Top Ten Practical Stress Busters

Quick help for all situations

IPA CPD Adviser Gwyn March lists the most powerful stress busters for work and private purposes and explains the science behind them.

1. Breathing

What works at the office?

  • Variations on ‘smell the flowers then blow on the soup’. A classic is to breathe in for a count of four, hold for four and then out for eight. 
  • Hold your fingers up as if they are candles and try to ‘blow them out’ thus expelling loads of air from the lungs. This will also make you and others laugh, again lowering your stress.
  • If you are on the verge of tears, ‘pucker and blow’ – it loosens the muscles in your throat and lowers the welling in your eyes.
  • Find someone with regular calm breaths and match their breathing pattern – you want to avoid the panic of shallow breaths.

The science:

Breathing exercises, especially diaphragmatic breathing, "strike the ideal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, triggering various internal mechanisms that promote relaxation"… "To stay focused and calm, SEALs practise these two simple controlled breathing techniques that help them de-stress in a jiffy." Forbes Magazine, 2019

2. Power Pose

What works at the office?

  • Go somewhere private and do a ‘Rocky’ pose – arms high and stretched, legs wide – for two minutes minimum.
  • Take the team to a spare meeting room and everyone does a power pose such as ‘Superman’ or ‘Wonder Woman’ for two minutes. At the very least this will result in lots of laughter which has its own stress-relieving benefits.
  • Sitting at your desk, do a long stretch, leaning back, arms extended and hold for two minutes. Or put your head between your knees and stretch arms and legs in that pose.

The science:

"A power pose is essentially any kind of body position that involves taking up more space. Imagine standing with your legs astride and your hands on your hips, or – as used in the seminal research on power poses from 2010 – leaning back in your chair with your legs up and your hands behind your head. The opposite is a contractive pose that involves taking up less room, such as hugging yourself with your legs crossed.

The idea that power posing can give you a jolt of extra confidence was popularised by Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk: “Your body language shapes who you are,” which has been viewed over 68 million times. Cuddy was a co-author of that 2010 research paper which claimed a minute spent in an expansive posture led participants to feel more powerful, take more risks and enjoy a testosterone boost.

Since the 2010 paper, research into power posing has descended into a drawn-out and bitter dispute between advocates and sceptics, as part of the larger ‘replication crisis’ in psychology – in which it has proven difficult to replicate some of the field’s more eye-catching results.

To summarise a complex debate, the evidence seems to be stronger that power posing can help you feel more confident, but largely lacking when it comes to effects on physiology or behaviours, such as taking more risks. Just to complicate matters further, a comprehensive review from 2020 suggested the effects on confidence are actually more likely due to avoiding constrictive postures rather than adopting expansive ones.

My own take is that power posing is a pretty low-risk strategy – at least if you do it in private. So why not try it before that job interview – if it works, great, if not, well you might give yourself a giggle." BBC Science Focus, August 2023

3. Laughter

What works at the office:

  • Telling cheese(y) jokes or watching short funny videos.
  • Play ‘Office Olympics’. For example, how fast wheeled chairs, occupied, can go from one end of the room to the other. ‘Desk Exercise’ and ‘Desk Yoga’ are also good.
  • Allow an office dog, any ‘pet presence’ is a low-cost way to lower stress.
  • Have a dressing up box, wear a silly hat day, wear a dreadful Christmas jumper.
  • Host ‘laughter’ or ‘dog’ yoga

The science:

“Psychologically, it improves mood almost immediately and lowers stress and anxiety. Physically, it lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while raising the “feel good” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.  It also hikes endorphins, which have pain-relieving effects.” The Harvard Gazette, 2023.

“A study has demonstrated that having a chuckle causes the tissue inside the heart to expand – and increases oxygen flow around the body.” The Guardian, August 2023

4. Hugs

What works at the office?

  • Go find a supportive friend or colleague and have a minimum of 20 seconds of private hug.
  • Hug a cushion while having a stressful call.
  • Hug yourself!
  • There is also a technique like acupuncture called EFT Tapping: tap the 12 meridian points of the body to relieve symptoms of a negative experience or emotion.

The science:

“In one hugging study, almost 200 people (partners in couples that were living together) were given the very stressful task of public speaking. But before the task, half the group had the benefit of a 20-second hug from their partner, while the other half just rested quietly on their own. Both men and women in the hugging group showed lower stress levels: Having a supportive partner hug them for 20 seconds actually decreased stress.”  Psychology Today, 2022 

5. Mood contagion

What works at the office?

