10 Simple and Quick Tips For Stress Relief


Recently, a reader emailed me to ask the following:

Hi Gena,

I notice that you always find ways to stay healthy despite chaotic student schedules. I am in the midst of finals week in college and I have been so bad in the nutrition department… I am not as bad as some other college students, but I am certainly in need for some advice.

Do you have any simple tips that I can use to either destress or survive? I know I should eat veggies and fruits for snacks and meditate/deep-breathing, but do you know anything else?

I smiled when I saw this email, because at first the idea of me doling out stress management advice felt akin to a toddler giving out driving instructions. Stress management is hardly my forte; I think I did an OK job at some moments of my post-bacc, but stress got the better of my health (emotional and physical) more often than I’d have liked in the last three years, especially this past spring.

Still, sometimes it’s better to get advice from someone who is herself challenged in a particular arena, rather than an “expert” who has it all together. I haven’t figured out the key to destressing, but I do have some tips, which I hope will feel doable/realistic to you. One of the things I find frustrating about most stress management advice is that it presumes a little more open time and space than a lot of people have. Depending on your work lifestyle demands–student, professional, full time parent–you may find that you can only dedicate a little time/effort to managing stress each day, if any. That’s OK. Let’s look at a few easy tactics than can improve the quality of your life, no matter how busy you are. Some of these are very simple, others a little more comprehensive, so take what you need and ignore what you don’t.

1. On a very hectic day, take five minutes to breathe deeply. My breath gets very shallow when I’m stressed out, which can increase anxiety and give me tension headaches. Deep breathing (right into the belly, as I’ve learned in yoga) helps immeasurably. If you can’t do this for a full five minutes, that’s OK. Even a minute can make a difference. During my post-bacc, and back in the days when I would fret about presentations at work, I sometimes escaped to the nearest ladies room for just one minute of meaningful breath. I always returned feeling more focused than I had been before.

2. Yoga. I can’t do justice to how profoundly yoga has helped me manage stress and tension (in addition to everything else it has given me: strength, healing, better digestion, community, fun). I personally get a lot out of practicing in a studio environment, in part because I like the company. If you’re a student, many colleges offer yoga classes on campus; if you can’t do that, check out student deals at nearby studios, or do an internet search to see what yoga might be free for you in your hometown. DC has a ton of free outdoor yoga, especially in the summer, including Wednesday night classes at 6 pm in Dupont Circle.


Of course, one can’t always reserve 60-90 minutes for yoga. This is where home practice can be a life saver. You can simply flow through your favorite asanas at a pace that works for you, or you can download a video/audio guided practice. Yoga Download has a huge range of affordable and excellent classes of every kind, ranging from 10-90 minutes in duration, and YogaGlo is also a great resource; it features classes with world renowned instructors (like Tiffany Cruikshank and Kathryn Budig) for a reasonable monthly cost. It’s my go-to exercise when I travel!


3. B-vitamin. Take one. Your body burns through B-vitamins when you’re stressed, and of course vegans already need to be vigilant about taking adequate B-12. Deva and Country Life vitamins are vegan.

4. Think about the way you exercise. Intense and extended cardiovascular exercise, including running, can elevate cortisol, which may already be elevated if you’ve been stressed out. Cortisol, often referred to as a “stress hormone,” is released by our adrenals in response to stressful situations; it elevates blood glucose levels, which can in turn give us energy (this is why it’s release is associated with the “fight or flight” response–it readies our body to deal with a threatening situation).

Cortisol is essential for our survival, but chronically elevated cortisol levels have been associated with weight gain and inflammation. If you’re already on the stressed or anxious, you may want to consider forms of movement that aren’t associated with elevated cortisol, such as power walking with music you love (or a friend!), yoga, pilates, rebounding, or dance.

If running, spinning, biking, or any other cardio activity actually helps you to de-stress, then by all means, continue! You know your body best. But don’t feel pressure to keep up with very rigorous exercise if you’re already edgy. In the two months before the MCAT, running and other high intensity cardio activities made me feel a bit addled, so I stuck to yoga and flipping through flash cards while gently cycling on the elliptical machine. It worked for me.

