Stress Relief for Busy People

Everyday working life results in an unavoidable baseline level of stress. The endless schedule, the errands, just managing all the passwords! It may feel manageable, but the overload can result in a degree of stress that is present no matter how good an attitude one has.

In psychology literature there is a list of life events that cause harmful stress, even if they are choices or considered good. This list is commonly known as the “Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale,” originally published in 1967. These include moving, job change or loss, boss change, relationship end, relationship start, death of a loved one, death of a pet, health problem or illness, arrival or departure of a child, and financial problems. The original study and following studies indicate that experiencing more than one of these at once, or in a short time period, causes compounded stress. At these times, it is especially important to take measures to manage stress proactively. The scale ranks event stressors by points and assesses illness risk ranges. There is no need to use such specific metrics, but awareness that major life changes have significant impact is important.

There are countless resources out there on how to manage stress, but many of them are severely out of touch for busy working people and parents. Common advice is not very helpful much of the time, because it is often when we are our most stressed that we are least available to do the advised activities.

Here is a sampling of often-recommended things very busy people are not able to do: tropical vacations, lengthy yoga and detox retreats, days lounging around to read and work through self-help exercises over tea, long quiet baths alone, two-hour time slots to get to the gym or fitness classes, hour-long meditation sessions in silence. One or more of these may be doable at times. But they are certainly not the daily norm for many of us, and thus cannot be relied upon for daily relief. Major breaks from everyday life are wonderful, and healthy. But many days we just do not have that option. We can romanticize the times when people of a certain means would go away for a few months when feeling less than optimal, to visit the countryside, make extended family visits, and rest. But this is not the world most of us live in today.
Do not fall prey to stressful stress reduction. If you read books that order you to follow to-do lists, which feel simply like more you must do, micromanaging your stress may make it worse. Self-observe what makes you decompress. Staring at the sky? Sleeping? Talking to your mom? Eating a piece of cake? Do it. Own your joys. Activities like yoga and meditation are wonderful, but not if done on such a rigid schedule that you feel more overburdened.
Here is a list of practical versions of stress relievers that can be done on the run or in combination with other things, including while caring for young children. Better some techniques done how you can rather than none. They can be built into daily life.

Prioritize getting adequate sleep

It may mean not doing key tasks, or declining opportunities and events. Sleep is a foundational need. This may be the toughest one to implement yet the most important.


Take comfort in daily and weekly routines. We know that dogs and toddlers thrive on routines. Adults benefit too.

Repetitive motion

Studies show that it has soothing power. While you are doing other things such as talking or holding a child, sit in that rocking chair or create your own repetitive motions. It is a traditional technique for good reason.


Do it in small bursts throughout the day. Print out a few sheets with “office stretches” (available online) to post in your workstation or home to remind you. Fold your neck to each side while at a red light. Roll your ankles while sitting in a meeting. Stand on your toes in the elevator.


Hear and feel it often-by hitting play on a device, by playing an instrument if you can, by singing. This is a great way to improve the moment. Choose that random album from the past, the radio, a kid’s favorite. Then choose another one.

Mind-Body Coordination

Mind-body coordination activities are proven ways to jolt you into the moment and out of the stressor. They have positive impacts on the brain. Strive to find activities you like that involve mind-body coordination and do them as often as practicable, at least monthly. Examples include dance, speaking foreign languages, playing a musical instrument, snorkeling/diving, playing a team sport, and singing-anything that requires you to be truly present and links the mind to physical motion. These activities are not only incredible stress relievers and natural creators of joy, they sustain the brain’s agility and memory. Recent studies have shown promise for slowing or reducing the onset of Alzheimer’s in adults who dance and learn new languages. It taps into parts of the brain that keep us feeling alive. Find ones that you enjoy, and that are accessible and doable. Set a schedule, find an accountability buddy, do it at home, whatever helps you maintain the practice. It does not matter how you look or sound in your kitchen or hotel room! Any activity that uses mind-body coordination is great for living in the moment and reducing stress.

Run around or walk outside

Fresh air and nature are so good for us.This is a great one to fold into the workday when you can take a short walk to lunch, or combine a walk with talking to a colleague. Socially, schedule a walk with a friend instead of meeting at a bar or restaurant. Kids love to run around outside doing whatever. Join them for a few minutes! It gets us into the moment, observing what is around, feeling the weather, moving.

Home bike

In small time chunks, or winter, having a cardiovascular machine at home can be the only way to squeeze in this kind of exercise, unless you can run in place. You can find machines secondhand, or convert a regular bike into a stationary bike in the winter. You can even buy just pedal kits to work out the legs while sitting on the couch. Working up a sweat by biking at a feverish, sprinting pace for just 10-15 minutes helps. No transaction time is lost, and you can read or listen to music at the same time.


Give a partner, friend, or child a massage! In countries such as Thailand, massaging each other is common. It is great for circulation, and human touch is a known positive influence. Even if you do not have time or money for a professional massage, incorporate it into your own life in small ways. Inexpensive leg-massaging roller bars (also marketed as sticks) are great for the workplace or car. Place the little tools in spots you will see them and be reminded to use them even if just for a few seconds.

Yoga videos

You can do them alone, with friends, or with kids. Children often enjoy these as well, whether imitating or watching the parent or, yes, jumping on you during a delicate pose. There are free online videos at any level in any time increment. Yoga with Adriene has a super series of free videos.

Guided meditations

These are widely available online in any duration. You can pull one up for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes when you have small increments of time. Downloaded ones work well during flights. Discussion-style ones work well while driving. Progressive relaxation ones work well when lying in bed before falling asleep. The Chopra Center and Tara Brach sites have ample options for starters.


When feeling over-stimulated, inhale slowly a few times from deep in the belly. Exhale slowly. It has been recommended a million times and ways because it is a key way to calm the nervous system. You can count to inhale, hold, and exhale, or just do what feels right.

Mirror-free day

Once in a while, take a day that is away from mirrors and selfies. This may sound strange, but it is healthy to experience not noticing how we look. The absence of mirrors can bring more awareness of the constant presence of vanity and self-consciousness in everyday life. Being outside all day or in a nonurban getaway are some of the easiest ways to do it.

Practice being gentler on yourself and others

It is easy to be critical and demanding. Think of yourself as a soft, sweet little sheep who needs a cuddle and a hug. While easier said than done, think of those driving you crazy as if they were your close family-people you care for no matter what, even when they do bad things and make bad choices. They are trying to live life in their own ways.

Examine ways to make incremental improvements

This does not mean you have to quit your job, forgo modern healthcare, or join an ashram in India and never see your family. It can mean doing yoga for 10 minutes while the pasta is boiling and the toddler is toddling around. Sitting on your deck after everyone is asleep, looking up at the sky for a few minutes. Rolling over for those extra 30 minutes and forgoing washing your hair that day. Listening to a song that makes you recall amazing times and innately makes you feel alive. Calling a friend. Writing a thank-you note to someone who helped you.
It is okay to wallow once in a while. Hide in your bedroom! Roll around, stretch out, read a stupid magazine, or just stare at the ceiling. Our culture has a stigma against downtime. Whatever happened to sitting on the porch? Take those moments how you want and when you can.

The Bottom Line

Squeeze in these little moments of self-care and joy. Make it a habit. Make your own list of de-stressors as you find them. Take an extra 30 seconds in the bathroom to redo your hair. Chat for a moment with the person in the office you usually walk by. Life is not going to hand you more time and relaxation. You will have to take it and make it.