13 Free and Effective Ways to Manage Your Stress Right Now

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Chronic stress and anxiety pose threats to your health. Chronic stress has been linked to many serious conditions and been shown to depress immune function — and none of us needs that.

We’ve put together a list of 13 things you can do to cope. None of these things cost money, and you can do them all at home (or at least in your neighborhood).

13 Ways to Manage Your Stress and Find Calm on Your Own

The next time you’re feeling swept up in counterproductive thoughts, try one of these tactics.

1. Take a Few Deep Breaths

If you’re like most people, you probably respond to feelings of emotional distress by taking shorter, shallower, more rapid breaths. This means your body gets less oxygen, which in turn affects your ability to think clearly and function — and that can exacerbate that tangle of emotions.

Taking a few deep breaths will replenish your body’s oxygen supply, and as a bonus, give you a few moments to pause, which can also help you calm down.

When you feel yourself getting stressed out, stop and breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, then exhale through pursed lips. Do this several times until you feel yourself settle.

Several variations of this exercise exist, so play around until you find something that works best for you.

2. Try a Grounding Technique

If stress and anxiety are threatening to overwhelm you, try one of these grounding techniques. They work by pulling you away from your anxiety-producing thoughts, most of which either dwell on the past or ruminate on the future, and bringing you back into the present.

An easy one to remember is the “five senses” technique. Here’s how you do it: Stop for a moment and think about what all of your five senses are experiencing.  What do you hear? What are you smelling? What do you feel on your skin? What do you see? What do you taste?

3. Limit Your Time Online

Many researchers have found a strong connection between heavy screen time and a higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression.

This is not an argument for complete abstinence from using social media, smartphones and the internet, by the way. These things can bring great value to our lives.

However, even good things can be bad for us if we don’t put limits on our consumption, so if you find that being online is causing you a lot of stress, put some parameters in place.

One option is to give yourself an hour to check in the morning and in the evenings. Another option is to institute no-phone hours after a certain time. A third option is to turn off your phone’s alerts and notifications.

None of those work for you? Here are seven other ideas.

A woman takes photos of birds in the water at a park overlooking a bay at sunrise in Florida.
The sun rises at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg, Fla. There are plenty of places to watch a sunrise or sunset while practicing social distancing. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

4. Spend Time in Nature

Sometimes the cure for what ails you is right outside your front door.

Researchers have found that spending time in nature can reduce anxiety, stress and depression. It seems to reduce cortisol, which is released in response to stress, and is associated with less activity in the prefrontal cortex — aka the area of the brain that’s active when you’re engaged in repetitive, negative thinking.

City dwellers, we still have good news for you: Researchers found that listening to calming outdoor sounds or looking at trees and other greenery can have the same effect as spending time in nature.

So fire up a playlist of ambient ocean sounds, gaze at some photos of forests and feel your stress slowly melt away.

5. Write Your Feelings Down

Journaling is one of the most common strategies for dealing with mental health challenges, and for good reason. Researchers say writing down your feelings can help you make better sense of them. Instead of rushing around in a confusing whirl of stimuli, the feelings become understandable, clearer and easier to manage.

Want to try this out but not sure where to start? Here are seven good prompts to try.

6. Meditate

Meditation has gotten a lot of press in recent years as a one-size-fits-all solution for everything from a lack of focus to anxiety to boosting your productivity.

What makes meditation so potent is that it helps you develop awareness of your own thoughts, which is the first step to being able to manage them more effectively. If you can catch yourself getting carried away by your anxiety-producing thoughts, then you’ll be better able to redirect them in ways that are more productive.

So you want to try meditation but you’re not sure where to begin? Try one of these seven cheap or free meditation apps. Make an effort to meditate at least once a day for a few days.

7. Drink Some Water

Feeling anxious? Stop what you are doing, pour yourself a glass of water and drink it down.

Researchers have found that drinking water can lower a person’s stress and anxiety levels. Our bodies are primarily made of water, and when we’re dehydrated, we don’t function as well as we could.

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8. Learn a New Skill

Learning a new skill can occupy your brain so thoroughly that it leaves little room for the rumination that can lead to anxiety and stress.

Researchers have found that learning a new skill can be a great buffer against workplace stress, and that holds true in our day-to-day life as well.

So by committing yourself to learning how to play a new instrument, do carpentry or knit, you’ll boost your mental health too. That’s a definite win-win!

9. Reach Out to Friends and Family

Tight social relationships — and the cooperation and resource-sharing that come with them — are how we’ve survived this long as a species.

The health risks of loneliness are well-known by this point: Isolation can suppress your immunity, lead to greater inflammation of your internal organs and leave you vulnerable should you face a crisis and need help.

Thanks to technology, we have a lot of ways to stay connected. Set up a group chat with a group of friends and exchange funny memes. Schedule video chats with friends and family members.

Or you could just pick up the phone.

10. Work Out

Exercise flushes your body with endorphins, which are the hormones that make you feel good.

You don’t have to go to a gym to work out.  All you need is a bit of space, and you can do a full bodyweight workout. You can do yoga, or even go for a walk, which is probably the most underrated form of exercise.

Find something you like doing, and do it at least three or four times a week. What you end up doing doesn’t matter as much as being consistent.

Pro Tip

Here’s how to make weights and other workout gear at home.

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11. Declutter Your House

It doesn’t matter whether you’re KonMari-ing or Swedish death cleaning — the mental health benefits of decluttering are well documented. It’s hard to feel restful and at ease in a house filled with clutter.

Start taking some time each day to deal with clutter. This can mean setting up a new organizational system or shoving a bunch of junk in a box in the garage until you feel like dealing with it.

As the clutter vanishes from sight, your home will become calmer and more restful.

12. Create a Schedule

Establishing a daily routine will help you prioritize the things you need to take care of yourself, while also removing the need to make decisions from scratch. (Decision fatigue is real.)

Take some time to create a schedule for yourself and your family, and then do your best to stick with it.

13. Get Enough Sleep

Sleep and stress are intimately connected. If you are stressed out, you can’t sleep. If you can’t sleep, you’re more prone to becoming stressed out because your ability to cope is depleted. It’s a nasty cycle that can be hard to break.

If you’re struggling to sleep at night, try these tricks:

  • No screen time for an hour before bed.
  • Limit your caffeine intake earlier in the day.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before you go to bed.
  • Exercise during the day.
  • Write down what’s bothering you.

Still lying awake in the dark? Try one of these free or cheap apps to help you sleep.

Caitlin Constantine is a former editor for The Penny Hoarder.