5. Aromatherapy. Essential oils can be marvelous medicine for stressful times. I like peppermint or eucalyptus oil for when I’m struggling to focus (I bring it to the library, and use it when I’m getting sleepy), sandalwood for when I’m anxious, and lavender both as perfume and as a calming scent right before bed. You can find essential oils online or at a local health food store. I like to put a few drops directly on my wrists and then inhale deeply, but you can also put some drops in hot water and inhale the steam. Be sure to get instructions for using the oil (either on the packaging, from someone who is knowledgable, or by reading the internet carefully), as some can be irritating to the skin, and if you put them on your hands, don’t rub your eyes after!

6. Cook. But cook simply. Having a busy schedule often means less time to cook. In my early working days, I fell into a pattern where I’d spend a few weeks not cooking enough (and relying too much on takeout), then try to break the cycle by cooking all sorts of fancy new recipes.

Try to find a middle ground. Don’t stop cooking altogether, but when you cook, make stuff that’s easy and low maintenance. Batch cook. Simmer a big pot of quinoa while you study at night. Bake a few sweet potatoes as you catch up on assignments or emails. Spend an hour washing and chopping veggies on the weekend, so that you can have them at the ready to throw into big salads through the week. Make a big jar of salad dressing for salads, crudite snacks, and grain bowls. Make sure you have frozen bananas for smoothies.

And don’t think you have to do everything from scratch when you’re short on time. When I’m not going to be home often, I buy a lot of canned, BPA free beans, commercial almond milk, and the occasional tub of hummus or bottle of salad dressing. I love to make this stuff from scratch, but there’s no shame in cutting corners when you’re too busy to do it all.

7. Eat foods that support your body in stressful times. My faves?

Almonds. They have both B vitamins and Vitamin E, which may aid in stress reduction.

Sweet potatoes, turmeric, cinnamon, olive oil, and walnuts. All of these foods have been shown to help reduce inflammation, which rises when the body is under stress.

Dark chocolate. Because it makes me happy.

9. Speaking of happy, when you’re under stress, eat foods that help to keep you to feel comforted. One typical response to stress is that we crave foods that are starchy and filling. A lot of folks try to work against this, doubling up on leafy greens rather than having an extra bite of potato. I tend to feel better when I work with cravings, rather than against them, especially if I’m overwhelmed. In the weeks before the MCAT, I was (of course) craving a lot of sweet potatoes, rice, avocado toast, and oats. All warm, grounding foods, which helped to make me feel supported as I studied (and worried) the days away.

Obviously, you know what works for you, and I encourage you to eat what will make you feel your best. But if you find that you’re fighting your cravings to a degree that’s creating even more stress, see if you can find ways to eat in harmony with your appetites.


The recipe for this super comforting avo toast+sweet potato combo will be up tomorrow!

10. If you can’t get a lot of sleep, try to get high quality sleep. Turn off your phone, keep the room super dark, and try to be consistent about when you fall asleep and when you wake up. It’s not always possible to get 7-8 hours–sometimes 4-5 is the best we can do–but you can make the hours you get restful and deep.

These are the tips I shared with my reader. Of course, there are plenty of others! I often find that a quick phone call with a loved one is hugely helpful (though you may also need to alone time to refocus). Microbreaks are also high on my list; these can be as simple as a walk around the block (or the library) every few hours, sitting in the sun for five minutes, or listening to a song you love.

Finally, if you feel chronically stressed out or anxious, consider seeking the support of a health care giver whose services may help: a therapist, a nutritionist, a doctor, a naturopath, or an herbalist. Making time for appointments when you’re stressed isn’t always easy, but the returns can be profound. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who has the tools to help you; it can feel lonely to cope with the feeling of being overwhelmed on our own.

I’m flattered that I come across to anyone as healthy no matter how busy, but don’t let blog appearances fool you. I hardly took all of my own advice in the past two years. For every time I took a soothing microbreak or breathed deeply, I also tripled my caffeine consumption, cut back dramatically on sleep, and overcommitted to stuff. Sometimes I chose to worry needlessly when I might have let go. Sometimes I procrastinated rather than getting things done. Sometimes I had that extra cup of coffee and kept myself up late. C’est la vie. Sometimes the best way to deal with being stressed is to heed impulse. And it’s important to realize that, faced with a busy schedule or any other challenge, we can only do so much. Learning to accept our limits, even as we do our best to take care of ourselves, may be the best stress relief of all.

