We’ve all felt it – that nauseating feeling of overwhelm. Your heart starts to beat faster, your breathing becomes more rapid and your muscles feel like they’re tensing up. Things seem to spiral out of control and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to calm yourself down. Whether it’s triggered by deadlines, bills or relationships, stress can strike at any time. And when it does, the effects can be devastating.
But stress doesn’t have to take over your life. Check out our 10 natural stress-relief hacks to help you claim back control.
The Science of Stress
It turns out that we’re all pretty stressed out. In a recent national poll, 25% of Americans said they regularly experience stress. If that’s not bad enough, half of all American adults also say they’ve experienced a major stressful event in the last year. Pretty shocking statistics, right? But why do so many of us suffer from stress, and what impact does living a stressful life have on our mind and body?
Stress has been part of the human experience since the time of our caveman ancestors – they lived stressful lives too, you know. Our ancestors may not have had never-ending emails or social media pressure to contend with, but they did have to deal with prowling lions and a whole host of other nasties. To protect themselves from these threats, they relied on a fight-or-flight response. It’s this same response that causes the physical symptoms of stress.
When you get stressed, the amygdala – part of the limbic system in the brain, which governs emotional response – hijacks your brain and prepares it for either fighting or fleeing. Surges of adrenaline and cortisol are pumped through the body, causing your breathing to become shallow, your heart to beat faster, and your muscles to tense. If we were cavemen, this would give us the adrenaline we needed to escape. Today, we don’t have the same need for this response. The fight-or-flight signal is still important, and a little bit of stress can actually be beneficial, but too much of it can be toxic.
Constant and uncontrolled stress can lead to:
- Increased risk of stroke and heart attack
- Lowered immunity
- High blood pressure
And the scariest thing? Those are just the physical side-effects.
Keeping your stress in check is integral to leading a healthy and happy life. These tips, while not giving you a completely stress-free life (is there any such thing?), will help.
1. Practice Mind Control
Stress makes you feel like you’re not in control. Negative thoughts race through your mind. The overwhelm takes over. When you feel like this, practicing Jedi-like mind tricks on yourself may seem impossible, if not downright silly. But controlling your thoughts and calming your mind are key to overcoming stress.
When you feel that panic set in, stop what you’re doing. Find an object in the room and focus on it. What shape is it? What size? Texture? Colour? Focus all of your energy on this object. When you’re done, pick something else. Continue the process until you start to feel calmer.
People suffering from anxiety are often taught a similar technique to use in the midst of an attack. A panic attack is triggered by the same fear response in the brain. Instead of picking an object, they rely on each of their senses. First, they pick something they can see. Then, they identify something they can hear. They go through each of their senses until the panic subsides.
Stress is a vortex that sucks you further and further away from the moment. These exercises force you to bring your attention back to the present. By doing this, your mind cannot focus on the (often abstract) concepts that are stressing you out. The next time you feel overwhelm begin to take over, give it a go.
2. Practice Breathing Exercises
Breathlessness is a symptom of stress. When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, your brain sends a series of signals to your body to prepare itself for a potentially life-threatening event. Think of rapid breathing as the first klaxon warning you of danger. But, by slowing your breathing down, you can signal to your nervous system that there isn’t an emergency.
At the risk of going all scientific on you, this is how it works. Slow breathing activates your vagus nerve. This nerve travels through your body and links your brain to your lungs, heart, gut and other organs. It’s a central part of your nervous system – the same system that switches on your fight-or-flight response. So, when you slow down your breathing and force your body back into a relaxed state, this message travels through the vagus nerve and goes straight to your brain. Your brain then registers your relaxed state and ignores the stress signals. Pretty interesting, huh?
The next time you feel stressed, try this simple breathing exercise:
- Breathe in for 5 seconds
- Hold your breath for 2 seconds
- Breathe out for 6 seconds
- Repeat until you feel calm and relaxed.
3. Clench It All In
Stress causes your muscles to tense. Think of the last time you had a particularly difficult conversation. How did your body feel? Was your jaw firmly locked? Were your fists clenched? This might have even happened without you realizing. Well, that’s a natural bodily reaction to stress.
It may seem nonsensical, but a great way to fight this sensation is by intentionally clenching your body. When you actively tense your muscles, both your body and brain become more conscious of it. When your body recognizes the tension, it becomes easier to release it. Try this clenching exercise to let it all go:
- Sit down and clench your teeth, pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth
- Tighten your fists
- Clench your buttocks and firm your legs
- Curl your toes
- Hold for 10 seconds
- Release and let everything go.
