How to alleviate stress: If you want to reduce stress and anxiety, should you rather be more physically active, practice meditation, or use a biofeedback device? (If you want to learn about emotion regulation in general, check out this article! I’ve also discussed how biofeedback enhances sports performance here.)
Van der Zwan and her colleagues in Amsterdam tackled this question in 2015 with a controlled intervention study. 76 participants kept up their daily home exercise for 5 weeks, after which the trial was completed. The exercises, although equal in length (10-20 minutes), weren’t the same for all participants; rather, they were each randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- a physical activity group with vigorous exercises of the subjects’ personal likings
- a meditation group with guided mindfulness meditation
- a biofeedback group with a device that measured heart rate variability
As the questionnaire-based results showed, all three self-help techniques were effective. They all significantly
- decreased stress,
- mitigated anxiety,
- elevated psychological well-being, and
- alleviated depression.
The effects on anxiety were even found to be clinically significant! Furthermore, meditation additionally improved sleep quality.
There was no control group (no group without exercises for treatment), so the precise extent of each method’s effectiveness couldn’t be evaluated. Since there were no significant differences between the three interventions, the authors concluded that
the best intervention for someone may be the intervention that one finds easiest to commit to. (van der Zwan et al. 2015, p. 267)
Personally, I use all three methods every day, and I love them all so much that I don’t have any motivation to drop a habit in order to see how much my stress or anxiety will increase. I recommend you too integrate all of them into your life, or at least physical exercise plus one. For I find that meditation and heart rate variability biofeedback (heart coherence training) are very similar on an experiential level. They’re both about attention, concentration, and your breath.
Biofeedback is easier to practice than meditation because you have the support that comes from measuring your process. Also, if you like technology, biofeedback training can actually be fun; you’ll benefit a lot from this device.
If you hate technology, check out my article on how to overcome some of the obstacles you may face when creating your meditation habit.
In conclusion, pick either biofeedback or meditation, or both, in addition to physical activity. If you have a functioning body and even just the slightest interest in living a great life, you must move.
Lastly, when you decide to integrate a new technique into your lifestyle, or at least give it a try, you should preferably get started on a good day. For the study mentioned above also found that those subjects who dropped out had, on average, a lower score on psychological well-being than those who did their daily exercise and finished through. This could suggest that you too might be more likely to commit to your new stress-reducing intervention when you feel great and motivated. Try to start with a positive first step to associate your exercise with positive emotions.
Do you have personal experience with how physical activity, meditation, or biofeedback affects your stress and anxiety levels? Tell me in the comment section below!
van der Zwan, J. E., de Vente, W., Huizink, A. C., Bögels, S. M., de Bruin, E. I. (2015). Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: a randomized controlled trial. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 40(4), pp. 257-268, doi: 10.1007/s10484-015-9293-x.