The thing is, most people are all still super stressed. And according to a 2017 study from the American Psychological Association, as a whole, Americans are becoming increasingly more stressed. Obviously, something has to change about our stress-fighting tactics, says New York City-based therapist Kathryn Smerling. You have to find what works for you, and know that it’s OK if it’s different than what works for someone else, she says.
[See: 10 Ways to Break a Bad Mood.]
To that end, we scoured research journals and talked to experts to find eight wacky, albeit science-backed, ways to de-stress.
1. Sniff your romantic partner.
Feel stress coming on like the flu? Try smelling a partner’s shirt, sock or chest. As weird (or gross) as it sounds, new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology from the American Psychological Association shows that women feel less stressed after smelling their partner, even in their absence.
For the study, researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, recruited 96 heterosexual couples and asked the women to smell a shirt that was clean or had been worn by either their partner or a male stranger for a full 24 hours (without deodorant or scented body products). Immediately afterward, women underwent a mock job interview as well as a mental math exam, both intended to stress them out.
Then, they got sniffing. When women recognized their partner’s scent, they reported feeling less stressed, and their levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased. However, when they smelled the scent of a stranger, their mental and physical stress levels increased. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol spiked, indicating a fight-or-flight response.
For the study, the researchers had the men wear the shirts (because they are naturally smellier), but it would likely also work the other way around, with men smelling out their partners, says the study’s lead author Marlise Hofer. She even suggests that people leave items of clothing with each other during any periods of separation, like travel, that the couple finds stressful.
2. Get a fish.
Ever zoned out in front of an aquarium, watching the seaweed sway back and forth as the fish float aimlessly in what feels like a moment of complete Zen? If so, you’re not alone. One 2015 study published in Environment and Behavior found that looking at fish in a tank can induce a feeling of serious calm.
For the study, researchers examined participants’ behavioral, physiological and psychological reactions to the marine madness to see if it was as stress-busting as naturally occurring ecosystems. After five minutes, participants enjoyed lower blood pressure levels as well as a self-reported boost in mood. Opportunities for engaging with nature, even in man-made settings, may be key in helping urban populations get the benefits of connecting with natural environments, says Deborah Cracknell, the lead researcher at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, England.
Worried about the upkeep of a mini aquarium? While the stress-reducing effect was more significant when the aquarium was full of fish, researchers suggest that just looking at fishless tank with artificial seaweed may also do the job.
3. Buy a houseplant.
When it comes to decorating your home, spending a little green on green can go a long way in fighting stress. For example, in a 2017 Complementary Therapies in Medicine study, when women looked at fresh-cut red roses for just three minutes, their brain and body’s sympathetic fight-or-flight activity dropped, and they also reported better moods. In an earlier related study, scientists suggested that this is because we have evolved to connect receiving flowers and plants with gift-giving and receiving.
Meanwhile, a 2014 review published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that exposure to plants can fight stress and depression. Several different species of plants were included in the studies, but golden pothos, arrowhead vine and Chinese evergreen were among the most popular.
4. Smile (even if you don’t mean it).
The old saying is getting a face-lift. It’s no longer “fake it till you make it.” Now, it’s best to fake it until you’re de-stressed. One 2012 study published in Psychological Science suggests that grinning while you bear it could actually make stress, well, more bearable.
The researchers set out to test whether “positive facial expressions” help during times of stress by having participants undergo stress activities like tracing the outline of a star with their non-dominant hand and plunging their hand into a tub of ice water for a minute. The participants were divided into three different groups as they underwent the task: One group held a Duchenne smile (a smile forced from chopsticks), one group was instructed to smile and the other group was given no instruction at all. The results showed that those who smiled had more positive feelings during the task than those who didn’t smile at all, and that they returned to a normal stress-free heart rate more quickly.
The research suggests that when a situation has you feeling stressed, even the most forced smile may decrease your stress level and make you happier. But if you’re not good at faking it, Smerling suggests calling up your friend who will have you smiling in no time.
5. Look at fractals.
What’s a fractal? Geometrical figures in which similar mathematical patterns occur time and again, but each time in a smaller scale. Fractals occur naturally as seashells, snowflakes, mountains, clouds and tree limbs. But they can also be created in art and architecture, which a team of researchers at the University of Oregon is studying as a means to combat stress.
Lab research shows that in response to viewing fractals, whether in nature or in art, people’s physiological markers of stress significantly decline. That may partially explain why nature is known to be so soothing. However the researchers have also discovered that Jackson Pollock’s paintings are great examples of fractals, and can similarly reduce stress. So, go ahead, add some modern art to your phone’s background.
6. Pet a puppy.
Animal lovers know there’s nothing better than locking eyes with a tail wagging, tongue lolling pet. One 2017 review published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that human-animal interactions reduce psychological distress. Another 2015 study published in Science showed that dogs and humans both have spikes in oxytocin (the love hormone) when they look in each other’s eyes.
Not a dog person? Research published in the journal Gerontology suggests that any animal will do. In the study, 46 older adults were each given five caged crickets to care for. After eight weeks, they experienced significantly better mental health than the participants who didn’t receive crickets.
That means, if dinner parties have you feeling jittery, give yourself permission to play with the pup or cat in the corner. And if you don’t have a pet of your own, Smerling recommends volunteering at an animal shelter, which she says has the added benefit of that accompany volunteer work.
7. Chow down on chocolate.
Thanks to science, our chocolate cravings don’t have to be a bad thing. One study published in the Journal of Proteome Research in 2009 found that eating dark chocolate reduces levels of stress hormones, while another study published in the European Heart Journal in 2010 found that it lowers blood pressure nearly as well as prescription drugs.
Unfortunately, it’s not the sugar and fat content that are to thank, but rather the antioxidants like polyphenols that are in chocolate that have healthful benefits, explains registered dietitian Mary Ellen Phipps, owner of the Houston-based nutrition coaching company Milk & Honey Nutrition. And the darker the chocolate, the more polyphenols it contains.
“There’s no reason to wait until you’re stressed to chow down on chocolate. I recommend that everyone eats 1 ounce of 70 percent cacao chocolate per day to reap the science-backed benefits before stress hits,” she says.
8. Chew gum.
We chomp gum to beat bad breath, but research suggests that we should start chomping to beat stress, too. For example, in a 2012 study published in the journal Appetite, when people underwent stressful tasks while chewing gum, they felt less stressed than those who took on the same tasks sans gum. Interestingly though, the study found that gum chewers had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The findings suggest that rather than actually calming people down, chewing gum triggers heightened brain activity that helps people better cope with the stress they do feel. The researchers believe that this may be, in part, because chewing increases blood flow to the brain.
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