If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or life is just getting to the point where it seems to be a bit too much, you can create a little pool of calm around you by doing surprisingly simple activities. Recent studies have shown that these easy actions can help you lift anxiety naturally and generate positive shifts in your brain and body.
PICTURE HOT HANDS
When fear and anxiety take hold, the nervous system directs blood flow to the largest muscles, an evolutionary response to protect against physical danger. This redirected flow often results in cold hands. So when you warm them, that automatically sends signals to your nervous system that it’s okay to calm down, explains neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas. “Even simply visualising warm hands can be enough to help turn off the fight-or-flight reaction.”
DIG IN THE DIRT
According to a study in the Journal of Health Psychology, 30 minutes of gardening reduces stress levels more effectively than 30 minutes of reading quietly in a room. The researchers say it’s the result of physical activity. But perhaps the secret lies in the dirt itself. A few studies have shown a link between a common bacteria (Mycobacterium vaccae) found in garden soil and increased serotonin levels, meaning less anxiety. Gardeners may inhale this bacteria while digging in the soil. So head outside and start planning your new garden!
TAKE A TIME-OUT IN THE TUB
What you’ve always known about a bath’s power to relax body and mind is borne out by science. Research from the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that soaking in warm water daily is an effective way to ease anxiety. Add a soothing essential oil (like bergamot, lavender or German chamomile) for greater benefits. All you then need to do is relax.
TREAT YOURSELF TO A MASSAGE
This heavenly therapy slows the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which are linked to anxiety, says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Her research found that a month of weekly 20-minute massages lowers cortisol levels (“a very good objective index of anxiety,” she says) by 31 per cent. Massage also causes a relaxation response, which eases anxiety. Many day spas offer affordable 20-minute chair massages. Or you can practise self-massage using a tennis ball, suggests Field.
BE A JAW DROPPER
“Relaxing your tongue and jaw sends a message to your brain stem and limbic system to turn off the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol,” Lucas says. Simply let your tongue go limp in your mouth, and then open your mouth slightly, which will instantly loosen up your jaw. “These exercises help bring our parasympathetic nervous system online, which tells our bodies to rest and restore,” Lucas says.
SPEND TIME WITH A FURRY FRIEND
Owning an animal is an even more powerful way to cultivate calm than previously thought. An astonishing 82 per cent of PTSD patients paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40 per cent were able to decrease their medications, according to one study. The specially trained pooches can sense an oncoming panic attack before their owners do, and then give them a nudge to start some preemptive deep breathing.
First published: 27 Mar 2020