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These fun and effective ideas will help when anxiety is getting the best of you.
Quick bursts of movement are great if your stress is making you feel jittery or like your heart is beating faster than normal. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a set of 20 jumping jacks, 10 pushups or sit-ups, or running in place for 30 seconds—a burst of activity gets your heart rate up, and even if brief, will activate several neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine that enhance your mood and help cushion some of that anxiety and stress,” says Dr. Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Sports Health.
If there’s no one willing or able to work out the tension in your muscles, you can do it yourself. “There are sensory receptors in the skin that send messages to our brain, signaling that it’s safe to relax,” says Kiera Nagle, MA, LMT, CPMT, the Director of Massage Programs at Pacific College of Health and Science. It also makes you more aware of where in your body you’re feeling tense, so you can consciously relax those areas, she adds. Some good spots are that big ropy muscle at the front of your neck, your shoulders, the hinge of your jaw, and pressure points in the palm of your hand. Check out Nagle’s awesome videos if you can’t picture it.
If the stress is more mental than physical and you feel your mind looping around itself, give yourself a discrete task, such as organizing your shoes or doing a word puzzle. “When you’re stressed, your brain may be saying, ‘we’ve got a problem to solve’ so it keeps spinning. That’s a good time to engage your mind,” says Kissen. If you give it a task to focus on, you’ll feel calmer and be better able to deal with what’s actually stressing you out.
Putting on your favorite playlist and letting loose is, of course, good exercise, which is a long-studied stress-reliever. “It also engages the mind and brings on feelings of inspiration,” says Kissen. Dancing to music from a happy time and place in your life can trigger positive memories, as well, taking your mind off your stress. One caveat: Not everyone feels comfortable dancing, even solo, and that’s fine. “Some people get stressed out when they feel pressured to dance,” so do what feels right to you.
Run a bath and sink on in. “By changing the body temperature, it’s the full sensory slowing down—it’s kind of like rebooting a computer that has all these windows open doing too much processing,” says Kissen. “By turning it off and staring again, it’ll help to get unstuck.” If you like, add in some other calming sensory stimulators, like fragrant soap or some chill music.
Assuming you like crafting (Kissen emphasizes some people are overwhelmed by the mere thought!), there’s evidence that the repetitive action of clicking your needles can be meditative and calming. There’s also been research that looked at women with anxiety who also had eating disorders that found knitting made most of them less preoccupied and anxious. If you’re a newbie, check out these DIY tutorial videos from We Are Knitters, which also makes easy beginner kits.
Baking checks so many stress-reduction boxes: It can be a sensory experience (smushing the dough, the smell of baked yummies and of course the taste); it is a project that requires planning, concentration, and mindfulness, which activates your brain; and if you enjoy it, it’s fun. Kate Merker, Good Housekeeping’s Chief Food Director, loves this amazing blueberry sweet roll recipe, but if you’ve had enough sugar, move on to a healthy pizza recipe. “It feels comforting and you can literally put anything on top of pizza dough,” she says. “My kids help shape the dough, which is just fun, and they get a kick out of me twirling it in the air.” And if you’re stressed by the fact that no eats the same thing in your house? “Everyone can pick and choose their own topping,” Merker adds.
You don’t even need to own a yoga mat, let alone be physically flexible, to reap the benefits of this ancient practice. There’s a ton of research about yoga’s role in stress reduction, and even taking 10 minutes to breathe and stretch in any way that feels good to you can be incredibly soothing, says NYU’s Dr. Gonzalez-Loman. If you want to do some yoga without leaving the house, these apps are a great way in.
This is another well-researched stress-relieving practice that people are intimidated by, but is actually super simple and really effective once you just do it, even for two minutes. Forget about the clearing your mind thing and focus on breathing. Slow breathing has been shown in research to have calming effects on the central nervous and cardiovascular systems, and belly breathing specifically may improve attention, mood, and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Try one of the many excellent apps with guided meditations, or just sit and breath deeply from your diaphragm for a minute or two.
Either by yourself or with someone who at the very least doesn’t stress you out: An Israeli study found that sex was a stress reliever for couples in a satisfying relationship. Another study checked the levels of cortisol in the saliva of couples and found that people who had sex had lower levels, “suggesting a buffering effect of intimacy” on stress and a better mood all around. As for solo sex, masturbation is a sensory experience that helps you focus and releases bodily tension; doing it to orgasm releases dopamine and endorphins, both of which can lift you out of stress.
Giving the inside of your pantry a good wipe-down or really getting into the sofa cushions with a vacuum attachment has multiple stress reducing benefits on top of fewer visits from icky vermin: it’s a project that requires a little planning, but some physical activity—both of which Kissen says can reduce stress—and is likely to result in a sense of achievement that lifts your mood. And working mindfully at it can reduce stress even more: one study found that folks who were told to stay gently focused on what they were doing while washing dishes boosted their affect (although being mindful while you do most any activity may show similar benefits.)
Years of research has found PMR helps reduce anxiety and calm breathing. Lie down and relax, and then tighten, hold and then release each muscle in your body, one at a time, starting with your toes and moving up to the crown of your head. Do this slowly and methodically, and don’t forget the muscles of your face. It may be more relaxing to listen to someone else walk you through the exercise. Visit this link to find audio, video, and scripts that you can record and then play back to yourself.
You don’t have to have any skill at art to just let your pen have its way with the page, or even easier, pick up an adult coloring book. “Anything that can get you out of your head, if you enjoy it, can be a stress reliever,” says Kissen. If you’re not focused on how good the drawing is, then the stakes are blissfully low.
It may be hard for some people to dig into a good book when they’re feeling stressed, but binging on a super-absorbing podcast or TV series that transports you out of your life is a positive distraction. “Whether it’s a podcast or a really dumb series, mindfully attending to a target is a great anchor,” says Kissen. In other words, the point isn’t simply to distract yourself, but to make an active choice to place your attention elsewhere, she says. The mind, says Kissen, thinks, “If only I keep thinking and thinking I’ll solve the problem and get out of it,” and choosing to anchor it elsewhere can stop this stress response.
Stephanie Dolgoff Deputy director, Health Newsroom, Hearst Lifestyle GroupStephanie, an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author, has written and edited about health, fitness, and wellness for such publications as Good Housekeeping, Self, Glamour, Real Simple, Parenting, Cosmo and more.