Scroll down for a list of 31 Daily Stress Busting Challenges!

Better managing and recovering from stressors in your life may be one of the most important 2020 resolutions you could make for your physical and mental health.

Stress is a normal part of life. It isn’t all bad – a healthy amount of stress can help you meet work deadlines and face other tough situations. Stress, in the form of the stress hormone cortisol, even wakes you up in the morning and prepares your body for physical activity during the day. 

But like many things that are bad for you in excess, chronic stress and high stress hormone levels can put your physical and mental health at risk

Chronic stress can happen when you never really have or give yourself time and space to recover from one stressor before the next one arrives. But these stressors don’t just include things that happen to you, like your car breaking down, a difficult situation at work or being asked to give a public speech. They also include stressful thoughts and emotions. If you replay stressful situations in your head after they have happened, or worry about stressful situations that haven’t happened yet, you keep these stressors “alive”. Stressful thoughts can have the same negative impacts on your body as the stress of being stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car or the stress of preparing to give a public speech. Stressful thoughts can cause your heart to beat faster, raise your blood pressure, increase levels of stress hormones and create inflammation in your body.

“Almost every system in the body can be damaged by stress.” – Matthew McKay, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook

You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response. Perhaps you’ve also heard of the tend-and-befriend response. These are patterns that describe how we respond to stressful events. Imagine that you have been tasked to give a public speech.

Assuming that you get nervous speaking in public, there are a number of ways that you might respond to this stressor. You might “fight” or get ahead of this stressor by practicing your speech over and over again to ease your nerves. Or you might procrastinate and frantically throw something together at the last minute, potentially even losing sleep and adding to your stress. You might unnecessarily add to your stress by thinking back to a time that you spoke in front of a group of people and it didn’t go well. You might stress so much that you back out of the speech or hide in a bathroom minutes before. This would be a “flight” response. Alternatively, you “tend-and-befriend” by turning to a colleague to help you prepare, or calling a friend for some encouraging words the day of your speech.

These are all common stress responses – although they don’t all have the same outcomes.  Different people also respond to stress in different ways. Depending on how you respond to stressors in your life, you might thrive and excel, or suffer physical and mental health problems as a result of chronic stress. The latter can happen if you aren’t managing your stress or if you aren’t dealing with your stressors in healthy, productive ways.

“[W]hen stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.” – Mayo Clinic

Procrastinating, losing sleep, anticipating failure – do these sound like things you would do before a public speech, a big exam or a deadline at work? What about replaying your mistakes after the fact? You may be chronically keeping your stress-response system activated and your cortisol and other stress hormone levels high. This chronic stress puts you at increased risk of health problems including anxiety, depression, gut distress, sleep problems, memory and learning issues, weight gain and chronic diseases such as heart disease and dementia. 

“Stress can be either a triggering or aggravating factor for many diseases and pathological conditions. […] Many disorders originate from stress, especially if the stress is severe and prolonged.” – Yaribeygi et al., 2017

Knowing how to manage stress in your life is critical to your physical and mental health. You can’t always eliminate stressors from your life (you might not be able to get away from a stressful work or family situation). But you can change how you respond to these stressors. You can seek social support rather than running away or distracting yourself from stressful situations. You can avoid bad health habits that worsen stress. You can practice mindfulness and relaxation activities that help you recover from stressful events more quickly, preventing an “always-on” chronic stress response.

Below, we’ve included 31 daily challenges that will help you better manage stress in your life. You can practice these challenges on a daily basis to kick off 2020, or you can practice them at your own pace. Once you complete all of them, start over again with a focus on the challenges that were most difficult for you!

Stay tuned for more stress-busting resources, blog posts and much more this month at Learn more about busting stress with mindfulness with our mindfulness FAQ here

Need more help? You can chat with one of our mindfulness-based stress reduction experts about your stress-busting and mindfulness questions by clicking the Connect icon in the lower right-hand corner of this blog post!

Bust stress in 2020 with mindful awareness and physical activity. Photo by Mor Shani on Unsplash.

31 Daily Challenges to Bust and Recover from Stress in 2020

Download a visual calendar of the following challenges here.

1. (Jan 1) Know Yourself: Think about the ways that you deal with stress.

Your first challenge is to think about the ways that you currently deal with stress and also how stress affects you.

