“How can I practice self care to cope and reduce stress levels?”
“I want to get rid of my stress right away!”

Many people feel that way, but don’t know how to handle their struggles of daily stress through self care. When negative emotions such as irritation and anxiety are left untreated, they can eventually lead to serious stress reactions in our bodies and minds. In some cases, it can lead to mental illnesses such as depression. As a preventative measure, it’s important to reduce stress as soon as you feel it.

Let us introduce you to a self care technique that’s scientifically proven to have positive effects on our mental health and stress relief. It’s easy to implement. It’s called the Mental Subtraction strategy.

What is the Mental Subtraction Strategy?

Recalling positive memories as self care

The Mental Subtraction strategy is a simple self care practice when you’re looking for a way to reduce stress. You imagine a positive memory, something happy or fun that you experienced, and imagine that it never happened. This helps your positive memories stand out.

The positive memory can be anything from a little happy incident to a life-changing event. If you still can’t think of anything, it can be something as basic as being alive. Here are some simple examples:

  • I passed the test.
  • I found a dollar on the ground.
  • I’m in a new budding relationship.
  • The weather was great today.

Take notice of the small happiness that occurred in your life and imagine it never happened. Repeating this exercise for 3~5 minutes a day, over the course of 2 weeks, becomes effective in stress relief. Give it a try by first starting at 3 minutes a day for self care and to reduce your daily stress levels.

The Pain of Loss Feels Greater Than Our Gains

Using the mental subtraction strategy to reduce stress

The Mental Subtraction strategy is effective because humans are more affected by the pain of losing something over the happiness of gaining something. Experts call this the “Loss Aversion Bias”. It’s pretty much similar to the sunk cost fallacy. As an example, when we have the options of a 90% chance of receiving $10, or a 100% chance of receiving $9, people tend to chose the latter. Both have almost the same expected value, but humans naturally want to avoid the 10% possibility of loss.

The idea behind the Mental Subtraction strategy follows this same logic. We imagine a positive event from the past, and by pretending it never happened, we feel a strong sense of sadness for its loss. This helps us recognize the importance of this positive event, creating a sense of gratitude towards the memory.

An experiment with students at the University of Virginia found that many of the subjects who practiced the Mental Subtraction strategy became more resilient to stress, and continued to maintain a positive mood even a month after the study. Although it can be difficult to get used to, the Mental Subtraction strategy can be a meaningful method of self care to relieve and reduce stress for people whose negative moods tend to linger.

Coping Strategies to Reduce Stress

Woman breathing fresh air for stress relief

The Mental Subtraction strategy can be practiced without any special tools, so you can try it out anytime, anywhere. Give it a try the next time you feel a little down or find yourself in a negative mood.

The key to taking care of stress quickly is to have some form of self care or stress relief method on hand. Having a coping mechanism on hand, such as the Mental Subtraction strategy, keeps our mental health in check. This is just one of the many easy stress-care techniques you can try in caring for yourself. Figure out what works for you and get into the habit of practicing. One of the keys to living a healthy and happy life is to properly cope with stress, and finding effective ways to reduce stress.

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If you’re looking for more tips on how to care for your mental health, check out some of our past blog posts!

Minkyung Koo, Sara B. Algoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert
「It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts」

About the Author


As a writer, worked on many medical-related articles based on academic papers. Specializes in articles on mental health and stress care.

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