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6 Dreaded Tasks That Are Actually Great For Managing Stress

Lucas Reilly
Washing dishes is linked to lower stress.
Washing dishes is linked to lower stress. / SolStock/iStock via Getty Images
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High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can wreak havoc on your body. (According to a 2018 study on middle-aged adults, stress not only impairs memory but may also be linked to brain shrinkage.) But some commonly dreaded activities can help reduce your frazzled state. We're sharing some of them.

1. Washing the Dishes

According to a 2014 study published in the journal Mindfulness, a “mindful” approach to dishwashing could reduce stress. “A sample of 51 college students engaged in either a mindful or control dishwashing practice before completing measures of mindfulness, affect, and experience recall,” the study states. “Mindful dishwashers evidenced … increases in elements of positive affect (i.e., inspiration) [and] decreases in elements of negative affect (i.e., nervousness)." In other words, with the right mindset, zoning out in front of a sudsy sink is basically nirvana.

2. Decluttering Your Home

Research suggests that clutter is more likely to stress out women. In 2010, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked to see how married couples dealt with (and felt about) messy homes [PDF]. “The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home or a home that needed work tended to have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day,” Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi wrote in The New York Times. "Those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the days.” So tidy up!

3. Exercising in a Group

Working out can feel like a chore, and exercising with a group can be a tad embarrassing—especially if you’re not on the same fitness level as everybody else. But according to research in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, exercising with a group is more beneficial for reducing stress than working out alone. Group workouts could lower stress by 26 percent. Go ahead and book that spin class!

4. Sniffing Your Partner’s Laundry

No sane person puts “sniff your significant other's dirty socks” on their to-do list, but perhaps they should. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that sniffing a loved one’s clothes can reduce stress. In the study, 96 women sniffed one of three scents—a neutral smell, their romantic partner’s scent, or the scent of a stranger. The stranger’s smell caused cortisol to spike. But their partner’s smell? It reduced stress.

5. Writing About Your Failures

The title of this study, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2018, says it all: “Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress.” According to the study, “[W]riting about a previous failure may allow an individual to experience a new stressor as less stressful, reducing its physiological and behavioral effects.” It sounds paradoxical, but the next time you're facing a crazy situation, just reflect on a time when it all went wrong—and things might not feel so bad.

6. Singing for All to Hear

For the shy and tone-deaf, singing in a group might be an anxiety-fueled nightmare—but they should try it anyway. A pilot study presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in 2018 showed that, in people with Parkinson's disease, singing in a group can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. (The preliminary data had not been peer-reviewed.) The findings jibe with a 2016 study from Drexel University that found, no matter your skill level, making art usually reduces cortisol levels [PDF].

This article was originally published in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.

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