Brow furrowed? Pulse galloping? Barely able to breathe? It's time to relax. We've gathered easy strategies to keep tension from taking over.
Forget swaying pocket watches and deep trances. "Hypnosis is a state of highly focused attention," says David Spiegel, the director of Stanford School of Medicine's Center on Stress and Health. If done properly, hypnosis can clear your mind, lower your heart rate, and decrease muscle tension. Close your eyes and picture a movie screen with something stressful, like rush-hour traffic, on the left side. Now, visualize a solution playing out on the right, like discovering a new route with no traffic. Eventually, you'll feel a moment of intense absorption, he explains, like when you're so caught up in a good movie that you forget where you are. Try doing this for five minutes, three or four times a day.
(REALLY) FORGIVE SOMEONE
Although it may be tempting to rehash the details of how your sister's boyfriend snubbed you, letting go of negative feelings really does lower stress. "When our minds keep rehearsing troubling interactions, the body's calming system becomes impaired," says Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. A cursory hug won't do, though. You have to sincerely replace your anger toward the wrongdoer with an attempt to understand the reasons behind his actions. "Forgiveness helps you see more of the truth, not less. When we are upset, our vision is limited in scope," says Witvliet.
OPEN THE WINDOW
Just looking out your window can have a relaxing effect. In a study led by Peter Kahn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, participants in an office were shown one of three views: a natural setting, a digital display of the same scene, and no view. When stress levels were artificially increased, those looking at the real natural scene returned to their normal heart rate more quickly. Those who looked at the digital display did no better than those looking at a blank wall, suggesting the brain is not easily fooled. "We do best mentally and physically when we're connected to nature," says Kahn.
SEND YOURSELF FLOWERS
"Without question, stress is mitigated by nature," says Mehmet C. Oz, coauthor of You: Stress Less (Simon & Schuster). Scientists at Harvard University delivered flowers to one group of women and gave candles to a second group. Within a week, the first group felt less anxious and depressed, perhaps because humans are comforted by vegetation—a means of survival in caveman days. Oz suggests keeping a plant on your desk and cut flowers at the dinner table.
A kiss (or two) a day can keep the stress away. You'll feel less isolated, which is a common source of anxiety. According to Laura Berman, a professor of obstetrics-gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University, women in particular respond to locking lips by releasing endorphins. She recommends at least one ten-second kiss a day—deep and emotional, but not necessarily sexually arousing. "Just enjoy the physical connection," she says.
TAKE A TIME-OUT
You don't need to slip into bed to get the benefits of a good rest. Kate Hanley, author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide: 77 Simple Strategies for Serenity (Skirt!), suggests a simple exercise you can do at your desk that is just as refreshing as a nap:
• Keeping both feet on the floor, stack your forearms on the edge of the table.
• Scoot back in your chair so your spine is extended.
• Rest your forehead on your arms for a minute or two.
This opens the neck and shoulders, where physical tension commonly builds up, and creates space in your rib cage for deep breathing. Visualize your next task going well, or simply focus on your heartbeat. Either way, this exercise gives you a break.
TAKE IT EASY
Working out is a great way to take a bite out of tension—but think twice before you sign up for a boot camp. "When you are mentally tired, intense exercise adds to the stress you are feeling," says Samuele M. Marcora, a physiologist at the University of Kent in England. After a draining day, he suggests a moderate-intensity workout, like walking or light running. "It won't improve your fitness level, but it is good for the mood."
Yoga is a proven stress buster, but not all poses give the same relief. Inverted stances, such as back bends and headstands, may have a greater effect on your mood and anxiety, say researchers. The part of the nervous system that relaxes the body and mind may be stimulated when the spine is bent, explains Chris Streeter, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
GO INTO THE LIGHT
"Stress can be triggered when our bodies don't know what time it is," says Julie Holland, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. "Exposing your retina to sunlight resets your circadian rhythm so your brain is on a schedule." Take a walk outside without sunglasses for 20 minutes a day, three times a week. Phototherapy lamps and vitamin-D supplements also help.
WATCH A TEARJERKER
If you're still crying your contacts out on your 100th viewing of Blue Valentine, try watching it a 101st time with a new outlook: A recent study suggests that thinking positively while watching a sad movie may help you cope with setbacks in the real world. Women who had experienced stress were shown sad scenes from movies such I Am Sam and Fatal Attraction and asked to come up with happy endings and good advice for the characters. Test subjects who were best at this showed fewer signs of depression than women who watched the movies passively, says Allison S. Troy, a researcher at the University of Denver. Solving other people's problems is always easier, she says. Practicing as you make your way through your Netflix queue may sharpen your skills.
TREAT YOUR ALLERGIES
Itchy eyes and a runny nose aren't the only plagues of allergy season: Stress may rise with the pollen count. Alvaro Guzman, a psychiatrist at the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression in Washington, D.C., says research shows that patients with seasonal allergies often report stress, mood dips, and depression when symptoms flare. "When we have an allergic reaction, chemicals are produced in our blood that can aggravate mood changes," he says. If you notice your stress levels peaking when the weather is changing, Guzman suggests getting tested for allergies.
DROP AN F-BOMB
Saying what you really think about the boss over a couple of martinis has its advantages. After observing groups in various workplaces, Yehuda Baruch, a professor of management at Rouen Business School in France, found that people swear as a coping mechanism to release stress. When upset with a difficult customer, one test subject pretended to carry on a conversation as if the client were still on the phone, but with profanity to describe exactly how she felt. In the real world, Baruch warns to use common sense. "Stay professional and never swear in front of someone who would be offended."
You're sitting on the couch watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reruns—just like last weekend. And instead of becoming absorbed, part of your brain stays focused on the looming deadlines that have been nagging at you at work. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Women Who Think Too Much (Henry Holt), says, "Overthinking without being able to resolve anything draws us deeper into a feeling of being overwhelmed." A pastime that requires you to pay attention or engage with other people—like tackling a new recipe, taking a foreign-language class, or playing tennis—lets you escape from your own spinning head and break the cycle.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH BEAUTY
Admiring a photo of a model or a movie star just as you would a work of art could relieve tension. Half a group of people who viewed photos of females wearing makeup said they were less stressed afterward, according to a study at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The other half did not report the same benefit, but they didn't feel any worse, says Patrick Pössel, a professor of psychology who conducted the study.
BE A PESCATARIAN
Battling stress can be as simple as ordering fish at a restaurant. On The Truth About Food, a program on the Discovery Health Channel, researchers measured hormone levels in London cabdrivers, who have highly stressful jobs. When put on a diet of four portions a week of oily fish like mackerel, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, the drivers produced less of the stress hormone cortisol and more of DHEA, a hormone the body cranks out to combat stress. "When the body sees omega-3 fatty acids, it feels calm," says Oz. Walnuts, flaxseeds, and tofu are other excellent sources.
PLAY A VIDEO GAME
The hours your boyfriend and his slacker buddies spend hooked up to an Xbox may have an actual benefit. According to researchers at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, playing nonviolent video games can decrease stress and improve your mood. "Getting absorbed in games provides a distraction and relaxes the nervous system," explains Carmen Russoniello, a professor at the university. Skip World of Warcraft, even if you love walloping trolls, and choose something like Peggle instead. "The challenge should be difficult enough, but not an added pressure," says Russoniello.