Despite what self-appointed zen gurus out there would like you to believe, you'll never be able to "beat stress" completely — and honestly, who would want to? A life completely free of stress would mean a life without deadlines for projects you care about. It would also mean no more packed social calendar.
The point is: Forget everything you think you know about "de-stressing." This article is not going to tell you to take a step back, say no to things, not overload yourself, or "just stop worrying" about any stressful thing you simply cannot control. Sometimes those steps are necessary, yes, but those are things you know how to do. What we are going to do here, instead, is to go over how to actually manage your stress so that it doesn't take over your life or wreck your health.
Why should you care? Not to stress you out or anything (heh), but the mind and body effects of too much stress are very real. Chronic stress has been linked to the developments of a myriad of health issues, from minor stomach upset to
substance abuse issues, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
Even though we often talk about the word "stress" like it's an external, uncontrollable force, it's helpful to think about stress as more of a biological state. The true definition of stress is simply "the brain's response to any demand," per the
National Institute of Mental Health. Often this demand is some kind of change, whether that's a negative one (like the death of a loved one) or a positive one (like starting a new job). But it can also be daily triggers (like your morning commute) or extreme stressors, like living through a violent or traumatic experience.
For every stressful demand, big or small, your brain initiates a complicated chain reaction. The short story is, it starts with a distress signal from your brain that tells your body to pump out hormones like
adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones speed your heart rate, open your lungs, and sharpen your senses when you're stressed. It's a response designed to help you deal with threats, and it's supposed to calm down once the threat has passed. But if you can't (or don't) give your body the help it needs to relax, being on alert all the time can eventually start to take a toll on your body.
Because your life will always be demanding (and changing), the real keys to managing your stress depend on your ability to ride the stress wave, not stop it or slow it down. Thankfully, scientists take this seriously. Here, we'll be collecting the best science-backed strategies to roll with it.
an aromatherapy necklace. OK, yes, before we go further we need to say that in general, research on aromatherapy, which is the use of pleasant-smelling essential oils to improve well-being, is limited. However, some studies have pointed to a link between sniffing a l emon or citrus scent and a reduction in circulating stress hormones. And according to a small Korean study from 2009, a necklace may be a great way to take your stress-relieving aromatherapy with you.
For the study, the researchers separated 36 stressed out high school girls into two groups. The first group got an aromatherapy necklace to wear that allowed them to inhale the scent from a bergamot orange, while the other group got a necklace with an artificial scent. Over the course of a week, the researchers tracked the young women’s stress responses, including blood pressure, stress hormones and how stressed they said they felt. Then, there was a two-week wash-out period and the groups switched treatments for another week.
In the end, the researchers found that the participants’ reported stress levels, blood pressure, and hormone levels were lower when they used the aromatherapy. This suggests that there may be true benefits of the essential oils themselves (which is exciting!), but even if it does end up just being a placebo effect, it can’t hurt. Plus, who doesn’t like to smell good?
Chew some gum.
Yep, taking your stress out on a piece of gum might actually help you relax, at least according to one small 2011
After earlier studies linked the act of chewing to stress relief in animals, researchers in Japan wanted to see if the same might work for humans. So they recruited 50 stressed-out nursing students and separated them into two groups: a gum-chewing group and a control group. The people in the intervention group were told to chew gum twice a day for 14 days for at least 5 minutes at a time. At the end of two weeks and again at four weeks, all of the volunteers answered surveys about their daily activities, stress levels and mood at the end of two weeks and again after four weeks.
After two weeks of chewing gum, the intervention group had significantly lower anxiety scores than the control group. They also reported having slightly more energy than the people who didn’t chew gum. After four weeks (a.k.a. two weeks after the gum-chewing experiment was over), the effects disappeared and the gap between the two groups closed.
While chewing gum during an interview or big meeting might not be such a great idea, it can’t hurt to try it otherwise (or even right before!). Oh, and in case you’re wondering: The gum they chewed was mint-flavoured, though it’s unclear whether flavour had anything to do with the results.