We know you just did it – how did that feel? It works, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, clenching your entire body might not always be appropriate – you don’t necessarily want to be clenching your butt in the office. But don’t worry! There is an alternative. Instead of clenching your whole body, just clench your right hand. The right side of the brain – also known as the creative or emotional side – takes over when we feel stressed. Clenching your right hand activates the left side of your brain – which helps us think logically. By doing this simple action, you can change the way you think about and react to the current situation.
4. Shake It Off
Taylor Swift may not be your idea of stress-relief, but we can all learn something from the star. Shaking your body helps fight against muscle contractions and tension. This releases any energy you’re holding onto and sends a reset signal to your brain – effectively telling your body to cool down. So, why not blast your favorite tune, let your hair down, and “shake it off, shake it off”?
5. Get a Massage
There’s nothing more relaxing than a massage, right? The flickering candlelight, the smell of the oils, the complete and utter release of tension. A massage promotes circulation, relaxes the muscles, boosts endorphins and eases stress. Endorphins are feel-good chemicals that our bodies produce naturally. The more endorphins circulating around your body, the happier and less stressed you are. Why not book in with a massage therapist and indulge in a bit of your time?
But we don’t all have the time or money to regularly visit a massage therapist. A Shiatsu neck and back massager is the perfect alternative. Home massagers are easy to use and are often portable and discreet, allowing you to relax whenever stress strikes.
6. Indulge in Essential Oils
Ever noticed how the smell of cookies can transport you back to your childhood, or how the smell of the sea takes you back to that amazing vacation you had? Our sense of smell is intimately connected to our emotions, and you can use it to immediately tap into a relaxed state.
When you feel stressed, harness the power of scent with essential oils. Essential oils are proven to lift a mood. There are so many fragrances out there, from chamomile to rose to lavender, each with their own properties. Oils are easy to purchase and use. Simply take off the lid and sniff deeply — just be careful not to ingest any or spill it on your skin, as this can cause irritation.
7. Practice Meditation
We’ve all heard of the benefits of meditation. We know that focusing the mind helps to banish the thoughts that lead to stress. Prolonged practice can help you not only overcome stress but to completely stop it in its tracks. But where do you begin? How do you distract your mind from all the external stimuli begging for your attention (and let’s face it, there’s a lot) and center yourself?
The most important thing is to not get stressed about meditation, or whether you’re doing it right. When you first start meditating, you probably won’t be able to sit in silence for hours on end in monk-like tranquility. Your mind will wander. You’ll get uncomfortable. But that’s okay. Start by sitting quietly for 2-5 minutes and try to clear your mind. If thoughts arise, observe them and let them go. Bring your attention back to your breathing — you might like to try the exercise above. Set aside time to practice this every day and you’ll be a pro in no time.
8. Get out into Nature
Nature is a natural healer and de-stressor. The Japanese trend of forest bathing is based on the theory that spending time in nature has a calming and restorative effect. The best part? All it takes is a walk through the trees and you could benefit from less stress, an improved immune system, and better sleep. Taking the time to unplug from the world and soak in all of the best nature has to offer can instantly lift your mood.
If you live in a city, then you probably don’t have a forest on your doorstep. But did you know that looking at images of nature has a similar effect? Whether it’s your computer screensaver or a postcard of a place you love, keep these pictures close to you. You never know when you might need them.
9. Laugh, Laugh, and Laugh Some More
Laughter is the best cure! When you laugh your brain releases powerful chemicals that lift your mood and relieve pain and stress.
I know what you’re thinking – “How can I laugh? I’m stressed!” When stress takes hold, you’re probably not in the mood for laughing, but even forced laughter will work. Laughter yoga is a form of exercise and relaxation that combines intentional laughter with deep breathing to create an awesome and fun workout. Laughter is contagious, so while you may be forcing it at first, you’ll soon be in hysterics. Try applying this to your daily routine – force a laugh or a smile and you’ll override the stress signals in your brain, making you happier and more relaxed.
10. Watch out for Patterns
Stress is always triggered by something else. It might be a particular situation, word, idea or even person. Understanding what makes you stressed and reflecting on how you react to certain situations plays a key role in managing it. Remember the last time you felt overwhelmed. What caused it? What was the first sign that you were losing control? While you may not always be able to avoid your triggers, once you can answer these questions you’ll be able to recognize the warning signals, putting you in the position to control the outcome and nip stress in the bud before it takes over.
About The Author:
Anthony R. Izzo is the owner of truMedic, a personal health and wellness business that sells the highest quality home massage and pain relief equipment at affordable prices.