  • Get away from anyone being negative, a ‘drainer’ and go find the office’s biggest ‘radiator’, the sort of people who say ‘it’s only advertising not Palestine’ and ‘I have a plan.’
  • Put a smile on your face – Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, found that when she taught her aerobics class smiling, it improved her own mood too.
  • Start a weekly gratitude diary (there are numerous gratitude apps). Neurologists say we have 60,000 thoughts a day, of which 58,000 are negative and worse they reoccur daily so you need ways to counter this. For more on this please watch the IPA Training Forum on Turning Uncertainty Into Opportunity.
  • Repeat or type ‘positive affirmations’, such as ‘Iamcalm’ as your login password. Affirmations are proven methods of self-improvement because of their ability to rewire our brains. Much like exercise, they raise the level of feel-good hormones and push our brains to form new clusters of positive thought neurons, HuffPost 2018.
  • Keep a folder of every nice email you ever received and get it out to read when feeling low.
  • Take back control by looking at a challenge and working out 1. what you can control 2. what you can influence 3. what you have no control or influence over. Do 1 and 2.

The science:

“Research by Ichiro Kawachi, an HMS associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found a strong correlation between happiness and good health, both in individuals and within communities.

And there’s more good news: Happiness may be limitless. Just as someone’s bad mood can rub off on you, positivity, too, may spread, says Nicholas Christakis ’88, an HMS professor of medical sociology and of medicine who has researched the contagion of emotions within the larger context of social networks. His findings have shown that happiness may be a collective phenomenon: Having a happy friend who lives within a mile of you, for example, appears to increase the probability that you will be happy as well.”  Harvard Medicine Magazine, 2011

“When the observed behavior of an individual is copied by others and the same emotion rises, the phenomenon is known as emotion contagion (Panksepp and Lahvis, 2011). Emotional contagion is approached as the process through which individuals’ emotions are affecting or being affected by each other, probably unconsciously or maybe partly consciously (Hatfield et al., 1993). Some emotions may be transferred through verbal accounts, facial expressions, gestures, postures, and other similar behaviors from an individual to those observing him/her (Hatfield et al., 1994). Recognizing emotions from facial expressions is universally shared among different cultures (Brown, 2004), as facial expressions can convey emotions showing approval, expectations, or more intense feelings (Nickerson, 2021).”  National Library of Medicine, 2022.

6. Make some noise

What works at the office?

  • If you are in early for a meeting go to a board room and belt out something uplifting, it makes no difference if you can sing well. There is a reason that sales conferences often have opening music like ‘Simply The Best’.
  • Sing if you are alone in the lift, not only are the acoustics good, something like ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ will make you laugh as you recall its role in The Blues Brothers.
  • Start an office choir.
  • If you can find a room in a deserted part of the office, do some yelling, let your ‘inner chimp’ rage.

The science:

“The physical exertion involved in singing – filling of our lungs, the firm control of our vocal chords, the movements of our mouth and body – is among the reasons why it can boost our mood. Singing is an aerobic exercise which sees the release of endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals”.  BBC Future, 2020

7. Movement

What works at the office?

  • Run on the spot in the loos (with shoes off) until breathless.
  • Run round the boardroom table. If you get caught I can guarantee it will make you both laugh.
  • Go for a brisk walk, ideally in the sunshine near some greenery. The British Heart Foundation magazine, April 2023, waxes lyrical about smelling plants, feeling the sun on your face and wind in your hair…but it is all backed by science.
  • Hunch shoulders so they are around your ears.  Relax shoulders.  Roll your shoulders and relax them further.  Hold this position for at least 30 seconds.
  • Try cheek and buttock ‘dancing’ – sit in your office chair and alternately clench one buttock and then the other. At the very least this will make you laugh.
  • Find a load-bearing wall or loo door and brace yourself against it as if you are going to be frisked, palms against the door. Increase pressure on the door slowly, as if you are trying to push it down. Really try to push it down, counting slowly to 20. When you stop your body thinks it has had some instant exercise and you get a nice buzz of serotonin
  • If you are crying, take a brisk walk – you will breathe deeply, release tension and the automatic coordination distracts you from intense feelings.
  • If you are angry open your hands with your palms up – this tells your body that you are safe (no clenched fists) and don’t need to fight or flee, so heart rate down, deep breath….

