Ever have those days when deadlines are looming, your son is cranky, your roots need to be dyed and you have six guests coming over for dinner tomorrow night and haven’t even had a moment to figure out what you’re going to serve (much less, prepare it).
Oh, right, that’s me!
When I’m feeling this overwhelmed, what I want to do is take a run. Tying up my sneakers, putting on my iPod and doing a six-mile loop of Central Park is the way I decompress and clear my head. It makes me feel energized and capable of taking on the world. Running’s my best medicine.
So, what’s the problem? Realistically, I can’t always spare an hour to exercise in order to decompress. Sometimes I’m lucky if I have five minutes to get it together mentally.
Luckily, I’ve learned, five minutes may be all we need. Researchers have found plenty of easy stress-busters to erase anxiety fast. So I tried a bunch. (They’re quick, remember?) And I had some surprising results.
At the top of the list for the handiest solution is to carry a stick of gum. When you pop a piece into your mouth, according to Australian researchers, you’re supposed to feel less anxious and even reduce blood levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that goes into overdrive when you’re feeling your back against the wall. So I tried it this week when I was stuck in traffic in a cab. You know what? I found the gum chewing did help unclench my jaw. The act of biting down on that minty goodness took some of the edge off. (I’m sure my driver wants to thank Wrigley for that one.)
When the going gets tough, you may feel like curling up. But there’s often no time for napping. The next best thing? Let out a yawn. According to University of Pennsylvania experts, the sheer act of opening wide and inhaling actually helps reduce stress. This one I’ve experienced but never realized the connection to stress relief. When I have had the time to take Pilates in the past, my instructor often made me lie down on my back, rest my arms at my sides and take in a series of big breathes that aim to fill my rib cage. But every time I did this, I would end up yawning involuntarily as I inhaled. (Go on, try it yourself.) Apparently this is a well-known breathing technique to relax the body. Now I do it for free without paying for a Pilates session.
But even though gum chewing and yawning are great quick pick-me-ups, to be honest, they don’t replace the euphoria I get from taking a jog. Are there any five-minute fixes that can help you work up a good old sweat? Not quite. But researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara did find that a good belly laugh quickly diffuses stress in the same physiological way as exercise. So I tried this one yesterday as I waited for a train that was way behind schedule. I pulled up an old video on my iPhone that shows my son making his first steps. (It always makes me laugh in the same way watching bad dancing can be funny.) Sure enough, the anxiety I was feeling about the train melted away in seconds.
When I’m at my computer and feeling overwhelmed by the emails in my inbox, I would think getting amped up from caffeine wouldn’t be a good idea. But University College London scientists recommend reaching for a cup of black tea. Apparently, there are a lot of stress-busting benefits from the antioxidant-rich leaves in a cup of Earl Grey. So I tried this trick this one morning and, sure enough, my shoulders released a bit after the first sip. This is another one I’ll try again.
Next, I read online that taking a quick sniff of an essential oil like lemon or lavender can help keep the pulse down. In preparation for my very un-empirical assessment of quick ways to de-stress, I bought a couple of vials of essential oils from my local health food store that the manager recommended. Then I packed them in my purse like tubes of lipstick and pulled them out yesterday when I had trouble finding an available cab (Are you noticing a pattern here about how much transportation stresses me out? Note to self: Look into buying a car.) I found that a quick couple of sniffs actually helped me relax, just like Florida State University scientists said.
Finally (and probably the most radical strategy for stress reduction I tried), I turned my phone off. According to a recent University of California, Irvine and U.S. Army study, just the act of checking emails is linked to stress. But when subjects logged out of their inboxes, the study authors found a quick fix for freakouts, saying, “Our study has shown that there are benefits to not being continually connected by email. Without email, our informants focused longer on their tasks, multitasked less and had lower stress.” For me, the act alone didn’t have the same instant benefits as the other quick stress-reducers I tried this week. But when I tried one of the other tricks in combination with logging out of email, I found a calmness that was almost as deep as a long run.