Feeling stressed? There are easy ways to feel better quickly. “We used to believe that it would take six months or at least six hours to lower your stress level,” says Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., author of Mindful Living Every Day. “But now we know that you can lower your heart rate, slow your breathing and drop your stress hormone levels in as little as 30 seconds.”
Once you discover a de-stressing strategy that you like, practice it regularly. “With time and experience, these methods work like dimmer switches that you can use to dial down your anxiety levels whenever you feel yourself tensing up,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of Body for Life for Women. Read on to find your new favorite relaxation technique.
“When we’re tense, we tend to take shallow, gulping breaths that increase our physical arousal and feelings of stress even more, and this process becomes a kind of vicious circle,” says Holly McCarter, a wellness counselor in Arizona. “When you’re aware of this happening, you can stop and adjust your breathing so you don’t trigger your body’s fight-or-flight stress response.” Instead, sit still for a moment and inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale long (and loudly, if it feels good) through your mouth. Concentrate on using your diaphragm correctly: Push your abdomen out as you inhale, pull it inward and toward your spine as you exhale. Notice your rib cage expanding and contracting with each deep breath. It feels awkward at first, but it’s easy to practice and perfect—while you’re at your desk, waiting in line or on hold.
This is one of the easiest methods to squeeze into your busy schedule: repeating a mantra to yourself for just a few minutes a day. A mantra “is a positive three- to five-word phrase that you repeat to yourself in a traffic jam, before a big meeting, sitting in a plane on a runway or anytime you need to feel focused and calm,” says Hall. “The repetition clears your mind of negative thoughts and mental clutter and helps you achieve a state of serenity.” Choose any mantra that helps you cope: “I am calm,” “I am capable,” “I am strong.” Hall says, “Your mind trusts what you tell it, so your words become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Have a little extra time? Spend 20 minutes a day engaging in guided imagery meditation. “Simply sit quietly and picture some place, thing or activity—your favorite vacation spot, sunbathing in your backyard—that makes you feel calm,” explains Peeke. “Take yourself there mentally. Conjure up the scents, the sounds, the sensations. Professional athletes use this technique to remain calm and focus on winning. You can use it to relax.”
Studies show that practicing yoga can reduce stress levels, boost your mood and improve your overall health. “Your level of the stress hormone cortisol actually drops even while you’re doing basic beginner yoga,” says Peeke. “And if you practice yoga on a consistent basis, your cortisol stays low.”
Try this simple relaxation pose: “Sit on the floor with your right shoulder against the wall,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., a physical therapist and yoga teacher and author of A Year of Living Your Yoga. “Roll onto your back. Pivot around until your body is at a right angle to the wall, while you swing your legs around and up so that your feet are next to each other on the wall, keeping your lower back on the floor. Place a small pillow or blanket under your head and neck for comfort. Cover your eyes with a soft cloth and breathe normally. Rest from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Reversing your blood flow slows your heart rate and is extremely relaxing. (But skip this pose if you are pregnant, menstruating or have acid reflux.)”
Want to learn more? Consider taking a gentle yoga class, which consists of the easiest versions of traditional poses, with the advantage of expert guidance. Find an experienced instructor who puts you at ease and makes you feel welcome.
“Massage—even self-massage—instantly slows down your system,” says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Her research indicates that massage may reduce lower back pain and the corresponding sleep problems and depression. “EEGs, EKGs and saliva tests showed that brain waves change, heart rates decrease and cortisol levels drop, both during and after the treatments,” Field says. And you don’t need an hour-long, full-body rubdown to benefit: give yourself a simple foot massage or ask a friend or family member for a shoulder rub.