Surprises are the spice of life: No matter who you are, you can bet that there’s probably a curveball coming your way at any given time. All of this unpredictability can cause anxiousness, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Feeling the occasional racing heart or sweaty palms is a sign that you’re pushing out of your comfort zone and entering new territory. You just want to make sure you have practices you can turn to in order to recover from stress as it comes so it doesn’t become a more constant, chronic thing.
Your stress response will inevitably change over the course of your wild and unpredictable life, but experts agree that these practices can help meet you where you are on the journey.
Stress management techniques for any age.
Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, is no stranger to stress. Her upcoming book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, is about all the ways—good and bad—it can affect the body and mind.
In the process of writing it, she came up with what she calls “protective mechanisms”—techniques that can help bring anyone back to a place of calm in the midst of a stressful period. Here are a few foundational ones that she was kind enough to share with mbg:
- Maintain an active mindset: It’s easy to be a bystander to your stress; to think of it as something that just happens to you that you have no control over. But Suzuki says that being a more active observer of your stress response—questioning it, learning from it, asking it what it has to teach you—can be really helpful for keeping it in check. “These worries and fears are helpful in teaching you about yourself,” she says on a call with mbg. “Know that even though they’re uncomfortable, they are giving you a message that can be helpful and useful.” The next time you’re out of a stressful period and can think back on it more objectively, she recommends reflecting on what it taught you about yourself and how you interact with the world. (Social jitters, for example, might teach you that you really value feeling connected to other people.) Feel free to write down or make a mental note of any takeaways to refer back to next time you feel stressed.
- Breathe deeply: You’ve heard it before, but Suzuki will say it again: Don’t underestimate that power of the breath. A few mindful breaths can be all it takes to stimulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, decrease our heart rate, and clear our minds. “It works very, very effectively—and you don’t have to be an expert breath meditator to do it,” Suzuki says. Her favorite simple, accessible breath is the box breath. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, repeat.
- Exercise: “Every time you move your body, you’re giving your brain a wonderful bubble bath of positive neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins,” Suzuki says. And you don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap these benefits. Her research has found that lower-impact exercises like walking can improve mood, too.
You can build onto these core techniques with the following stress management tips. They’re divided by life stage but can also be beneficial no matter your age:
Kids: Age-appropriate mindfulness techniques
While young kids aren’t as adept at recognizing or naming stressors, recent research in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that they can still benefit from learning basic stress management techniques to use down the line.
“If kids start practicing mindfulness, including mindful breathing and movement, before they enter a more stressful period of life, that gives them an opportunity to build a habit so that it becomes second nature to use these techniques when they are stressed, and they don’t even have to think about it,” Christina F. Chick, Ph.D., a lead researcher on the study, recently told mbg of the findings.
Teens & young adults: Intragenerational conversations
Young adulthood is often riddled with stress, and teens don’t necessarily have the life experience to know that the stress will eventually pass. That’s where Amy Lorek, Ph.D., a researcher at the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State University, says that conversations with older, wiser folks about how they navigate stress can be helpful for teens feeling overwhelmed.
“There’s a lot of benefit from that exchange,” Lorek says. “It’s an opportunity to share and connect but is also an important opportunity to learn and benefit your health… There are gains that come with getting older, like perspective and understanding that some things come and go. You don’t get as worried about things you might have gotten worried about at an earlier age,” she tells mbg.
Adults: Take leisure time
As we age, new stressors tend to pile up on our plates, and we might not feel like we have enough time to deal with them amid work, family, and other responsibilities. Lorek says that in this case, protecting your leisure time is key. Leisure activities can put stressors into perspective by reminding you what you value most in life—and they don’t have to take long. Lorek’s favorite one is to take a walk outside every morning to catch the sunrise and connect with her local nature.
Older adults: Prioritize social relationships
Lifestyle physician and stress educator Cynthia Ackrill, M.D., says that maintaining strong social networks is one of the best ways to combat stress, but it can become more difficult to do the older we get. “Making a point to keep people that matter to you in your life is really huge for stress management,” she says. “We’re wired to be social… We need each other to know if we’re OK.”
The bottom line.
Experts agree that mindful breathing and movement, self-reflection, social interaction, and moments of pause are personalizable practices that can be tailored to help us combat stress at any age.