Do you have habits that you turn to when you are stressed. What are they? Are these habits healthy (calling friends, taking breaks to relax), neutral (sleeping more), or potentially unhealthy (lashing out at others, withdrawing emotionally, comfort eating, drinking alcohol, overworking)? Do these habits seem to help you when you are stressed, or do they make you more stressed? Have they had any positive or negative long-term impacts for you?

Now think about how stress affects you. Do you get tired or tense when you are stressed? Do you hold stress as tension in your body, and if so, where? 

Try to answer each of these questions for yourself and ideally write down the answers. Knowing how you tend to deal with stress and how stress affects you physically and psychologically is the start to better managing and recovering from your stress. 

As you tune into how you deal with stress today, can you identify changes you’d like to make to how you handle stress and what activities you do to alleviate your stress? For example, can you try exercising, mindfully breathing or meditating the next time you feel stressed, resisting or at least delaying the urge to deal with this stress with an alcoholic drink or by camping out in front of the TV? 

2. (Jan 2) Count your breaths for 5 minutes.

Breath counting is a meditation exercise that can help you manage stress and anxiety. It is as simple as focusing on your breath, and being aware of each inhale, each exhale. Without mindful awareness, it is actually very difficult to accurately keep count of your breath cycles for several minutes at a time. For most of us, our minds wander before we even reach a count of 30 (or even 10 breaths!) and we lose count. But regularly practicing mindful breathing and breath counting can help you focus your mind on the present moment, which in turn helps reduce the amount of time you spend in often anxiety-producing mind wandering.

Mindful breathing will be an important practice in the following challenges, to help you manage stress and recover from stressful events. So see how many breath cycles you can count to in 5 minutes, and try this exercise again tomorrow and each day this month if possible! Does it get easier with time?

Feeling stressed? Spend some quiet time observing nature. Photo by Josephine Baran on Unsplash.

3. (Jan 3) Nature Time: Observe a nature scene for 10 minutes.

Spending time in nature can help reduce many of the symptoms of stress in your body. It can lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels. Time in nature can also restore your ability to focus and to concentrate, because it allows your attention to wander in a way that is restorative – quite opposite to the demands of push notifications and calendar alerts on our phones.

Spend time in nature or in a green space today for at least 10 minutes, to help lower your stress hormone levels and to help manage your psychological stress levels! Do you feel better after some nature time?

4. (Jan 4) Ground into your breath during a stressful situation.

It’s time to put mindful breathing to work! Today, try to be aware of stress or stressful situations when you encounter them. When you feel stressed, or when you are faced with a situation today that normally makes you feel stressed, pause – close your eyes if possible – and start to count your breaths, mindfully focusing in on each inhale and exhale. Do this for at least 10-30 breath cycles.

This exercise can help you take a moment before reacting to a stressful situation in an unproductive or harmful way. It can also help you to more quickly recover from this stress or stressful situation, so that it doesn’t affect your mind and your body as negatively. This is key to stress management and preventing chronic stress. 

5. (Jan 5) Take time to appreciate your successes.

Taking time to celebrate and appreciate successes, no matter how small, can help you fend off chronic stress. People who are resilient to stress, or “stress-hardy” individuals, often see stressful situations as opportunities for personal growth rather than as threats to their mental and physical health. But these stress-hardy individuals also tend to seek out social support, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy diet and celebrate their successes and personal growth in the face of difficulties. 

So take steps to be stress-hardy today by sharing a recent success with a friend or loved one, and celebrating and appreciating that success yourself!

6. (Jan 6) Relax Your Muscles: Practice progressive muscle relaxation.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a mindful awareness exercise that helps you tune into bottled up stress in your body, and let it go.

Try this guided audio progressive muscle relaxation exercise, or read through detailed instructions on how to perform this exercise here

In basic terms, you will typically perform this exercise laying flat on your back on the floor, on a yoga mat, a towel or another padded surface. You will start with several rounds of mindful breathing, and then you will work through various muscle groups in your body, tensing these muscles hard (but not to the point of pain) for a few seconds, and then suddenly letting all of the tension go as you exhale. Do this starting with your hands and arms, working up through your shoulders to your head and face, down into your chest and stomach, and then down through your legs to your feet and toes.

This exercise if very helpful in teaching you what relaxation feels like in your body. It can also show you where you tend to hold tension and stress in your body.

