As you unfurl your long to-do list, you instantly feel overwhelmed. And with all of your unanswered emails and endless responsibilities, you worry it would take weeks on a tropical island to ease your stress. While it’s easy to think “more is better” when it comes to relieving stress—that you need to devote ample time to anxiety-busting strategies—research suggests the brain can dial down tension and boost bliss in mere minutes.
“Rather than making an unrealistic time commitment to stress relief, focusing on little adjustments throughout the day enhances our well-being the fastest, according to neuroscience,” confirms psychotherapist Heidi Schreiber-Pan, Ph.D., author of Breaking the Anxiety Cycle.
Another perk of mini stressbusters is they reduce the hidden pressure women tend to put on themselves to relax in specific, culturally prescribed ways, adds psychotherapist Sally Stevens, LCSW, founder of Anchor Yourself Wellness. “For example, I have a client who feels like a failure if she doesn’t get to yoga class three times a week,” she says. “But we have to find more sustainable ways to relax on our terms, in small chunks, rather than waiting for our batteries to be drained.”
Read on for simple ways to take common stress-reducing strategies—from journaling to meditating to exercising—and trim them down to minutes so you can reap their calming rewards and increase your everyday joy…fast.
INSTEAD OF A VACATION…
TAKE A ONE-DAY BREAK
As you look at your friend’s Instagram, her vacation photos pop up, and you wish you could take a trip yourself. I can’t get away for an entire week, you sigh. “The brain needs something to look forward to about every three months to avoid burnout,” says Stevens. “But it doesn’t need to be one long vacation—shorter breaks still have a big impact on well-being.”
Simply shifting your mindset to think of your weekend as a vacation slashes stress. In fact, one study showed that when people treated their weekend as a proper mini getaway by, say, banning chores and sleeping in, they were happier and more productive when they returned to work. Also smart: Consider supersizing a few of your weekends by just one day. A recent survey showed 87% of us believe a long weekend is more restorative than a week off. Says Stevens, “Looking forward to shorter but more frequent breaks makes you feel more ‘time-rich’ because it gives you back a sense of control over your schedule.”
INSTEAD OF JOURNALING…
TEXT ‘BEST MOMENTS’
You know journaling decreases stress by letting us express ourselves and savor gratitude. Yet, try as you might to put pen to paper, life has a way of getting in the way. You’re not alone: Less than 10% of us journal regularly, in part because of the perceived time commitment.
Reap all the benefits of journaling with your phone, suggests researcher Michelle Gielan, author of Broadcasting Happiness. “I send my husband a ‘best moments’ text each evening describing three to four quick highlights of the day, be it a hug from our daughter or playing pickleball with our son,” she reveals. “Journaling feels overwhelming, but this 2-minute habit is easy. It reorients the brain away from the anxieties of the day to the good stuff.” Indeed, texts are often more powerful than longer journal entries because they focus the mind on clear memories that are easier to savor over the long-term.
INSTEAD OF GOING TO THE GYM…
‘HABIT STACK’ SMALLER MOVES
While a good workout helps you sweat out stress, the last thing you want to do after a long day is trudge to the gym. I just don’t have time to exercise, you tell yourself. Says Stevens, “Scheduling a workout on top of everything else you do takes a lot of ‘cognitive labor,’ and becomes even harder the more tired you are.”
Consider “habit stacking” shorter but just as impactful bursts of movement into your routine, urges Stevens. “A staggering 40% to 50% of our day is done out of unconscious habit,” she says. “So pairing something you already do, like brushing your teeth, with a new activity, like taking a few deep breaths afterward or doing a few leg lunges, helps you cement new habits without draining your time.” In fact, sprinkling your day with short but numerous activities, like walking for a couple of minutes every hour, rather than doing one long exercise routine, is shown to help keep stress at bay and ease tension levels throughout the day.
INSTEAD OF MEDITATING…
TAP MOMENTS OF ‘GREEN CALM’
Grounding yourself by breathing deeply or focusing on the present moment tames anxiety and increases joy. It sounds wonderful, but between your hectic mornings and just-as-busy evenings, you worry you don’t have time to just “be still.”
If you find meditation too hard to stick with, look to the benefits of brief but profound “green mindfulness,” suggests Schreiber-Pan. “I’ve spent a lot of time researching the optimal ‘dose’ of nature, and our studies show spending just 10 minutes in green spaces is one of the most potent ‘medicines’ for anxiety,” she says, explaining that everything from the fresh air to the serene landscape helps defuse the fight-or-flight instinct that’s on constant overload in our modern world. What’s more, simply listening to birdsong is proven to stimulate production of the calming neurotransmitter dopamine. In fact, the more senses you involve, the better, as focusing on what you can see, smell, touch and hear helps your mind come back to the “now,” boosting everything from your mood to your sense of self-efficacy to the generosity you feel toward others—all in mere minutes! ■