Which Stress Reduction Technique Is The Most Effective?

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James Hewitt is a performance scientist, and Chief Commercial & Innovation Officer at OPTIVIO.

Many people feel swamped by multi-tasking, competing demands and time-pressure, compromising productivity and driving up stress. It's no surprise then that people are looking for information on how to reduce stress at work. In this blog, you can learn more about the the physiology of stress, discover which stress reduction techniques appear to be the most effective, and consider how to apply these techniques in everyday life.

Understanding What Is Happening In Our Brain During Stress

If you were to read many of the self-help articles that are scattered across the internet, you could quickly fill every waking moment with some kind of stress-reducing technique. To figure out which technique will work best for you, it can be helpful to begin by exploring how stress manifests itself in our brain and body.

brain during stress

A set of brain structures called the ‘limbic system’ plays a central role in our emotional life. The activity of the limbic system is associated with behaviour, judgment, insight, motivation, mood, the formation of memories and even our sense of smell. 

What Is The Limbic System?

the limbic system

The hypothalamus: Plays a crucial role in functions, including hormone release and the regulation of body temperature. Links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland.

The pituitary gland: Situated close to the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland is sometimes called the “master gland.” The hypothalamus controls the pituitary gland, which in turn controls several other hormone glands in your body, including the thyroid and adrenal glands, the ovaries and testicles.

The hippocampus: Contributes to providing a spatial map of our environment, declarative memory (memory of facts and events) and helps control corticosteroid (stress hormone) production, among other functions.

The amygdala: A complex brain region with a wide range of functions including coordinating behavioural, autonomic and hormone responses to environmental stimuli, especially those with emotional content. The amygdala is sometimes described as the brain’s stress and fear center.

Stress Sets Off a Chain Reaction

When we experience stress, the amygdala sends a signal to activate the hypothalamus which, in turn, activates the sympathetic 'fight or flight' nervous system. This activation sends a cascade of hormones through the body, preparing us for whatever challenge we are facing. You can imagine this process as being similar to accelerating away from a set of traffic lights in a car. Pressing the gas pedal sets off a similar chain reaction, increasing the flow of fuel and air in the engine, building speed and power.

Some stress management techniques appear to reduce amygdala activity when we experience stress. This reduced activity can help to balance the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system, and our parasympathetic 'rest and digest' nervous system. For example, a recent study suggests that physical exercise can directly influence the activity of the amygdala, biasing it towards feelings of happiness and against fear6. In effect, the amygdala is less likely to be heavy on our metaphorical gas pedal, and we're more likely to be able to brake in the right place, at the right time. 

Comparing Physical Activity, Mindfulness Meditation, Or Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback

If you have a limited amount of time, which stress reduction technique is most effective? There are no definitive answers, but two recent randomised controlled trials, which compared three different types of stress reduction, provide some important insights.

The first study compared physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction7:

  • The physical activity exercises consisted of 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity of free choice (such as a spin-cycling class).
  • The mindfulness meditation exercises included a guided mindfulness meditation, involving sitting and focusing on the breath, a body scan, and mindful walking.
  • The heart rate variability biofeedback exercises consisted of slow breathing with a heart rate variability biofeedback device, encouraging users to try to increase their heart rate variability by breathing at approximately six breaths per minute.

The study results indicate that all three approaches were effective in reducing stress and its symptoms. 

The second study also compared physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback, but considered a broader range of outcomes8. The researchers concluded that physical activity, mindfulness meditation, and heart rate variability biofeedback were all effective self-help methods which reduced worry, as well as improving attention, executive functioning, mindful awareness and self-compassion.

The Most Effective Stress Reduction Technique

It may seem that we're no closer to figuring out which approach to stress reduction will work best. However, the fact that both studies supported the efficacy of several methods suggests that that best technique is probably the one that you can stick to. Simply making the time to do something proactively to manage our stress is often the biggest challenge. I encourage you to schedule time to take your foot off the gas a few times this week, choose two or three stress reduction techniques that appeal to you, and pay attention which works best.


1. Dar T, Radfar A, Abohashem S, Pitman RK, Tawakol A, Osborne MT. Psychosocial Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2019;21(5).

2. Steinberg JS, Arshad A, Kowalski M, Kukar A, Suma V, Vloka M, et al. Increased incidence of life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias in implantable defibrillator patients after the World Trade Center attack. J Am Coll Cardiol [Internet].

3. 2004;44(6):1261–4. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2004.06.032
Johansen C, Feychting M, Møller M, Arnsbo P, Ahlbom A, Olsen JH. Risk of severe cardiac arrhythmia in male utility workers: A nationwide Danish cohort study. Am J Epidemiol. 2002;156(9):857–61.

4. Chu P, Pandya A, Salomon JA, Goldie SJ, Hunink MGM. Comparative effectiveness of personalized lifestyle management strategies for cardiovascular disease risk reduction. J Am Heart Assoc. 2015;5(3):1–16.

5. Bhasin MK, Denninger JW, Huffman JC, Joseph MG, Niles H, Chad-Friedman E, et al. Specific Transcriptome Changes Associated with Blood Pressure Reduction in Hypertensive Patients after Relaxation Response Training. J Altern Complement Med. 2018;24(5):486–504.

6. Chen YC, Chen C, Martínez RM, Etnier JL, Cheng Y. Habitual physical activity mediates the acute exercise-induced modulation of anxiety-related amygdala functional connectivity. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):1–12.

7. van der Zwan JE, de Vente W, Huizink AC, Bögels SM, de Bruin EI. Physical Activity, Mindfulness Meditation, or Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for Stress Reduction: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2015;40(4):257–68.

8. de Bruin EI, van der Zwan JE, Bögels SM. A RCT Comparing Daily Mindfulness Meditations, Biofeedback Exercises, and Daily Physical Exercise on Attention Control, Executive Functioning, Mindful Awareness, Self-Compassion, and Worrying in Stressed Young Adults. Mindfulness (N Y) [Internet]. 2016;7(5):1182–92. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0561-5

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