7. (Jan 7) Make a list of everything you can and can’t control about something that is stressing you.

Focusing on what you can control about a stressful situation and reminding yourself that you DO have some control (even if it is just over your own reaction to that situation) can help you better manage your stress levels.

Make a list of all the things that you can and can’t control about something that is stressing you today. Focus on letting go of the things you can’t control (because you can’t control them, so there is no use allowing these things to linger in your mind and cause stress). Take comfort in the things you can control.

Did this exercise help you better manage or react to a current stressor? Let us know! #5Pillars4LIFE #LIFEresolutions2020.

8. (Jan 8) Cut the Sugar: Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks today.

We often turn to sugar and calorie-dense foods when we are stressed. On the other hand, a healthy diet (with a high intake of healthy plants) helps to prevent many of the negative physical symptoms of stress including inflammation, sleep issues and insulin resistance. These physical symptoms of stress aren’t just isolated to our physical bodies either – they can negatively affect our motivation to exercise, our cognition and memory, and our mental health.

So help yourself to better recover from stress by keeping your body healthy, with healthy foods and snacks! Trade sugary beverages and snacks today for fruit, 100% fruit juice and herbal tea.

9. (Jan 9) Start the day with a relaxing activity.

If you are like me, you might start your day, the minute you wake up, by checking your phone and getting started on your to-do list. But this can cause a lot of stress at a time of the day when you already have extra stress hormones circulating in your body (they helped to wake you up this morning!).

Try starting your day with a relaxing activity, even if you need to wake up a bit early to have time for it. Try a short, slow yoga flow, a meditation practice, a mindful eating practice, or even just sipping coffee in calm silence. This activity can help set you up to be more resilient to (and aware of) stressors that you encounter throughout the day. 

10. (Jan 10) Quiet Time: Spend 10 minutes in complete silence.

Spend some time in silence today – if you can practice this in a nature or green setting, even better! Quiet time can help you to reflect and take stock of how you feel physically and psychologically. If you notice any stress or tension in your body, take some extra time to relax today. 

11. (Jan 11) Get a massage!

Go and get a massage today! It’s worth it. Feeling relaxation in your body can help to also relax your mind, as the two are intimately linked. 

“You cannot have the feeling of warm well-being in your body and at the same time experience psychological stress.” – Matthew McKay, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook

12. (Jan 12) Take a walk – without music or a phone!

Take a walk today, but try to do it without your phone and even without any music playing through your headphones. While music can be relaxing, it can also be a distraction from the present moment unfolding around you. So as you walk today, take this distraction-free, screen-free, music-free time to listen to and notice your breath, the nature or urban sounds around you, the feeling of the wind against your checks, the feeling of your feet as they come in contact with the ground. 

Experiencing the present moment without distractions, especially in nature, has been shown to be relaxing and restoring for the mind. You might find that after this walk, you are better able to concentrate on work or other tasks you need to complete. 

13. (Jan 13) Enjoy a piece of content without distractions.

Mindfulness doesn’t always look like meditating with your eyes closed or counting your breaths. You can be mindful in anything you do, from eating to watching a movie! 

Today, enjoy a piece of content, like watching movie, reading a book or even playing a video game, with the kind of mindful awareness that you would use for meditation or counting your breaths. Avoid moving your attention from this content to what is happening on another screen (like your phone) and back again. Dedicate a certain amount of time to fully immersing yourself in this piece of content, right now. It will be more relaxing, rewarding and stress-busting this way. Enjoy!

Enjoy a peaceful meal at home alone or with loved ones today. Enjoy all the of sensations of the food as you prepare it and take each bite.

14. (Jan 14) Eat in Peace: Enjoy a calm, peaceful meal.

Rushed eating in a chaotic, stressful or noisy environment can lead to overeating, choosing unhealthier food options and not enjoying your food as much as you could. It can also add to your stress and anxiety. So today, enjoy one of your meals in a peaceful, calm environment. If you are eating with family, set the expectation for a calm dinner. Cook something everyone enjoys and ask for some quiet time at dinner. Light some candles and create a mood of peace and friendliness! If a calm, peaceful family dinner just doesn’t seem possible (hey, we can relate!), enjoy an early morning breakfast alone or a to-go lunch in a park near your work.

15. (Jan 15) Do some slow flow yoga.