Readers! I’d love to hear your favorite quick and simple ways to de-stress and stay healthy when you’re busy. Please share, and I’ll be back soon,


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  2. Hello Gena,

    your blog is very helpful. However, There are only 9 tips in your blog. Your titile says 10 tips. # 8 is missing in your list.

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  5. As always, I truly appreciate your warmth and honesty Gena! “I hardly took all of my own advice in the past two years.” That sentence made me chuckle out loud because as I was beginning to compose a list of my own stress-relieving activities in my head, I began to take stock of how often I had actually followed my own advice during my first year of medical school! Sigh… That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the need for microbreaks! Many medical students (and those dealing with long hours of mental strain of any kind) are prone to just “push-through.” I can’t tell you how many times I have seen my peers not budge from their library chair for very extended periods of time. At my most stressed, I too, have fallen prey to the trap of feeling like a break is the last thing I need. Yet, in my experience, the immediate benefits of taking a short break are undeniable. I love to take a quick walk outside, climb up a nearby fire escape for sunset viewing, peruse the medical library’s national geographic collection in a comfy chair and listen to some soothing music while laying on the ground outside (or floor if the weather is not permitting). Another tip- I found myself taking more frequent microbreaks when I stopped bringing my snacks and smoothies with me to the library. Taking the time to walk 5 minutes to our student lounge, which is helpfully stocked with fridges for our use, is a great microbreak in itself. I even moved my juicer to school. I enjoy juicing a few times a week and found that I no longer had the time to juice in the mornings once school started up. Revving up the juicer when other students are grabbing snacks has been a fun way to introduce peers to delicious fresh juice.

    • Thanks for sharing, dear Mikaela! It’s nice to hear that you managed to stay sane in your first year…I’ve been thinking of you and cheering you on!

  6. Thank you so much for this Gena! I have been incorporating easy destress methods like deep-breathing and they have been truly helpful! Also thank you for reminding us that we are human and can’t do everything perfectly. As a constant perfectionist myself, I need to constantly remind myself it’s OK to imperfect :). Great post, as always!

  7. These are wonderful tips Gena. I definitely have a lot of the same strategies (I would be lost without my yoga, B-vitamins, almonds and simple meals) but have yet to try aromatherapy! I have some lavender and eucalyptus but now I know I need to try sandalwood- I get ridiculously anxious over the silliest things and am really trying to work on it!

  8. Hi Gena,

    I love these quick stress relief tips. Actually, I’ve been doing several of these activities like yoga and various exercises. Right now, I’m interested in aroma therapy and taking vitamin B-complex. It will surely hep me. Thanks a lot! 😉

  9. I often find that stress itself is self-induced. I can be super busy and really stressed out if I choose to be, or I can choose to know that I have a this stuff to do and once it’s over I can move on. That’s a mental practice that has taken me a long time to develop but I find taking the time to choose your response to stressors does help you find control.

    Not useful, I guess. But I do think adding stress to yourself when you’re already stressed by saying “oh no, I’m eating like garbage right now, I need to do something right now to fix it,” actually adds more stress. Ideally we’d all eat food that nourishes us and keeps us feeling sated and balanced all the time, but sometimes it’s just not feasible or just beyond the realm of what you need to be focusing on right now, so it’s okay to let it go, and do what you can when you can.

    Ps- myyogaonline.com is chock full of Laughing Lotus classes and other amazing teachers. Highly recommended.

    • Useful for sure! I do think that attitude and mental practice is hugely important.

      When are we taking yoga together? Or when are you teaching me? 🙂

      • Any time! I’m basically living at Laughing Lotus these days so get it touch with me when you’re around and free!

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  10. I love that you acknowledge that so many stress reducing strategies are just too time consuming for us super busy people! One favorite tip I got from you, Gena, that isn’t mentioned above, is to spend 15 minutes with a trashy magazine, love it.

  11. Yoga, yoga, yoga! All the time yoga! I read an article stating that doing yoga before test taking is proven to improve item recall. Fascinating!

