I’m writing this article during pandemic times when many people are finding themselves at a new level of stressed (including myself). I thought we could all use a great list of stress relief tools—many of them easy and completely free.
Some of these stress relief tools may seem familiar, but I wanted to review the science behind them. They’re recommended for a reason.
And even though they make sense, we often forget to include them in the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day activities.
Let this list serve as a reminder that you’ve got a lot of options at your fingertips to help reduce stress. Living with chronic stress does bad things to your mind and body, so make sure you’re taking action to keep your stress levels under control.
I hope you’ll find some good reminders and maybe even some new stress relief tools on this list. Let me know which you plan to start using right away.
This post contains some affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission if you use them (at no cost to you). Full disclosure. Tips are based on personal experience and should not be considered medical advice. Full disclaimer.
Stress Relief Tools and the Science Behind Them
I know, I know—you’re thinking, “Exercise? That sounds like another chore.” I get it; exercise isn’t top of my list either when I think about how to relax. But when I say exercise here, it really means any activity that gets your body moving.
The great thing is you can choose an activity that you like: dancing, gardening, swimming, biking, walking, and more. You don’t have to be an ultramarathoner to see benefits. (Though if running is your thing, more power to you!)
Exercise helps relieve stress by stimulating the release of endorphins, feel-good chemicals in your body that can give you a “high” after exercise. Regular exercise also helps keep your body healthy, which will fight the effects of stress.
Yoga is one of my personal favorites for stress relief. Multiple studies have shown that it has beneficial effects for relieving stress and anxiety. Check out this 7-minute yoga for stress relief and try to tell me you don’t feel a little better.
You don’t have to be a guru to enjoy the beneficial effects of meditation. Meditation is for anyone. It’s simply the practice of letting your mind be still for a bit. When was the last time you can remember your mind being quiet?
If you’re anything like me, anytime my body takes a rest, my mind seems to keep racing. Even when I get my nose out of my phone, I have a constant voice running in my head with thoughts of to-dos, worries, plans, and more. It’s enough to be exhausting!
The constant barrage of thoughts can easily lead to burnout if you don’t get a mental break.
The book 10% Happier (along with my therapist) got me convinced to work meditation into my life, and whenever I practice it regularly, it really does make a difference. Indeed, researchers have found that changes in brain activity in people who have learned to meditate remain even when they’re not actively meditating.
If you’re worried about getting started, like anything these days, there’s an app for it. Actually, there are enough apps to be overwhelming! Some are popular subscription-based services with guided meditations like Calm and Headspace. Insight Timer is a free app available.
There are many more choices, and you can even do it on your own. Learn the basics here.
Did you know that modifying your own breathing pattern can send a message to your brain to calm down? That’s right—there’s science behind why people tell those in distress to breathe more slowly.
Deep breathing turns down your body’s fight-or-flight response and activates its calming response. Your heartbeat will also start to slow to match your breathing. It’s some pretty neat biology, and it just feels good too.
The great thing is you don’t need any equipment at all for breathing exercises, and you can do them whenever you need to.
For stress relief, it’s best to incorporate some breathing exercises into your routine regularly and not just when you’re in a time of panic. They can also be combined with meditation.
One of my favorite stress relief tools is my diffuser that I keep on my bedside table. I can put in some lavender essential oil and practically melt into the sheets.
Aromatherapy has been used since ancient times. Our sense of smell’s strong links to the brain’s emotion center can be seen in the vivid connections between scents and memories.
A number of studies have found aromatherapy beneficial for sleep, depression, stress, and anxiety.
Find what scent is particularly relaxing to you—it may be vanilla, jasmine, or any scent you love. You can also dab a bit on your wrists or carry some with you for whenever you may need it with an essential oil necklace.
“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.” -Groucho Marx
Laughter produces short-term and long-term physiologic effects. Among its many benefits include lowering pulse and blood pressure, boosting endorphins, and cooling down your stress response.
Various studies on laughter in challenging settings such as cancer, psychiatry, rehabilitation, and end-of-life care found positive benefits and virtually no negative side effects.
On top of all the science, laughter just feels good. When is the last time you had a real, deep belly laugh that left you crying? Do you remember how it felt afterwards?
Laughter reminds me of good times with friends. It’s something you do when you’re carefree in the moment and giving in to a purely enjoyable part of humanity.
Try to get some regular opportunities for laughter into your routine. Here are some ideas:
- Skip the news and watch a comedy show instead
- Listen to a comedy podcast
- Read comics
- Check out funny memes or YouTube videos (dogs swimming, anyone?)
- Make funny faces with someone
- Tickle a child and let them tickle you
- Tell someone a joke (they might tell you one in return)
- Try laughter yoga
- Talk with a friend or family member and relive old times
Did you know that humans are the only species that cry from emotions?
You might not have expected crying to be on a list of stress relief tools. But like laughter, there’s something about giving yourself over to your emotions that may help with healing your stressed-out mind and body.
We may be averse to crying as adults, but the alternative of bottling up frustrations and negative feelings can put you on a path to implosion. There are several health benefits of having a good cry.
Research has shown that after some initial energy depletion from the act of crying, criers typically feel better.
Crying is safe and can be done by anyone, so why not let the tears flow from time to time when you’re feeling overwhelmed? See if it’s a tool that might help you in the future.
Touch is a powerful sense that today is often underutilized. Touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, which has been linked to feelings of reward and empathy. The act of touch can convey sympathy, love, gratitude, and other emotions. It’s a basic form of human connection.
Research has shown that holding the hand of a loved one can de-activate stress-related regions of the brain. Further, couples who engage in simple touches such as hand holding and have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of the soothing hormone oxytocin.
