When your usual stressbusters just aren't cutting it, turn to these expert-approved (and sometimes unexpected) methods to relax.
September 17, 2014
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Ever felt like you just can't unwind after a demanding week? That's because stress triggers your body's fight or flight response: your adrenaline starts pumping, your heart beats faster, and your blood pressure rises, explains Ash Nadkarni, MD, an associate psychiatrist at Brigham & Women's Hospital. "Long-term overexposure to stress hormones can cause increased risk of health problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, and memory and concentration problems," Dr. Nadkarni adds.
That's not exactly a relaxing thought. So what should you do when calming classics like downward-facing dog and chamomile tea don't work? Check out these alternative ways to de-stress recommended by experts and recent studies.
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Wake up early
It may feel counterintuitive to deprive yourself of sleep, but giving yourself an extra 15 to 20 minutes before you head out the door will leave you feeling more refreshedand less frazzled. "Take time in the morning to center yourself," says San Francisco-based psychologist Leslie Carr, PsyD. "A lot of people shoot out into their days like a rocket ship and it never gets better from there."
Consider that caffeine takes 20 minutes to be metabolized for you to feel its effect. During that time, think about your goals for the day or read something inspirational. You might find that your normally crazy day goes a little smoother.
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Create a soothing space
Research suggests that warm colors like red excite you and cooler, muted colors like blue, green, or grey relax you, says Molly Roberts, MD, president of the American Holistic Medical Associationbut surrounding yourself in any color you find soothing can help bring on calm. "The theory behind the use of color therapy is that colors enter the eyes, which then send messages along the nerve pathways to the area of the brain that regulates emotion," Roberts says. "There are a lot of ways to surround yourself with colors that can ease stress throughout the day." Her suggestions: at home, paint an accent wall; and at the office, drape a soothing-colored scarf over the back of your chair and change your computer screensaver.
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Clean out your junk drawers
When you're feeling emotionally drained, chances are whipping out your Swiffer is the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, tidying up your home can also tidy up your mind. "Having a mindset of de-cluttering helps to manage stress," says Lauren Napolitano, PsyD, a psychologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Pennsylvania. "Purging unused items gives a sense of order to your physical environment, which helps you feel calmer about your stressors." She suggests starting with a small project, like your kitchen junk drawer. "Tangible or visible organization leads to emotional organization," Napolitano says. If you're ready to take it up a notch, schedule monthly donation pickups with Goodwill to keep yourself in the de-cluttering habit.
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Visualize your stressful thoughts
Your coworker just threw you under the bus. Your husband forgot to walk the dog. When it's that kind of day, try thought diffusion, "a sort of visual mindfulness meditation, a way to sweep out whatever is buzzing around unhelpfully in your head," says Erin Olivo, PhD, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and author of Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life.
Here's how it works: Imagine your thoughts are like clouds in the sky, and let them drift by above you. "When you begin to observe your thoughts as mental objects that simply come and go, they become less unpleasant, less threatening and less emotionally powerful," Olivo says.
"After a stressful day, looking at these funny things actually activates the part of the brain that delivers tranquility and a calm physiological response," says Rose Hanna, a relationship counselor and professor of psychology and women's studies at California State University Long Beach. "This decreases anxiety and helps tremendously with reducing stress."
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Sing your heart out
The next time you're feeling strung out, start belting it out. As sound reverberates through the body, your mind relaxes, whether singing in a chorus or meditatively chanting om, says Rita Eichenstein, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Towers in Los Angeles.
Singing has even been found to reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, and one case study revealed that singing prior to surgery reduced blood pressure (more research is needed). Not ready to unleash your inner Rihanna? Start by singing in the shower. "Singing tunes you love brings up positive memories and takes your mind off the stressors," Eichenstein says.
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Start a scrapbook
We'll admit it: stickers and colored construction paper seem so kindergarten. But getting in touch with your crafty side has mental health benefits. Think of it as your adult playtime. "Scrapbooking helps you focus, which diverts you away from stressful and difficult emotions, and also helps you feel connected to the people you're scrapbooking about," says Nina Savelle-Rocklin, PsyD, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist. And no, Pinterest boards don't count. "There's something about the tactile element of scrapbookingcutting, pasting, positioningthat is probably more relaxing that posting online," Savelle-Rocklin adds.
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Pick up a physical hobby
If scrapbooking isn't your thing, try to find another activity to occupy your time. "What stress does to someone's mind is flood it with thoughts," explains Dr. Nadkami. "All of these thoughts knock about your head and they make you feel overwhelmed." Sound familiar? The best way to stop the stress spiral is by refocusing your mind on one thought: Gardening focuses you on the physical feeling of the soil that you can hold in your hands. Knitting concentrates your thoughts on the predictability of loops of yarn. "The important thing is that you channel your energy into one thing and this, in turn, relaxes your mind by eliminating all of the distracting stresses," says Dr. Nadkarni.
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Clench your muscles (then release)
This technique was developed in the 1930's and has been recommended ever since. "The idea behind progressive muscle relaxation is to first create muscle tension, then relaxation, to provide physical relief. A relaxed body often leads to a relaxed mind," says Savelle-Rocklin.
Start by getting into a comfortable position, like lying down in loose clothing. Tense and relax each muscle group for five seconds at a time, starting with your forehead, then moving down to your eyes, lips, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, stomach, hips, thighs, feet and, finally, your toes. If any muscle remains tense after the sequence, tighten and relax it three or four times. Massage, shmassage.
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Take deep breaths
No matter if you're checking out in the supermarket or waiting to pick up your kids from school, take one minute to breathe deeply through your nose into your abdomen, says Roswell, Ga.-based physical therapist Samuel A. Mielcarski. He advises resting your hands over your lower ribcage or abdomen to help cue deeper breathing. "Breathing fully and deeply into the abdomen brings about a sense of calm because more oxygen is getting delivered to the body's cells, which helps the body to relax," explains Olivo. "This type of breathing also helps to increase what is known as the ‘relaxation response,' which is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system involved with calming the body."
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Write mental thank you notes
Change the course of your stressful thoughts with a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, suggests marriage and family therapist Alisa Ruby Bash, who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Before stress gets worse, it's so important to learn to harness your thoughts," she says. "For example, when you notice the tension in your body, picture a big red stop sign. Immediately switch your thinking to start mentally focusing on all the things you are grateful for. Look around you to include anything you find beautiful or pleasant in your present moment." Store a gratitude list on your smartphone so you can reference it any time things get hectic.
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Feel your pressure points
You're stuck in traffic and feeling like you're going to explode. Time to try pressure point therapy, a form of acupuncture you can practice on your own. "Pressure to certain points on the body can help to release muscular tension and promote blood circulation," says Mielcarski. It's easiest to start with the Third Eye Point, the space between your eyebrows where the bridge of your nose meets your forehead. Place your middle and index finger on it and hold the position for one to two minutes using gentle to firm pressure.
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Smell the roses
Research is mixed on scent therapy, but anyone who's sniffed a bouquet of roses or breathed in the smell of the ocean knows that certain scents can be soothing. Brooklyn-based therapist and social worker La Shawn M. Paul recommends adding a few drops of your favorite scent to coconut oil after a relaxing bath so that the scent can linger longer. "It is believed that once inhaled, the scents alter the mood by stimulating various parts of the brain associated with emotion," Paul says. Or try a scent that reminds you of nature, suggests Napolitano. "Smells like salt water or fresh rain are especially calming because they help you to think of life outside of your current stressor."