  12. I agree with the above comment about pets- although i live in a tiny studio apt without pets of my own i volunteer for a cat rescue organization and spending time playing with them or cuddling lower my stress level instantly.

    Seperatly i have found involving all my senses can take me out of a moment of being overwhelmed. A cool shower, scented candle, and supersoft oversized t-shirt can go a long way.

  13. In reference to the breathing tip. I once attended a series of classes at the local college and our instructor recommended deep breathing everyday like this. When you wake up keep your mouth closed and breath in to the count of 8 and totally expand your lungs. Then release the breath through your nose to the count of 8. Both are done very slowly. Do this 15 times each morning and it fills your body and blood with oxygen and sets one right for the whole day. I walk my dog every morning, so this is when I actually do this exercise. I’ve been doing it for 10 plus years.


    I have 3 yoga CD’s that I change up every so often so I don’t get bored. I wake up 30 minutes early so I have time to do it before work.


  14. So many great ideas, Gena! I’ve been saying it for ages, but I REALLY must try yoga. I do meditate, but not consistently enough. And thank goodness for multi B’s!! 😀

  15. Yes! I think this is a pretty damn good list – yoga definitely saved me this year, especially with a foot injury. It made me rethink the stress I was putting of my body for sure. And I basically live by simple, comforting foods. During school this winter I probably had roasted veggies or potatoes every day for a while!

    To add to this list (for me): dance party for one! I love to turn up the music and just rock out and let go – no caring, no judging, singing loudly, just a moment of fun. On that same note, hanging with friends for a coffee break or dinner or something also helps keep me sane.

  16. Mindfulness. Practice it every day. I’ve been following http://www.getsomeheadspace.com for a while now and can’t recommend it enough. Far and away the most practical, down to earth, and approachable mindfulness program I’ve ever found.

  17. I find my “zen” when running – I’m one of those types that hit the gym when stressed. But when I don’t have time to do that, I host a dance party. Just me, my tunes, and I dance like nobody’s watching. Which they aren’t, because I close the door 🙂 Dancing like a 2 year old and acting silly for that precious 3:28 has saved more than one cram session …
    Favourite dance party tunes:
    Nelly Furtado and JT – Promiscuous Girl
    MC Hammer – Hammer Time
    Dipolo – Dipolo Rhythm
    (For the record, the rest of the time the Weakerthans are more my speed …)

  18. Hi Gena! What an encouraging and timely post! I’ve been terribly stressed out recently from living in a new city, taking on two new jobs, and having to effectively communicate with new people daily. I took your advice and set aside 5 minutes to focus on my breathing and it helped tremendously! Being a college student, I’ve come to accept that stress will always be a part of my life and I’ve learned that small momentary changes can be extremely refreshing; for example, after a day of class, if I’m feeling sluggish and all I want to do is lie on the floor instead of get working on an assignment, I’ll change my clothes, brush my teeth, take a shower, maybe rearrange my desk. I find simple changes & tasks can be quite energizing and stress-relieving!

  19. yeah…sometimes people will ask me how i stay focused etc and i’m just like…whoa you have no idea what goes on sometimes behind the scenes. cue: crying into my pillow like i’m a toddler throwing a tantrum.

    yoga download podcasts (20min FTW!) have been a godsend for me as well as trying to eat as uncomplicated as possible. cutting out wine and coffee also seem to help me. i LOVE LOVE LOVE sipping on the bean but i find that i can also get ‘too caffeinated’ very quickly which leads to anxious feelings so sip on matcha instead for a little boost.

  20. These are all terrific tips, and those that I recommend to others seeking counsel too. I actually do find intense exercise de-stressing, regardless of the cortisol raising issue, but I also love the calming elements of yoga. Like you, I’m only marginally successful in following many of these strategies. Of course, eating issues inevitably suffer (reflexively at this point perhaps?) and anything that resembles sitting meditation will not get done. I’ve tried in fits and starts to engage in a regular meditation practice so that it is built into my routine in times of extreme stress, but alas, I always end up convincing myself that “I’m just not the classic meditation type.”

    To that end, this summer I am planning to get trained in TM, with the hope that a more structured form of sitting meditation will help me with my “monkey mind.” I’ve heard from so many friends and colleagues (as well as my 78 year old dad who has been practicing 2 x day since the 1970’s) that it’s a life changer. So, that is a main self development goal for summer 2013.

