7 Steps to Instant Calm
Between your busy work schedule, taking care of the kids, running errands, and, oh, the hundred other things you have to do in a day, it's easy to forget the amount of stress you're actually under.
But your body is well aware. All that tension could start a chain reaction of health problems. "When you repeatedly get stressed, your nervous system stays keyed up, so even small amounts of stress can make you feel overwhelmed," says Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm.
That's why it's so important to build in a relaxation routine for those times when life goes haywire. Learn how to cultivate calm with these simple suggestions.
Look for the signs
The best way to manage your stress is to keep it from building up in the first place. But it can be hard to tell when you're headed toward the danger zone, because your body's signals can be subtle. "People often aren't aware that stress affects quality of sleep—you may get eight hours, but still not get much deep sleep, so you feel worn out," Dr. Emmons says.
To keep your stress level in check, take a few minutes each day to think over any unusual changes in your habits or physical health that may be spurred by anxiety.
Shift your focus
When you're feeling tense, you may get the (unproductive) urge to mentally replay what went wrong over and over in your mind.
Dr. Emmons recommends shifting your focus to your body instead. Find a quiet place to sit down, and concentrate on feeling the seat beneath you. Then take long, deep breaths from your diaphragm; try inhaling through your nose for a count of four, holding for two, and exhaling through your mouth for seven. Exhaling longer than you inhale deepens your breathing, which helps calm your nervous system. "You can even practice your breathing when you're not stressed, so you know exactly what deep-breathing counts soothe you," Dr. Emmons says.
Get a move on
It's easy to use stress as an excuse to skip exercise—you've got way too many other things on your mind, right? But working out actually helps balance stress hormones, Dr. Emmons says.
So take a break, and walk up and down a few flights of stairs, or sign up for that kickboxing class you've been dying to try. Then cool down from your routine with some mellow music: Make a special "soothing" playlist for your iPod, recommends Beth Hamilton, MD, co-author of So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women. Research suggests that your brain waves will sync up with the slow rhythm, putting you in a meditative state.
During stressful times, it's human nature to want to treat yourself to a piece of cake. But it's more important than ever to stick to your healthy eating habits, says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.
Sugary munchies spike your blood-glucose level, making you feel even more jittery. For a healthy yet stress-busting treat, dip fresh strawberries in dark chocolate sauce, Somer suggests. The fruit's vitamin C decreases stress-induced free radicals, while dark chocolate helps reduce stress hormones (such as cortisol) in the body. Another option: Snack on carrots or celery sticks. Chomping on crunchy (but healthy!) snacks helps you release pent-up frustration, Somer says.
Phone a friend
Spending time with pals helps our bodies pump out the feel-good hormone oxytocin. So meet up with a friend at the end of a crazy-busy day, or call during your lunch break.
Even better: Make time to hang out regularly—you'll get a continuous boost to your well-being. Just don't turn your talks into bitchfests; ranting will get you worked up again, Dr. Emmons says.
Holing up at your desk can make you get stuck in "I'm overwhelmed!" mode. Simply breathing some fresh air can improve your outlook, helping you deal with tough situations more calmly. Step outside and enjoy the head-clearing moment rather than thinking of all the things you have to get done. If there's a garden nearby, stop and smell the flowers. Research shows that inhaling certain scents (like lavender) can help reset a stressed immune system to normal levels.
Prep for bed
You know how it goes: Just when you lie down for a good night's sleep, all your worries come rushing back. And the lack of sleep only makes you feel more anxious. To combat this vicious cycle, reach for a pad and pen, and jot down any negative thoughts or to-dos that pop into your head, says Sue Patton Thoele, author of The Mindful Woman. It's counterintuitive, but getting your thoughts on paper actually helps you put them aside.