These effects are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the wellness benefits of touch. Others include better sleep, lowered blood pressure, and more.
We can become so plugged into our devices or focused on work or the next thing on our to-do list that we forget to connect with others in this most basic way.
Feeling stressed? Slow down for a moment and grab a hug from a loved one. Ask a child to snuggle with you.
Put your hand on your partner’s leg or lean against them while you watch a show together. Hold hands while you go for a walk.
Get a massage from time to time to relieve all the built-up muscle tension in your body.
You can also get some much-needed touch therapy from a beloved animal in your home. Research with dogs, cats, and other furry friends has found positive, stress-reducing effects of physical interactions with animals.
Do you have a four-legged loved one in your home? Sit down and pet them for 10 minutes a day to give you both some relaxing touch.
I’ve written elsewhere on the different types of journals and the benefits of journaling. This includes my own experience with starting journaling as a total beginner in 2019. See what I learned after just 30 days.
According to mental health professionals, journaling can help manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression.
My therapist recommends gratitude journaling to help shift to a more positive mindset. For the overstressed, the simple act of documenting things you’re grateful for each day can bring a new perspective.
For those plagued by a constant swirl of thoughts, journaling can be a great release. You might find you better understand your own emotions when putting them down on paper.
Getting rid of negative thoughts by writing them down can be empowering.
I’ve found that some guided journaling can also help you refocus on the things that matter in your life.
See these helpful journal prompts for stress relief.
Journaling can be quite simple. The most important thing is to make it easy on yourself so it will become a habit. Keep your journal somewhere handy where you’ll remember (mine is on my nightstand)
Relax and see if you can make journaling part of your daily ritual.
9. Working With Your Hands
Desk jobs increased 94% from 1980 to 2015, according to CBS News. This means a lot of us aren’t getting to work productively and creatively with our hands for most of the day. (No, typing doesn’t count.)
Practical, physical work has been shown to be effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. It gives your mind a break from its analytical side and allows you to focus on achieving a specific endpoint or product.
While you work with your hands, your mind can rest or wander.
I’ve experienced the stress-relieving properties of handywork myself. I found I got great enjoyment from refinishing old pieces of furniture and painting walls. There was something about putting hours of physical labor into a task and then seeing a finished product.
It wasn’t necessarily the end result that gave the greatest satisfaction—it was the whole process. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.
A great book on the subject is The Creativity Cure. It offers further insights and can help you find a way to incorporate this type of activity into your life.
The activity can be anything you find enjoyable and involves working with your hands. It might surprise you what gives you that special feeling so consider trying a variety of activities. Some ideas include:
- Art (painting, drawing, sculpture, pottery, etc.)
- Knitting or other needlecrafts
- Cleaning (not my cup of tea, but for some, it works)
- Scrapbooking or papercrafts
- Auto repair
- Jewelry making or metalwork
A huge analysis of studies found that listening to music reduces stress and improves the body’s immune system function. It decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosts immune cells. Pretty cool, right?
In fact, one study found listening to music to be more effective than medication at reducing anxiety before surgery. It’s powerful stuff.
Relaxing and listening to calming music for 45 minutes can help induce sleep. I’m getting sleepy just thinking about it.
You’ve likely experienced the relaxing effects of music before, but it’s not something we remember to put into practice regularly.
For best results, pick music that’s relaxing to you. Personally, I love listening to the sounds of ocean waves.
There are plenty of free apps or YouTube channels to get yourself some relaxing tunes.
Music can also be combined with meditation or another quiet activity like journaling or aromatherapy.
11. Playing Video Games
I had to include this last one on the list of stress relief tools because of a recent personal experience during the pandemic. In my adult life, I’d shrugged off video games as a waste of time. The rest of my family had played them for enjoyment, but I could never be bothered. (Or they made my head spin like Minecraft.)
Then the pandemic happened, and I started to come unraveled. Being trapped in the house with four kids, a husband, and two dogs week after week was a totally new experience that had me stressed to the max. It felt like there was no escape from constant chores.
One day, my teenager convinced me to try his video game Animal Crossing New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch. To my surprise, I have found it so relaxing.
It gives me a little slice of enjoyment every day and something to look forward to. There’s no real risk or pressure, and I can play around in a happy little idyllic village with cute animals and fruit trees.
There may be a difference in effects between casual, relaxing games and intense or violent games. Casual games can be played for a short amount of time and resumed later; they don’t require a large time commitment.
You don’t have to buy a video game console—even free apps like Bejeweled can work.
Like almost anything, it is possible to overdo it. If you’re using video games for so much of an escape that it starts to negatively affect your life or other responsibilities, then that’s a problem.
But for the casual user, they may just offer a helpful break. You might not want to be as quick to write off video games as I originally was.
Incorporating Stress Relief Tools Into Your Life
I hope this list of stress relief tools has inspired and not overwhelmed you. Please don’t try to check off every box on the list tomorrow. Think of these items as tools in your tool belt going forward.
Was there just one thing on this list that you might like to try tomorrow? Focus on that.
Feel free to come back to the list and revisit the items. Over time, you can aim for a variety of these tools used regularly in your life.
Most of them are simple to start and completely free.
My list is by no means an exhaustive list. You might start out on a journey of personal exploration that leads you to other stress relief tools that work great for you.
The whole point is to recognize when your body and mind are under stress and to do something about it. A constant barrage of stresses can really weigh you down, and you don’t want to end up in burnout.
Please take some time for you regularly to beat down those stress monsters in your life. Arm yourself with stress relief tools to promote mental and physical wellness.
Wishing you well!