on your to do list. It may seem silly, but being able to physically cross off half your list after a little concerted effort can lower your stress level exponentially.
#4: Go For A Walk Outside
The Japanese conceived of the practice of “forest bathing,” which they called shinrin-yoku, after research found that when people walked in a cedar forest their cortisol and blood pressure were lower. It’s not just the quiet, relaxing atmosphere of hiking that does it. Trees and plants actually emit aromatic compounds that have therapeutic benefits and can offer relief for many stress-related disorders including anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
Tip: Not everyone has the privilege of living near a cedar forest but research shows that any kind of outdoor physical activity can fight stress. Simply taking a 10-minute walk outside can lower cortisol and have a positive effect on productivity.
#5: Gossip With Friends
Although spending a few minutes on Facebook may give you a nice shot of dopamine for a brief feel good moment, face to face social interaction is going to have more positive effect on your experience of stress. You can still keep the conversation light and intriguing, but human connection has key cortisol lowering benefits that social media doesn’t.
Tip: Give a hug or a massage. Human touch has a powerful anti-stress affect, not only lowering cortisol but also raising the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
#6: Train Outside
Sometimes taking a break from your disciplined gym workout is a great way to get out of a training rut and lower stress simultaneously. Training outside is one surefire way to have lower post-workout cortisol levels and a higher mood. Researchers suspect that the direct sunlight exposure may play a role.
Tip: It’s okay to sometimes be spontaneous with workouts. For example, strongman exercises such as pushing your car up a hill, tire flips, farmer’s walk or other heavy carries with a sandbag or dumbbells are a great way to get in a good workout in the sunshine.
#7: Use Essential Oils
Essential oils that have been extracted from plants have the ability to lower cortisol in the same way that a walk through the forest would. Simply applying bergamot, peppermint, or cedar oil to your wrists or palms can mimic the biological changes induced when you smell aromatic compounds that are released from trees and plants.
Tip: Essential oils come in small vials and can be carried with you in your purse, briefcase, or gym bag to conveniently help you fight stress whenever it takes you by surprise.
#8: Play With A Pet
Most of the research into stress and human-animal interaction has found that it decreases cortisol for your pet, but recent research shows it can give you stress relief too. Not only will petting your dog or cat lower cortisol, it increases oxytocin and has cardiovascular and mental health benefits that may increase longevity and well being.
Tip: Talk your boss into letting you take your dog to work. Research shows people can maintain productivity due to better mood and sense of well being even if they devote less time to work tasks.
#9: Listen To Music
Not only can listening to your favorite jams increase exercise performance, it also accelerates recovery and can have a calming effect on the brain, lowering cortisol.
Tip: Match your music to your goal. Obviously, intense workouts need fast, motivating music, whereas stress reduction is best achieved with pleasurable, relaxing music that makes you smile.
#10: Take Vitamin C
In addition to helping clear cortisol after exercise, vitamin C can reduce fatigue that is associated with chronic stress. In Korean office workers who took a large dose of 10 grams of vitamin C, oxidative stress, which is thought to underlie exhaustion, was significantly lower.
Tip: You can meet the RDA for vitamin C by eating leafy greens daily, but to achieve the cortisol-lowering dose used in the exercise study, you’d need 16 servings of vitamin C-rich foods a day. Therefore, supplementing with a buffered vitamin C is recommended for maximal absorption.
Bonus: Eat Anti-Stress Foods Instead of Refined Carbs
There are many delicious foods that can help lower cortisol and give you the “comfort” you need when you’re stressed. Dark chocolate, salmon, almonds, and Greek yogurt have all been shown to lower cortisol in scientific studies. On the other hand, it’s important to avoid refined and processed foods that have the double whammy of increasing cortisol and triggering food intake so that you overshoot your energy needs.
Tip: Avoid these 10 foods that raise cortisol in favor of the delicious anti-stress foods listed here.