As far as practical steps you can to take to improve your mental health, you could do worse than learning some new techniques for coping with stress. Stress is something we deal with in multiple parts of our lives, and finding healthy ways to manage stress can lead to real improvements in quality of life.
Even better, it looks like effective stress management techniques can be learned without even leaving your house, at least to some extent. A new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (try saying that five times fast) suggests that online stress management courses can lower people’s response to social stress.
The study tracked 60 adults who were put into one of three groups: a group that participated in a six-week online stress management course, a group that learned a relaxation technique known as progressive muscle relaxation, and a group that were put on a waitlist and did not receive any stress intervention.
The online stress management course included six week-long units covering different topics such as understanding stress, reevaluating stress-provoking thoughts, time management and problem solving. During the course, participants were given exercises that helped them apply the material in their own lives.
At the beginning and end of the study, people from all three groups participated in a task that was specifically designed to elicit a stress response. The task involved giving a short speech and performing mental arithmetic in front of a group of people. As part of the task, researchers measured people’s levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”
It turned out that of the three groups, those who’d completed the online stress management course had the lowest levels of cortisol, suggesting they had the least extreme stress response. Those who’d been trained in progressive muscle relaxation had intermediate levels, while the participants who’d been waitlisted had the highest.
In other words, it appears that a relatively brief online mental health intervention can actually lower people’s physiological response to stress. Almost all of us have room to build more effective coping strategies for handling stress, and these findings suggest that online resources that introduce people to new ways of thinking about and responding to stressful situations have the potential to make a concrete, measurable difference.