Whether achieved with a partner or by yourself, an orgasm can be a powerful stress reliever. Aside from that awesome feeling of release,
during an orgasm your brain also releases a flood of feel-good chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Multiple studies have linked oxytocin, also known as the “ cuddle chemical ” with inducing “a general sense of well-being including calm, improved social interactions, increased trust, and reduced fear,” as one 2011 review in the Journal of Affective Disorders put it.
So, although it’s true that feeling stressed can lower your libido, an orgasm might be just what you need to get back to a sense of calm.
Really not in the mood? These
sex positions — or perhaps these erotic stories — might help inspire some relaxation. More
Start a sleep routine.
One of the most immediate reasons why it’s important to control your stress is the effects it can have come bedtime: Most of us have dealt with the awful tossing and turning that can happen when we’re worried about something. What’s worse is that
research shows that both stress and insomnia have similar effects on your body, so this often kick-starts a vicious cycle: You can’t sleep because you’re stressed out, and then you’re even more stressed because you couldn’t sleep.
One way to help keep this under control is to implement some
basic sleep hygiene into your life by creating a nighttime routine, complete with a regular bedtime. This can be helpful because a sleep schedule trains your body to fall asleep no matter what’s going on in your life. Plus, incorporating relaxing activities like a nightly shower or bath, turning off your phone, or reading a book can help you wind down. More Story continues
Or another movie that never fails to make you LOL.
It turns out that laughter doesn’t just lighten the mood or defuse an awkward social situation; it may also have physical effects (similar to exercise's) that relieve stress and improve your overall health.
For example, in a 2009 study in the journal
Medical Hypotheses, researchers found that “mirthful laughter” (a.k.a. the this-is-so-funny-I-can’t-hold-it-in kind of laughter) improved blood pressure and vascular tone in part by possibly causing a release of feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. To reach their findings, researchers had people watch either the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan or clips from Saturday Night Live, and then tested the reactivity of the participants’ blood vessels. The group who got to watch SNL experienced a 22% reduction in the dilation of their blood vessels compared to baseline, which is important because this change in the blood vessels reduces blood pressure.
Other studies have shown that laughter can
stimulate circulation and relieve muscle tension. More
To forgive truly is divine: A new
study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found a link between being forgiving (toward yourself and others) and protection against the nasty side effects of stress on mental health.
To look at this, the researchers recruited 148 young adults to fill out questionnaires about their lifetime experience of stress, their tendency to forgive, and their health. In the end they found that people who had experienced more stressful events throughout their lives tended to score lower in terms of mental and physical health. But, interestingly, when the researchers compared the people who scored as more forgiving against the people who were less forgiving, stress’ negative influence on mental health basically disappeared.
research has suggested that people who have more negative emotions (like anger or feelings of worthlessness) in response to daily stressors (like traffic or a scolding from a superior) are more likely to develop mental health issues over time. So the idea is that cultivating forgiveness might help by protecting you from those bad feelings and the stress associated with them. “If you don’t have forgiving tendencies, you feel the raw effects of stress in an unmitigated way,” study author Loren Toussaint, an associate professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, explained to . “You don’t have a buffer against that stress.” Time
So, next time your S.O. is driving you mad or you’re beating yourself up for that awkward thing you said, just
let it go. More
Challenge your beliefs.
Another way to combat the negative emotions that can make the stress response worse is to use the
ABC technique of rational beliefs, or more simply, the ABC (Adversity, Beliefs, Consequences) model.
This exercise was developed by psychologist
Albert Ellis, PhD, back in the ‘60s, as the basis of what he called Rational Therapy. Dr. Ellis’ theory was that we believe certain things about ourselves, and sometimes, these are irrational beliefs that cause us pain and unhappiness. For example, someone might think deep down that his or her past determines the present. In this case, even when something awesome, like a promotion, is happening, that person can’t really be happy about it — perhaps because he or she was fired from a previous job.
The ABC model was designed to help people recognise how these beliefs influence negative feelings and behaviour and work to change them. But you can use the technique for
daily stress as well. For example, a common stressor is a traffic jam. Being stuck in traffic on the day of a very important meeting (adversity) can start a spiral of negative thoughts (beliefs) — you’re going to look bad in front of your clients, you’re going to be reprimanded or even fired — that worsen your stress, turning you into a frazzled mess by the time you do get to the meeting (consequences).
