When it comes to quelling stress, there are dozens of research-backed remedies. But the most effective treatment is always going to be the one you can stick with, says Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“Managing stress is not like taking antibiotics, where you take all the medication and then you’re done and cured,” Cohen says. “It’s a lifelong process, so you have to find something you can engage in regularly and indefinitely.” Even if every stress expert agreed that daily meditation is the optimal form of treatment—and that kind of consensus isn’t farfetched—it wouldn’t do you much good unless you could muster the time and self-discipline to practice on a daily basis. For a lot of people, that’s never going to happen.
Fortunately, in terms of its therapeutic power, meditation may not require a quiet room—just a quiet mind.
When you’re stressed, your brain races from thought to thought, and these thoughts tend to be anxious and infused with dread, Cohen explains. Maybe you’re freaking out about a work deadline or a family member’s declining health. The most effective stress remedies disperse those rapid, worry-filled thoughts by focusing your mind on the present, not on some calamitous future, Cohen says.
Meditation is a popular stress remedy because it’s all about this kind of mind-anchoring. But if you’re able to achieve that calm, quiet state of mind while running or weeding your garden, then either will be beneficial. One 2015 study from Dutch researchers compared physical activity to mindfulness meditation, and found them to be equally effective at managing stress. Even washing dishes can alleviate anxiety—provided your attention is focused on the task at hand.
On the other hand, research shows your gym session or yoga practice won’t chill you out if your brain is preoccupied with work or family problems while you’re doing them. “They’re still healthy practices, they’re just not beneficial in terms of stress,” Cohen says.
So what’s your best course of action? First, check out mindfulness meditation. There’s compelling evidence to suggest it really is the antidote to our frenetic, future-focused way of life, Cohen says. Even if you don’t stick with it, the stuff you’ll learn can inform everything else you do—from preparing presentations at work to planting flowers in your garden.
At the same time, regular exercise bolsters your psychological health in myriad ways. “The ideal stress treatment would be to have both exercise and mindfulness on board in your life, not one or the other,” Cohen says.
A third weapon in your anti-stress arsenal is nature. Spending time on wooded trails or in other natural outdoor environments—any place away from man-built stuff like streets or buildings—appears to trigger an immediate drop in stress, says Tytti Pasanen of the University of Tampere in Finland. More research shows just looking at photos of nature is enough to mellow you out.
As you might expect, combining exercise with natural outdoor environments seems to be especially great at combating stress, Pasanen’s research shows. “I would advise regular physical activity in nature, on a weekly basis if possible,” she says.
Mindfulness practices. Exercise. Nature. Combine all three, and your stress won’t stand a chance.