If you’re having trouble unwinding after long days or weeks, you’re not alone.
In fact, according to research conducted by the American Psychological Association, 48% of people regularly lie awake at night, too stressed to sleep.
And if the sources of your mental anguish are primarily job pressure, money, and health, you’re also in abundant company–they’re the top causes of stress in the US.
The bottom line is tens of millions of people could use better strategies for managing stress in their lives. And the simplest way to do this is to get smart about how you relax.
If you can balance stress and relaxation well, you’ll improve every aspect of your life. You’ll be happier, more productive, emotionally stable, and healthier, and you’ll be able to carry much heavier burdens with relative ease.
In this article I’m going to share with you 10 easy, inexpensive, and scientifically validated ways to beat stress and relax. But first, let’s talk about the relationship between stress and relaxation, and why stress isn’t necessarily the enemy.
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Most people think of stress in purely negative terms, assuming that it should be avoided at all costs.
This is wrongheaded.
Like exercise, our bodies were designed to use the “fight-or-flight” response to deal with stress. In fact, research shows that acute stress enhances immunity, which in turn accelerates recovery processes and increases resistance to infection.
It wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that regular bouts of stress is conducive to your overall health and well-being.
Feed your body too much stress medicine, though, and that’s when the problems begin.
You see, our bodies just haven’t learned how to effectively cope with chronic stress. We remain on high alert and age faster, become more susceptible to disease, and experience elevated levels of systemic inflammation.
The solution isn’t to avoid stress at all costs but to manage it. And the key to managing stress is being able to effectively and reliably relax.
Like stress, the effects of relaxation go deeper than most people realize. Research shows that relaxation has the power to alter genetic expression involved with inflammation, programmed cell death, and free radical neutralization.
It’s not a stretch to say that the overall quality and longevity of your life is going to depend heavily on how well you can relax.
And that’s why I want to share with you 10 scientifically validated ways to relieve stress and relax your muscles and mind. Use this list to create a nightly relaxation routine and you’ll sleep better, feel better, and stay healthier.
Let’s get to it.
Aromatherapy is a couple-thousand-year-old way to reduce stress and promote relaxation that also has some modern scientific evidence on its side.
Specifically, research shows that the scent of certain essential oils, like lavender, bergamot, chamomile, and geranium, can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep quality.
The easiest way to incorporate this into your relaxation routine is to use a diffuser, like this:
And as far as brands of essential oils go, I personally like NOW Foods.
I probably don’t need to appeal to research to convince you that receiving a massage is a great way to relieve stress, but this rather interesting study demonstrated that giving a massage has similar effects.
That’s right: make a deal with your significant other to trade massages before bed and a whole lotta relaxation is going to occur.
The benefits of massage don’t stop there, though. Research shows it also reduces pain, anxiety, and depression, and increases immunity as well. It doesn’t take a lot to get the job done, either. Just 10 to 15 minutes of massage is enough to reap its many benefits.
One the most basic, effective tools soldiers have to keep their cool while under fire is controlling their breathing.
Shallow, rapid breaths drawn into the chest area indicate and increases stress, whereas deep breaths involving the diaphragm (“belly breathing”) reduces stress and increases antioxidant activity.
The key to deep breathing is that you slowly inhale with both your chest and relaxed belly (don’t suck your stomach in). You want to expand your ribcage and fill the entirety of your lungs with oxygen with each breath.
We know that high amounts of stress is associated with impaired health, but there’s a twist…
Research shows that our perception of stress as harmful is what really gives it teeth. That is, it’s possible that getting overly stressed about stress is what makes it harmful.
Studies show that we can consciously reappraise stressful situations–choose to look at them differently–and thereby deprive them of their destructive power.
A frustrating situation doesn’t have to be an excuse to rip your hair out. Instead, it can be viewed as an opportunity to exercise a virtue like patience or tolerance. Remember that a setback is also an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work. A painful situation can teach you that you’re tougher than you thought.
(This reappraisal strategy is far from new, by the way. Marcus Aurelius had it right a couple thousand years ago with his Meditations, which you need to read if you haven’t already.)
Here’s how Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist and author of several fantastic books, explains it:
Remember, though, that reappraisal isn’t everything.
Some problems can’t be willed away and must be met head on, with action.
Buried in debt? Start paying it down. Deadlines looming? Get to work. Neglected spouse? Whisk them away for a weekend.
There’s more you can do to master stress.
Don’t let the little things to get to you.
Many people get so worked up over every hassle, quibble, and foible that you’d swear they were hopelessly addicted to stress. So their Starbucks wasn’t made the way they like it or someone cut them off in traffic or …is it really worth going DEFCON 1?
Well, you may not be able to control the urge to flip out, but you don’t have to give in to it. You can choose to let certain things go without incident.
Use logic to defuse a stressful situation.