In order to get ahead of those consequences, you’ve got to change that thought process. Remind yourself that traffic jams happen to everyone, and that you’re almost never late to meetings, so your boss will likely understand. This can help keep you calm in the face of things that aren’t in your control.
Learn progressive muscle relaxation.
Hate meditation? Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) might be the alternative for you. PMR is one of
several research-backed relaxation techniques that are known to help your body turn down the stress response. But the real benefit of this one is that it's super-easy to master.
All you have to do is focus on slowly tensing and releasing different muscles, one area of the body at a time. You might start with your toes and work your way up the entire body, or start with your ears and go down. The key is to tense up for
five seconds and then try to relax as much as possible for 30 seconds, continuing that pattern until you're done with all muscle groups.
study, researchers separated 87 undergraduate students into three groups: a control, a group that learned how to meditate, and a final group that was taught PMR. Then, they exposed the students to a stressful video, measured their stress responses, and had them practice what they'd learned (or, in the case of the control group, do nothing). In the end, the meditation and PMR groups saw similar stress-relief benefits, suggesting that both work just as well. More
Look out the window.
Time spent in
nature is a known stress-reliever, but a 2014 study from the journal Environment & Behavior suggests that even just looking outside at a green space can be helpful.
For the study, researchers had 160 adult volunteers perform stressful tasks, like public speaking, before being randomly assigned to view different street scenes that had a varying degree of tree cover (from 2% to 62%). Afterward the researchers had the subjects self-report their stress levels.
In the end, they found a linear relationship between the percentage of tree cover in the scenes that people viewed and lower stress levels.
This suggests that the more trees you can see, the better. So if you can't get a good look, it's not a bad idea to bring your lunch outside or go for a quick walk, too. It can only help, after all.
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Try a wearable.
While we've all heard the benefits of step counting, the truth is your handy little wearable can do a whole lot more than just encourage you to take the long route on your daily iced-latte run. Spire, for example, also pays attention to your breathing patterns to help aid mindfulness training.
When Spire senses you've tensed up, you'll receive a push notification from the corresponding app on your phone with a suggested guided meditation. Long story short, next time you're stressing over your commute to work, a hand-selected mini-meditation will take over to help balance out whatever the morning throws your way.
Build in beach days.
Or lake days, or do your runs along the river — whatever you can do to get more “blue” views in your life can help erase your stress. You probably know from experience that the ocean makes you feel good, but a new study in the journal
Health & Place found an association between living near a body of water and lower psychological distress. In fact, the researchers found that “blue space” seemed to be even better for stress reduction than "green space” like parks.
While you may not have a view of the ocean from your apartment, lead study author Amber Pearson, PhD, tells Refinery29 that’s not necessary. “The theory is that the brain can efficiently process natural backdrops, which reduces sensory stimuli and promotes mental relaxation,” she says. “So, there is no reason to believe that exposures outside of the home are not equally beneficial.” The mental health benefits are immediate.
Get a desk plant.
Spending time outside among the trees and birds has noted benefits for your
mental health — but taking a long nature walk isn’t always an option. The solution? Bring nature to you with an indoor plant or two.
study, researchers found that adding potted plants to a university computer lab helped people feel less stressed and more attentive. Another paper, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, found that when plants, or even just pictures of plants, were added to hospital waiting rooms, people reported less stress compared to those who waited in spaces without the added greenery. More
Buy those concert tickets.
studies show that cueing up your favourite playlist can help you chill out, but a new study published in the journal takes it a step further, reporting that live music specifically may be an excellent stress reliever. Because this was (surprisingly) the first study to look at how a concert influences stress response, the researchers did their experiment twice — at two similar shows over four months. Each time, they recruited adult volunteers (49 the first time, 68 at the next event) from the audience to provide saliva samples before and after the show. Following tests of the samples, the researchers found significant reductions in the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol in the “after” samples. Public Health
Message: If you have been pining over tickets to the Anti World Tour, this is your excuse to splurge on them.
Hang with your pet.