The science:

“Exercise won't make your stress disappear, but it can reduce some of the emotional intensity that you're feeling, clearing your thoughts and letting you deal with your problems more calmly.” NHS Website, 10 Stress Busters

“When you exercise, your heart rate increases. More blood flow is pumped around your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to your vital organs and working muscles. Including your brain. Research has found a link between chronic stress and reduced blood flow to the brain, particularly in regions associated with emotional processing, like the prefrontal cortex. By increasing cerebral blood flow, it’s believed that exercise counters the effects that chronic stress has. This helps the brain process emotions, like stress, more effectively.

Exercise also induces the release of brain-boosting molecules such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.” Nike, 2022

8. Help others

What works at the office?

  • Pay into the ‘emotional bank account’ (Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) by praising colleagues. Follow the ‘Losada line’ of six praises to every one negative. Make sure you follow Dale Carnegie’s rules by making the praise honest, specific, at once, (How To Win Friends and Influence People).
  • Make a round of tea/coffee.
  • Bring in nice things to eat.
  • If nothing else, make someone else feel good by asking for their help, again suggested by Dale Carnegie.

The science:

“There is a lot of evidence that one of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. “The great thing about showing up for other people is that it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot or anything at all, and it ends up being beneficial to the giver."

"Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others. Some research has focused on the helper’s high. Studies show that volunteering, donating money, or even just thinking about donating money can release feel-good brain chemicals and activate the part of the brain stimulated by the pleasures of food and sex. Studies of volunteers show that do-gooders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol on days they did volunteer work." New York Times, April 2020

“Voluntary giving – be it a donation to charity or a kind word or deed – is one of the fastest and most reliable ways to improve a giver’s own mood and wellbeing. Many scientific papers have shown that it stimulates activity in brain regions associated with pleasure and reward, reduces physiological stress levels and leads, when giving becomes a habit, to long-term improvements in the life satisfaction of those who do good deeds.”  The Observer, December 2022

9. You are what you eat and drink

What works at the office?

  • Always have breakfast and lunch to keep your blood sugar level right, and avoid desk dining.
  • Stay hydrated – water not caffeine as caffeine will send any adrenaline round faster – even 1 or 2% affects your ability to concentrate. If you can concentrate you can get work done faster and to a higher standard. 
  • Include some protein with every meal. It contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your mood.
  • Having good gut bacteria can help alleviate stress – eat for example fermented food like kefir. Or have brightly coloured vegetables or whole grains
  • Don’t rely on a sugar high because soon you’ll have a sugar crash. Instead have healthy snacks like banana/berry smoothies, frozen yoghurt, oat biscuits…
  • Eat some fatty fish, like salmon.
  • Pumpkin seeds contain zinc and potassium, both of which can reduce anxiety.
  • Food containing serotonin does not supply serotonin directly but can trigger chemical reactions boosting serotonin in the brain so try eggs or bananas.
  • Curcumin, found in turmeric, has been found to reduce anxiety.
  • Vitamin E deficiency, which is linked to mood disorders, can be countered by eating a handful of almonds.
  • Chew gum – Bruce Daisley (author of Fortitude) says that helps.

The science:

“The relationship between our diet and our mental health is complex. However, research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel.  Eating well can help you feel better. You don’t have to make big changes to your diet, but see if you can try some of these tips. Mental Health Foundation

“What you eat could improve how your body responds to stress, according to experts. Introducing some new foods while cutting back on others may reduce the impact stress has on your body and day-to-day life.” BBC Food

10. Mindfulness

What works at the office?

  • Go to the kitchen and make a cuppa. Concentrate on the kettle boiling and nothing else.
  • Do FOFBOC method even for 30 seconds – feet on floor bum on chair. Interact with your surroundings, feel firmly fixed.
  • Hold an object e.g. satsuma, and close your eyes, think only about what you are holding e.g. texture. Take a mouthful of food and concentrate on the taste.
  • Close your eyes on the tube and listen to the clackity clack, keep coming back to that.
  • Leave the office for the nearest green space and interact with the environment through all your senses e.g. crush a petal for its feel and smell, be aware of the breeze on your face, warmth on your skin, look at the leaves…

The science: 

“How does mindfulness help mental wellbeing?  Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better.  When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh things that we have been taking for granted.” NHS Mental Health

Find more helpful resources on Adland's Wellbeing Lab


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 10 June 2024