The problem with stressors is they bypass our critical filters with ease and just take the reigns. Before we know it we’re hyperventilating over something incredibly improbable or with relatively benign consequences.
Before you allow something to stress you out, stop for a moment ask yourself its power and likelihood to negatively impact your life justifies the response. Oftentimes that alone will be enough to take the edge off the situation.
Don’t tell yourself you’re so stressed.
Don’t underestimate your power to psyche yourself up or out.
Say you’re stressed and you can be sure you’ll feel that way. You’ve just given up control of your emotions and often your actions.
Choose to view the situation differently, however–as a chance to grow, learn, or even just toughen the hell up–and you rob stress of the only real power it has: the power you grant it.
Spend more time helping others.
Some of the most stressed out people I know are also some of the biggest self-absorbed assholes you’d ever want to meet.
Harsh words, but true. And hell, I should know I’ve been guilty of it myself many times.
Well, if being a good person isn’t motivation enough to get out of your head and help someone else, research shows that people that help their friends and family are, to a degree, immunized against the harmful effects of stress.
Getting enough quality sleep is a major part of dealing with stress and preserving your health, and staring at a screen–whether TV, iPad, iPhone, or eReader–is a great way to ruin your sleep hygiene.
Research shows that nighttime light exposure suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness, which not only makes it harder to fall asleep but also reduces the quality of the sleep you do get.
And with consequences as serious as these, we simply can’t afford to make a habit of melatonin suppression.
That said, completely eliminating all exposure to light once the sun goes down isn’t exactly feasible (I doubt you’re willing to “go dark” come 7 PM). Fortunately, you don’t have to.
First, research shows that light’s melatonin suppressing effects depend on intensity. The more intense the light, the more it suppresses melatonin levels.
Thus, a good rule of thumb is to keep light after dark as dim as possible and sleep in complete darkness.
Second, research shows that the short-wavelength, “blue” light emitted by devices like televisions, computer screens, and smart phones is particularly effective in suppressing melatonin production.
Thus, reducing or eliminating altogether your nighttime exposure to this blue light is an effective way to preserve healthy levels of melatonin production.
How to do this, though?
Again, banning the use of all electronics after sundown probably isn’t going to happen. And again, fortunately, you don’t have to.
One option is the free program f.lux, which automatically adjusts the color of your screen to the time of the day, eliminating blue light at night. This is a good start but what about blue light exposure from other sources like ambient lighting or the television?
Research shows that amber-lensed goggles are great for this, and result in improved mood and sleep.
I know, I know, it’s kind of dorky, but seriously–these types of glasses are extremely effective at blocking blue light and preserving healthy melatonin production.
Staring at screens at night messes up your melatonin, and, it turns out, staring at them too much in general messes up your mind.
Research shows that the more people use and feel tied to their computers and cell phones, the more stressed they feel. In fact, overuse of technology has even been linked with various symptoms of poor mental health like depression.
Here’s a quick summary of the findings:
- People that used their cell phones heavily were more likely to complain of sleep disorders and depression.
- People constantly available on their cell phones were the most likely to experience mental health issues.
- People who regularly use the computer late at night were more likely to experience sleep disorders, stress, and depression.
- Combine both heavy computer and cell phone use and the associations become stronger.
- Frequent computer use without breaks increases the likelihood of stress, sleep problems, and depression.
Scientists aren’t clear as to causes, but the association is: the more time you spend with your devices, the worse your mental state will be.
Next time you’re stressed, put on some slow, quiet classical music and before long you’ll be nestled in its soothing embrace.
Mozart can do more than just chill you out, though.
I’m a big fan of tea and its many health benefits, and here’s another reason to drink it regularly: it
A large study conducted with 42,093 Japanese individuals found that regular green tea consumption was associated with lower levels of psychological distress.
When you review the daily routines of many of history’s greatest thinkers and innovators, you’ll quickly notice how many of them valued long walks in nature.
For example, Beethoven spent his afternoons walking in the Vienna Woods and found his best inspiration always came while walking. Tchaikovsky was equally adamant about his twice-a-day walks, which he felt were essential for his health and creativity.
Well, research shows that they were onto something: just 25 minutes of walking in an urban park is enough to reduce frustration and improve mood.
For thousands of years hot baths have been used to ease pain, aid in relaxation, and ward off and treat disease.
In fact the word spa comes from the Latin sanus per aquam–“health through water”–which was an ancient Roman remedy for battle-weary soldiers.
Modern medical research has confirmed some of what our ancient ancestors already knew: regular dips in hot water are healthful and restorative.
(Get even more relaxation from regular baths by adding essential oils!).
Your relaxation toolbox is now full of goodies. All you have to do is put them to good use.
Use strategies like deep breathing and reappraisal to defuse stress situations. Use strategies like taking a walk and drinking tea to maintain your calm throughout the day. And use strategies like hot bathing, classical music, and essential oils to wind down at night and sleep like a baby.