Multiple studies show that one of the main benefits of having a canine or feline companion is stress relief. For example, simply talking to and petting a dog has been shown to immediately
lower blood pressure. And another study, involving 240 married couples, found that participants were better at weathering a stress-inducing task with their cat or dog in the room than with their spouse there instead.
Don’t have a pet of your own? Volunteer to pet-sit for your neighbour or help out with walks.
Get out your credit card: “Retail therapy” actually works. Although it’s often thought that shopping when you’re stressed will only make you feel guilty later, one
study from the Journal of Psychology & Marketing found that as long as you don’t go overboard, filling your cart is actually a useful coping mechanism for a sour mood.
In fact, other research from the
University of Michigan found that shopping not only reduces stress; it may also curb sadness. For the paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the researchers had 100 young adults watch a sad video before making them shop online. The catch? Some of them were only allowed to browse, while others were given the option of choosing things to buy. In the end, the “choosers” were much happier than the browsers. Researchers speculate that this may be because making buying decisions is a way to “restore personal control over one’s environment.” More
Change your mindset.
Duh, I know. Obviously, if you could just decide to not be stressed out you wouldn’t be reading this. But I’m not talking about simply changing your mind, I’m talking about adopting a more stress-resilient mindset — a subtle but very important difference. According to a 2012 paper from
Yale University researchers, a mindset is “a mental frame or lens that selectively organises and encodes information, thereby orienting an individual toward a unique way of understanding an experience.” They argue that because fully avoiding stress is impossible, what might be a better way to manage the stress we face is changing how we think about it.
In one experiment, the researchers recruited 388 employees of a large financial institution, surveyed them to measure their stress levels and stress mindset, and then randomly separated them into three groups: a “stress-is-enhancing” group, a “stress-is-debilitating” group, and a control. Following that, those in the first two groups were shown educational videos about stress that included different messaging, either about how bad stress is for your body or about how stress can actually help motivate you to get things done. After a week of “stress education,” they were surveyed again.
In the end, they found that people “readily” changed their stress mindsets, and those who were primed to think of stress as motivating reported feeling less of it. They also had better performance at work.
This suggests that the best advice for stress might be reminding yourself in the moment that stress is not all bad. For example, maybe you’re going through a bad breakup. Instead of focusing on how overwhelming your feelings about it are, simply allow yourself to feel what you feel. Then try reminding yourself that this is good stress. There’s probably a reason you’re moving on, after all.
Thanks to the colouring-book craze of late, you’ve probably already heard your friends espouse the stress-relieving qualities of a little creativity. And science backs them up: A 2010 review published in the
American Journal of Public Health took a deep dive into all the research on the health benefits of creativity over the years to describe how artistic expression might contribute to human healing. Overall, they found multiple studies to suggest that music therapy, expressive writing, drawing, and even dance, can be helpful for reducing stress and promoting well-being for people dealing with a diverse set of issues, from a cancer diagnosis to recovering from intimate partner violence.
Even if you’re not dealing with something as stressful as one of the problems above, making a killer playlist, heading to Zumba, or yep, grabbing a colouring book can be a way to simply step back from whatever’s bothering you and collect your thoughts. As the authors of the 2010 study put it: “Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing.”
Tweet it out.
And update Facebook. Shoot off some emails. And don’t forget to send some Snaps, too. A 2015 study from the
Pew Research Center found a link between these internet habits and lower stress levels for women — but not men. More specifically, after surveying roughly 1800 adults about their stress as well as their internet usage, the researchers found that a woman “who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 emails per day, and shares two digital pictures through her mobile phone per day, scores 21% lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies at all.” More
Stop feeling bad about taking a break.
You have a ton of work to do on a tight deadline, and then you run into a coworker in the bathroom you haven’t seen in a while. Fight the urge to run back to your desk, and just enjoy the break.
survey of office workers done by Staples in 2014 found that more than a quarter of respondents only take a break for lunch, and one in five say guilt is the main reason they feel the need to push themselves to keep working.
research shows that giving yourself permission to walk away from a stressful task or situation, even briefly, can allow you to recharge and feel less overwhelmed when you return to it, according to the American Psychological Association. On top of that, other studies have found that regular short breaks can help you stay focused, ultimately making you more productive. Win-win. More
Stop watching the news.