Yoga is a great activity for busting stress and promoting relaxating and mindful awarness in the body and the mind! Get started here.

16. (Jan 16) 5-10 minutes of mindful breathing.

Find your breath today! Focus in and become aware of each inhale and each exhale, and how each feels in your body. It is best to breathe in through your nose, and out through your nose or your mouth. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to focusing on the nuances of each breath. You might find with time that your breathing quality begins to change – maybe you start breathing more deeply and breathing into your belly instead of just your chest. 

Try to do this mindful breathing, ideally in a sitting position (or laying flat on your back on a padded surface) with your eyes closed, for at least 5 to 10 minutes today. Get started with mindful breathing here.

“Breathing exercises have been found to be effective in reducing generalized anxiety disorders, panic attacks and agoraphobia, depression, irritability, muscle tension, headaches, and fatigue. They are used in the treatment and prevention of breath holding, hyperventilation, shallow breathing, and cold hands and feet.” – Matthew McKay, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook

Put the phones down at dinner!

17. (Jan 17) Make dinner plans and make everyone put their phones down.

Enjoy dinner with a loved one, family or friends – and ask everyone to not check their phones! Pass around a basket if you need to, and ask everyone to drop their phones in it until after dinner. You’ll enjoy each other’s company more, and be more present in the moment – which can also help to alleviate stress.

18. (Jan 18) Notice your breath during a stressful or uncomfortable situation today.

Today, try to be aware of your breath when you face a stressful or uncomfortable situation. Can you notice your breath quickening? Perhaps you even notice that you are holding your breath? 

If you do notice changes in your breath during a time of stress today, try to focus on bringing a deep and rich quality back to your breath, fully using each inhale and exhale.

19. (Jan 19) Ask for Help.

Today, ask for help with something you’ve been stressing over. Maybe you ask a loved one or family member for help with a stressful situation. Or maybe you even call in a cleaning service to help you with a mess in your house that you’ve been stressing over.

Learning to ask for help is an important step in better managing your stress levels. 

20. (Jan 20) Pass on the alcohol.

Try not to consume any alcohol today, especially if it is something you typically turn to when you are stressed or to relax. Alcohol may help you to feel better when you are stressed, but it can actually make symptoms of stress worse in your body. It is also a big culprit in sleep disruption, which also aggravates stress.

21. (Jan 21) When you notice you are starting to stress, take a break to walk or move.

Physical activity is a natural stress-buster and mood-lifter. Stressed at work? Take a break to walk – try to find a nature path that you can stroll near your place of work. 

22. (Jan 22) Practice a sitting meditation at work.

Take a 5 to 10 minute break today to practice sitting meditation. You can get started with a mindful breathing meditation here. If you can, close your door, find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, and focus on your breath and the sensation of sitting and breathing here right now. Is there any tension in your body that you can release? 

Worried about co-workers looking at you funny? Take a break to find a quiet bench or nature area outside where you can practice a sitting meditation. Or let your co-workers know what you are doing, and ask them to join in!

23. (Jan 23) Practice some mindful cloud or bird watching!

Today, mindfully experience something in nature. Focus all of your awareness on clouds moving across the sky, or the birds moving around you. Watch these clouds or birds with curiosity, as if this were the first time you were ever seeing anything like them. Spend 5-10 minutes in this mindful activity. It will help to restore your mind and help you recover from stressors that you’ve encountered during the day.

24. (Jan 24) Tense and Release – Feel tension in your shoulders, and then release it.

Today, take a moment to experience relaxation in your upper body. Your arm, shoulder, neck and back muscles can hold a lot of long-term tension as a result of stress in your life. Take 5 minutes to tense and then relax these muscles intermittently. Tense your upper body muscles as much as you can (shrug your shoulders, make your hands into fists, squeeze your biceps, etc.) for 5-10 seconds at a time, and then completely release that tension. In consciously tensing and relaxing, you might realize that you are able to relax existing tension that you didn’t realize you were holding in your neck, shoulders, arms, hands and back.

When did you last experience a sense of awe or wonder? Photo by Matteo Di Iorio on Unsplash.

25. (Jan 25) Practice a sense of awe or wonder at something today. Find something you think is beautiful.

People who can look at nature with a sense of awe or wonder also receive immense stress-reduction, well-being and even health benefits from spending time in nature. Experiencing awe or wonder itself may improve your mood and help you fend off stress.

