Mind Tricks to Beat Stress

Mind over matter? Zap a negative thought process, stat, with tips to outsmart stressful moments

Photo: Woman at work desk massaging her temples

Combatting stress is an internal battle that can take all of the mind power you can muster. Tame stressful situations by turning your negative thoughts into powerful thoughts by using these tips and tricks.

Self-compassion. Showing yourself the same compassion you'd give a friend or relative can not only help you beat stress in the moment but also avoid becoming more stressed in the future, says Juliana Breines, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in health psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. "It's the opposite of beating yourself up emotionally," Breines says. Practice self-compassion by writing yourself a letter as if you were talking to a friend or relative, with positive, caring language. You can also place your hand on your heart while thinking compassionate thoughts. "It sounds a little new age-y, but I find it powerful," Breines says. "You send yourself well wishes." Self-compassion will also motivate you to tackle stressful situations head on and feel less threatened in future stressful moments.

Give stress a positive spin. Like self-compassion, positive cognitive reframing, or restructuring, is all about turning negative thoughts into positive, empowering ones, Breines says. "It's reducing that sense of threat, which is what really sends these signals to our body to have a flight or fight response," she says. If your automatic response to a stressful situation is self-criticism or doubt, challenge yourself to see the situation in a positive light. Does your boss really think you do a terrible job because they asked you to make lots of changes to your report? Instead, think of your boss's feedback as a sign that they care about the quality of your work and want you to succeed.

Laughing and smiling. Laughter fights the physical signs of stress, Breines says. It helps lower your heart rate, dry up your sweaty palms and stabilize your shallow breathing. Comic relief can also relieve the mind as well as the body. A study in the American Journal of Medical Sciences found that laughter wards off your body's hormonal response to stress. Try to find the humor in life when you're stressed to snap yourself out of a negative thought spiral. Smiling outwardly can also have the same effect on physical signs of stress, and it can even cue yourself to "smile" inwardly, according to a study entitled "Grin and Bear It" published in Psychological Science. People who were forced to smile felt more positive and relaxed than those who weren't smiling.

Thinking about nature. Thinking about nature first thing in the morning can help you start your day on a good note. If you're feeling stressed during the day and you can't head outdoors, picture yourself in a natural setting. Take two minutes to think of relaxing place, Breines says, or to really help you visualize, keep images of nature nearby, like on your computer desktop.

Loving kindness meditation. This form of meditation can calm you down and improve how you react to stress in the future, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. Breines says it can help you practice self-compassion as well as compassion for others. Your thoughts are focused solely on sending out kind, loving thoughts, about yourself and even about people who are stressing you out. Picture yourself or the other person happy and smiling and think about your or the other person's positive traits. "Having a daily practice of it helps, even if you didn't go through a horrible experience that day," she says. "It involves visualizing so it's not just about the language, it's about the feeling of warmth and caring."