Had a vicious day at work? Turn off the TV and put down Twitter: Catching up on the day's news might just make things worse. Per a national
survey from 2014, 40% of stressed out adults pointed to watching, reading, or listening to the news as one of the constant sources of stress in their lives.
This is especially important when the news is particularly scary or violent, as it so often is. Researchers have linked
coverage of terrorist attacks, for example, to increased levels of anxiety and distress, even among those not directly affected.
While it’s understandable to want to be informed, keep in mind that the internet will always be there. Consider catching up on the news when you’re feeling more resilient.
Go on a retreat.
Maybe you’ve tried meditation on your own, and just can’t seem to get the hang of it. Why not take a weekend away from your normal relaxation routine (Netflix, mainly) and do a short meditation retreat?
For a study published recently in
, Carnegie Mellon researchers recruited 35 stressed-out adults, sending half of the group on a three-day meditation retreat while the other half received rote relaxation training. Biological Psychiatry
After the various trainings, the retreat participants not only had lower levels of inflammatory chemicals associated with stress, but they also had more connectivity in the brain areas associated with executive control. Even better: four months later the researchers followed up, and the meditators
still had lower levels of those inflammatory markers. In contrast, the people who had relaxation training were more stressed after and there was no evidence of brain changes. More
Smile through it.
You’ve heard the phrase “grin and bear it.” Well, there may be some benefit to smiling through the stress. A 2012 study from the journal
found that the physical act of smiling (even if you’re not truly happy) can lessen the stress response. Psychological Science
The researchers recruited 169 students and separated them into three groups, with each group learning to hold a certain facial expression — either one that mimicked a neutral face, a smile, or a Duchenne smile (a smile that engages the muscles of the mouth and eyes). The catch: they were trained to hold each of these expressions while they held a pair of chopsticks in their mouths. Why? The chopsticks were key to the experiment because it allowed the researchers to trick the smiling participants into not realizing they were doing so. Only half of the people in the two smiling groups were told to smile; the other half basically thought they were doing some weird chopsticks exercise.
After all participants had mastered the chopsticks situation, the researchers then put the participants through a stressful multitasking exercise while they held their various expressions, during which their heart rates and stress levels were measured. In the end, the people in both smiling groups, whether they realized they were smiling or not, recovered faster from the stressful task. The people in the Duchene smile group fared slightly better, as did those who were explicitly told to smile.
The takeaway: Next time you’re stuck in traffic and already late for work, slap a smile on your face the second your blood starts to boil. This may help keep your stress level in check.
Take a nap.
Your sleep and your stress levels are intricately linked, research has found. It’s kind of a vicious cycle: Being amped up from stress can keep you up at night, which, inevitably, just stresses you out more the next day, and prevents you (again) from getting the right quality and quantity of rest. Making matters worse, the more sleep-deprived you become, the worse your stress gets, suggests one 2012
study published in the journal Emotion. That just underscores how crucial it is to break the cycle.
One way to do that: Take a nap. Easier said than done? Definitely. But it doesn’t have to be a long one. One (admittedly small, but compelling)
study looking at sleep-deprived men found that a 30-minute power nap made a huge difference in counteracting the stress caused by lack of sleep. Researchers recruited 11 men to spend a few nights in a sleep lab two nights, and only let them sleep for two hours. Some of the men were allowed to take two 30-minute naps the day after their sleep was restricted. When analyzing the guys’ urine and saliva, the researchers found that those who didn’t get to nap experienced a 2.5-fold increase in stress-related hormones. Among the nappers, however, the researchers saw no change.
study of 85 adults, found that a 45-minute daytime sleep helped protect people from the cardiovascular effects of stress.
This brings a whole new level of importance to your post-brunch nap, doesn't it? Next time you're feeling sleepy during the day, see if there's any way you can steal a 15-minute snooze. By calming you, it may actually help you sleep better later.
Think about other people.
Getting out of your own head is easier said than done, but it might just be the key to calming your nerves, stat. In fact,
research shows that it's pretty much ingrained in us to reach out to others in response to a stressor as a way to buffer ourselves from freaking out.