Many people find a sense of awe or wonder in nature, in amazing settings like the Grand Canyon or even just looking up at the sky on a beautiful day, or looking intensely at a flower or a colorful animal. But you might also find awe or wonder in other places, such as in watching someone do something that you think is incredible (I love watching moving dance performances on Youtube myself!). Try to find a sense of awe or wonder in your own way today.

“Inducing goosebumps and dropped jaws, awe experiences are remarkable in their own right. Moreover, a growing body of research suggests that experiencing awe may lead to a wide range of benefits, from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.” – Summer Allen, Greater Good Magazine, Berkeley

26. (Jan 26) Spend a day without any or limited screen time (outside of work).

Screen time can wear anyone down, especially when that screen time is filled with answering e-mails, checking notifications, mindlessly browsing memes or watching a to-do list build up. Screen time may be associated with anxiety and depression in young adults. Although there  may be many factors at play here, letting your mind take a break from the “always on” stream of information coming at you from your smart device screens is always a good idea.

Today, try to spend the majority of your day (outside of work) without any screen time! Spend time with a loved one, take a long walk, play a board game or read after dinner – try to do activities that don’t involve looking at a screen, big or small. It might feel weird at first, but freeing after a few hours have passed.

27. (Jan 27) Get Creative: Paint, draw or write a story.

Enjoy a creative process today, ideally without distractions, to bust stress and be fully present in the moment!

28. (Jan 28) Achieve a personal best or set a personal record (at anything!) today.

A sense of accomplishment can help lessen your stress and anxiety levels, because it reminds you that you have the skills and the tools to make it through challenges and tough situations. Today, build your sense of accomplishment by setting a personal record or achieving a “personal best.” You don’t have to win a race or take on a huge task – just do something you’ve never done before that makes you feel accomplished! Walk more “steps” in a day than you have before, run a bit further than you’ve ever run before, or run a mile in a personal best time. Start your longest intermittent fast to date. Try something creative you’ve never done before, or solve a new-to-you problem or puzzle. 

“Distress or negative stress occurs when you perceive that the challenge facing you is dangerous, difficult, painful, or unfair, and you are concerned that you may lack the resources to cope with it. You can actually increase your ability to deal with distress by integrating into your everyday life positive activities such as solving challenging problems, practicing regular exercise workouts and relaxation techniques, staying in touch with enjoyable social contacts, following sensible dietary practices, and engaging in optimistic and rational thinking, humor, and play.” – McKay, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook.

29. (Jan 29) Do something unpleasant you’ve been putting off.

Procrastination can worsen your stress. Whether you are putting off something unpleasant, something emotionally demanding, or just something that seems boring, having that task looming over your head can be stressful in and of itself. It can also contribute to a self-defeating sense of inadequacy or failure. 

Today, do something you’ve been putting off, and then take some time to congratulate yourself for getting that done. It it helps you, mark it off of your to-do list!

Have you always wanted to visit a particular place but haven’t found the time to yet? Do it this year! Photo by adrian on Unsplash.

30. (Jan 30) Do something pleasant you’ve been putting off.

Sometimes procrastination comes in the form of putting off fun or pleasant things that we want to do, for the sake of other responsibilities such as work or paying the bills. Have you been delaying a family vacation or personal day? Have you not found the time to start that new hobby you’ve been wanting to try? Or maybe you’ve been too busy to even schedule a haircut for yourself? Today, do or make plans for something fun or pleasant that you’ve been putting off. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time – just do something for yourself or your loved ones that has been taking a back seat to work or other responsibilities.

31. (Jan 31) Do something physically challenging for you.

People who exercise regularly are less likely to develop symptoms of chronic stress. Regular exercise lowers cortisol levels, lowers inflammation and improves mental health and subjective well-being. So even if you can’t get away from major stressors at work or at home, physical activity can help your body recover more quickly from stressors so that your stress response isn’t chronically activated.

Today, do something that is physically challenging for you. A physically challenging activity is not only a source of exercise. It can take your mind off of things that are stressing you out, in a healthy way, focusing your attention on the present moment. 

Go for a run. Try rock-climbing or jump-roping. Practice power yoga or see how many squats or pushups you can do.  

You made it!!!

The above is not medical advice. Prior to participating in any wellness challenge, you are encouraged to consult a qualified health professional.