  21. This post is so great! I’m like an anxiety – stress mindfield! I don’t think I do any of your recommendations apart from exercise so I could definitely take note! I really want to start yoga but I’m intimidated by the idea of doing it (silly I know!)

  22. such a great post Gena. I totally agree that home practice can be a real life saver. I also love about my home practice that I can do quiet, restful poses, or I can do something more vigorous to burn off tension if that’s what I need. <3 yoga

  23. Such wonderful advice. I wholeheartedly agree with all of them!
    I appreciate how honest and real you are about your personal struggles with stress. It’s easy to forget that everyone is dealing with real life. Most of us are putting our best outfits on for the internet party, so to speak. Nobody sees us in our tattered jammies. Pajamas are a great stress reliever…

  24. Great post, Gena! This topic has been on my mind a lot, as I am between school terms right now, and trying to plan ways to be less stressed when classes start up again. I think that not being so hard on myself is going to be the most help. I tend to let myself stress about the messes at my house, the lack of fresh veggies and exercise, and feeling neglectful of my friends and family. I’m working on ways to add self-care time, and bring myself back to reality when I get swallowed up by grad-school obsessive madness. I love your realistic approach and suggestions, and I’m glad you acknowledge that it can be challenging to find even 5 minutes to breathe. I haven’t tried essential oils, but I think it’s a great idea, and will look into adding that to my de-stress tool kit 🙂

  25. This post was just what I needed to read right now. So thank you for sharing your tips. And the one thing that I think can help is to remember ‘This too shall pass’ ( a mantra if you wish) to remind yourself that it wont always be this tough because you have had other periods of life where you can be more relaxed and also to remind yourself to appreciate some of the good stuff that gets buried under the stress because years from now you might wish you had enjoyed them more.

  26. Gena,
    As always, this is a lovely post. You truly are so inspiring!:) When I’m stressed, I lock myself in my room and do yoga and meditation. Then, I take a hot bath. It works every single time as I breathe and wash away my stress. Instead of indulging in former ED related behaviors to get rid of stress, now I pay attention to my breath, my soul and my mind. It is a hard thing to learn to do, but awareness helps me fight stress. If I’m at work or in public, I make sure I eat regularly, but don’t eat foods that don’t agree with me, and if I want a certain food, I eat it and don’t deny myself. I would definitely agree that yoga is one of the best things I have done for my stress. I also love power walking to music for 45 minutes each morning and have been doing so for about 10 years now, without fail every single day. It starts me out on the right foot and gives me energy. THANKS FOR THE INSPIRATION AGAIN!:)

  27. These are great tips Gina, thanks so much for sharing!

    I have wanted to start practicing yoga so the links you sent will really help, especially when I’m traveling or don’t have time to get to a full class.

    One thing that helps with my stress and anxiety is spending time and petting my dog. When I’m really upset or stressed, that’s the only thing that helps. 🙂

    Another way I distress is to turn off all the lights and light some candles. Their flickering somehow relaxes me.

  28. I loved this post! I especially appreciated the points on yoga and moving in a way that respects your body’s (stressed) situation. Sometimes when I’m stressed, the thought of an intense workout just stressed me out more! Of course, there are times when really sweating or pounding the pavement sounds like the perfect remedy, but I think the important thing is to recognize what sounds good to you at the moment and what will serve you both physically and mentally.

    And of course, you hit the nail on the head: “Learning to accept our limits, even as we do our best to take care of ourselves, may be the best stress relief of all.” Thanks for writing about this in such a thoughtful, perceptive way! I am heading into a stressful time (med school in August!), and I know I will have to reference this post, haha!

    Iris @ Anatomy & Intuition

  29. I think the most helpful part of this post is not a single tip but your overall gentle tone. This post is a good reminder to be accepting of ourselves, particularly in times of stress.

