Jun 20, 2023 - Health

Axios Finish Line: No time to run? Hug a loved one.

Illustration of a to-do list with boxes filled with smiley faces. A hand is checking the boxes and the red checks look like noses on the smiley faces.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

If you're feeling stressed but can't fit in a stress-relieving workout today, you may literally need a hug.

Why it matters: Americans are stressed out. While exercise is a proven way to support mental health — which made evolutionary sense for our ancestors — it's not the only way to de-stress. There are other options we often overlook.

Zoom out: Stress evolved to help our ancestors deal with problems like hungry lions.

  • When they saw a lion, their bodies sprang into action: muscles tensed, sensitivity to pain decreased, and heart rates and breathing increased.
  • Meanwhile, other processes were deprioritized: digestion and immune response slowed, and ovulation or sperm count may have been suppressed.
  • With that physiological body shift, humans could leap, jump, climb and evade predators better, says Amelia Nagoski, co-author of "Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle."
  • After outrunning lions, our ancestors felt relief.

What’s happening: Today, the fight-or-flight response can be triggered even in the absence of a predator.

  • For example, relieving the stress of an urgent message requires more than an email reply.
  • “The disconnect between the nature of 21st century threats and our millennia-old nervous systems means that, in order to allow our bodies to complete the stress response cycle, we need to deal with both the thing that initiated our stress and the stress in our bodies — but now it requires separate processes,” Nagoski said.

“Physical activity is, at a population level, the most efficient way to complete leftover stress cycles,” Nagoski said.

Yes, but: Today, even the idea of exercising can be stressful.

Good news: There are other science-backed ways to manage stress.

Hug. A 20-second hug with a loved one can communicate to your nervous system that it’s safe and protected, Nagoski said.

Kiss your partner. Six seconds is the magic length of time, according to relationship research.

Pet your dog or cat. It can offer a brain boost.

Connect with someone. That could include your local barista, “a loving divine presence or your own inner child,” Nagoski said.

Call a friend. Just a few minutes on the phone can reduce stress, said Jennifer Taitz, clinical psychologist and author of forthcoming “Stress Resets: How to Soothe Your Body and Mind in Minutes.”

Take a break outside. They call it nature therapy for a reason.

Slow your breathing. Taking one minute to breathe in for a count of five, and then out for five, can help your body feel calmer, Taitz told Axios.

Of note: Stress isn’t all bad. It can help us meet deadlines, like the one for this story.

“Changing your view of stress [is important] because stressing about stress is very stressful,” Taitz said.

This article appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that Amelia Nagoski was interviewed, not her sister and co-author, Emily Nagoski.

Go deeper