While calling a friend to vent is a good stress relief tactic, other research shows that being helpful to others is also key. For a 2015 study from the journal
, researchers had 77 adults keep a diary for two weeks about their daily stressors, and how often they helped others (everything from holding a door open for strangers to helping their kids with homework). They also rated their mental health for each day. In the end, they found that "helpers" felt less stressed (even though they still had plenty of stressors), and a lot happier than those who didn't engage in what the researchers termed "prosocial behaviors." Clinical Psychological Science Illustrated By: Anna Sudit More
Okay, so you've probably heard this one before, but the calming powers of yoga cannot be overstated. Thousands of years of experience tells us that the ancient practice is a surefire way to find your center, and more recently, science has backed that up. Multiple
studies on yoga and stress relief since the '70s have found that the practice decreases perceived stress by "down-regulating" the HPA axis, a.k.a. the feedback loop between your brain and endocrine system that creates the stress response. In English: In addition to helping you calm down, practicing yoga might help train your brain to react to stressors in a more chill way from the start. You can find a few beginner-friendly yoga poses to start with here. Illustrated By: Anna Sudit More
Yes, you know from The Beatles that "All You Need Is Love," but exactly how to actively practice that is a bit more murky. Loving-kindness meditation is a proven technique in which you sit quietly, and direct happiness and love toward yourself and others through mantras.
Research suggests that this specific kind of meditation can help with many different sources of stress. For example, a University of Arizona
study found that it can help ease stress related to social anxiety. Another study found that it helped reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans who completed a 12-week loving-kindness mediation course. Illustrated By: Anna Sudit More
Block off time for devoted worrying.
Literally, go create an event in your calendar and invite yourself to it. Uncertainty about something happening at work or with your S.O., or anxiety about your future or your student loans (!) is totally understandable. And sometimes, you just need to give yourself the space to worry about stuff so that the worry doesn't take over your life.
Research in people dealing with work burnout and
adjustment disorder supports this tactic. In one 2011 study, researchers found that people dealing with intense stress who set aside 30 minutes a day to just sit and worry were better at coping with their problems. The key: They confined their worrying to just that 30 minutes. The technical term for this technique, known as " stimulus control of worry " was developed by psychologists back in the '80s, with the idea that containing cyclical thoughts that stress you out to that 30 minutes can keep them from making you miserable all day long. Illustrated By: Anna Sudit More
Get a massage.
If you’ve ever splurged on a spa day, you already know that when you walk out of a good massage, you often feel like a whole new human being. According to a 2012 study from the
Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, that amazing feeling may have something to do with the way massage affects your hormone levels.
study, the researchers recruited roughly 50 people and separated them into two groups. The first group got a 45-minute Swedish massage weekly, while the other group had a similar schedule, but they only got “light massage” (which honestly sounds worse than getting no massage. What a tease).
In the end, researchers found that the people in the Swedish massage group experienced a decrease in levels of the stress hormones cortisol and arginine vasopressin, compared to the light massage group. They also had boosted levels of oxytocin, which is known as the “love” or “trust” hormone.
According to the
Mayo Clinic, other research supports using regular massage to help with health problems that stress makes worse, including stress-induced insomnia, anxiety, or digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. More
Become a tea drinker.
The Brits are on to something: Drinking more tea really might be the thing you need to relax.
In one 2009 study in the
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at data from more than 42,000 Japanese adults and found that those who were heavy green-tea drinkers (five cups per day) were less likely to exhibit signs of psychological distress than those who only drank one cup or less per day.
study found that drinking tea on the regular might help you recover from stressful events better. After recruiting 75 healthy men to give up their normal daily beverage of choice in favor of a “caffeinated placebo” drink for four weeks, researchers had each participant visit a laboratory to endure a stressful mental task. They then measured stress markers such as heart rate and cortisol levels. Then, they randomly separated the men into two groups: Half the participants continued with their caffeinated placebo beverage, while the other half got to drink black tea.
After six weeks, they re-did the stressful task and the stress measurements, and in the end, the tea drinkers had lower cortisol levels. They also reported feeling less stressed by the task.
It's unclear why, exactly, tea has this effect, but researchers suspect that certain amino acids found in both green and black teas may be naturally calming.
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