  30. Mostly excellent list but I have to say, as an introvert with social-anxiety disorder, that being around people doesn’t necessarily help all people destress. I graduated from uni a year ago and spent about 2 of my 3 years there battling extreme anxiety and crippling depression (both are much more under control now, thanks primarily to having time and energy for proper self-care). After a day surrounded by people in class or at work or at the coffee shop studying, my worst nightmare would have included spending more time talking to others, including those who I love the most in the world. I spent many hours on my couch with my only companions being my cats, my books and my laptop. I just wanted to point out the other side of the story so that people know that it’s ok to recharge alone.

    • Hi there Shady,

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with me (and with us). I certainly didn’t mean to imply that we all have the same needs. I can absolutely relate about needing to recharge alone, and be alone. But I think I was writing this post remembering not the social component of school life, but the solitary element (so many nights studying in my apartment or the library), which sometimes augmented my own anxiety. A great reminder that different environments affect us all in very different ways!


  31. Love these tips, great post Gena!
    Sometimes just reminding myself that I don’t have to do it all, helps immensely. I am going through a rough time right now and I know that to get enough rest, and enable my body to heal I need to scale back and just let some things go for a while. I haven’t been working out regularily for the last month, and I’m ok with that. My body is spending a lot of energy on healing and I know this is not long term. It’s certainly a test in patience, but also a good lesson in honestly listening to my body and doing what’s right for me.

    Spending time with loved ones is huge. Making the effort to sit, relax, and have a good laugh or meaningful conversation with a close friend or family member is so good for the soul.

  32. I’m not saying this to be funny, but smoking pot (which is legal where I live) saved me. I work out regularly and eat a clean, plant-strong diet, but smoking is the only thing that completely de-stresses me when nothing else works.

    If that’s not an option for you, my other recommendation is get yourself a cat. Seriously. Studies have shown that pet ownership greatly reduces stress and, in Alzheimer’s patients, even lowers the level of anxious outburts. One of the most soothing things in my whole world is sipping tea while a snoozing kitty purrs in my lap.

  33. All good tips, but one caveat about essential oils, be very careful applying them neat (undiluted) to the skin. Many can cause skin reactions because of their potency, citrus oils in particular can be problematic because they can heighten photosensitivity.. Most should be diluted with a carrier oil, or alternatively, you can put a few drops on a hankie and carry that with you to sniff as needed. Lavender oil is however one that can usually be applied neat, but be aware of any redness, itching, etc. 🙂

  34. Gena, I love this post! First, they’re such great tips. Some things I do already, others I should do. The phone call to a friend/family member is a great one. And oh my gosh, I’d never give up my evening chocolate!

    But what really resonated with me was the “comfort food” part. Eat foods that comfort you, of course, but maybe not traditional comfort foods. I think often we crave unhealthy (and likely not vegan) foods that were once comforting but now might not actually make us feel good. I too have tried to double up on the greens, only to have it backfire later with a way too big pile of cookies. So great to remember that the extra sweet potato is preferable to the late night cookie attack, that won’t help me sleep and will probably cause more stress, just what I was trying to avoid!

    • Indeed, Laura — sometimes, in trying to be overly controlling with our stress, we end up letting the pendulum swing too far toward foods that don’t support us. Thanks for sharing!

  35. Being a very (sometimes painfully) anxiety-riddled person, it might seem silly for me to give any sort of advice on stress relief. Kind of like how you initially felt when receiving this reader’s question. I’ve found, though–and I think you discovered this about yourself as well–that I’m actually pretty good at helping people de-stress. It’s because I know how painful stress can be; I’ve personally experienced it at very heightened levels.

    With that said, I agree with all your tips. The only one in which I differ from you is the one about exercise. I’m one of those people who gets really powerful stress-relief from cardio. Spinning is like therapy to me!

    To add to your list, I think repeating a mantra can be really helpful. I like to physically tell myself to calm down. I’ll even say my name. “Calm down, Jen.” It might sound corny, but it can be really powerful! “Everything is going to be all right” is also a good one. Again, kind of corny, but don’t knock it ’til you try it! Taking some time to cuddle up and guiltlessly watch a movie or read a good book (one that has nothing to do with school or work) is also helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to do without feeling shame from choosing fun over studying, but it can really relax the mind to not have to think for an hour or so.

  36. Great post! I love to do yoga and exercise, and believe that it’s a great stress reliever? I would like to send you an email, what’s your email address?
    Thanks! =)