Relaxation Tips: 5 Easy Ways to Reduce Stress and Unwind

article image
“Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You” is the time-strapped reader’s guide to self-improvement, with bite-sized tips, strategies and inspirations that add up to a big impact on well-being. Drawing upon the latest science and the knowledge of top authorities in the fields of nutrition, mental health, fitness and psychology, author Jessica Cassity presents 365 nuggets of insight and advice for bettering your life, including ideas for choosing natural remedies — acupressure over Advil, tea tree oil over toxic air fresheners — de-cluttering, eating better, banishing anxiety and worry, enriching your relationships, clearing away mental baggage, and much, much more.

The following is an excerpt from Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You by Jessica Cassity (Chronicle Books, 2011).

Decompress During Your Commute

Whether it takes you minutes or hours to get home from the office, all work-related thoughts should be history by the time you step in the front door, says Gabriela Corá, M.D., founder of the Executive Health & Wealth Institute in Miami. To ease the transition from work to home, make the most of your drive, walk or subway ride.

“If you’re still on the phone and checking emails after you leave work, your commute is just an extension of your day at the office,” Corá explains. To arrive home fresh, shift your attention away from your job. If you’re driving a car, listen to music, a comedy show or an audio book to divert your thoughts. If you’re riding a train or bus, read an enjoyable book or play games on your mobile phone.

According to Corá, some people may be able to make the shift from work mode to the rest of their lives very quickly, but most of us require a 15- to 30-minute break. It may mean setting strict boundaries — like vowing not to check email until you’re back in the office — but it’s worth it. Taking the time you need to transition from office to home will help you to walk into your house refreshed and ready to enjoy your non-work hours.

Watching Television Doesn’t Actually Let You Unwind

The average adult watches more than four hours of television each day, according to the Nielsen ratings, largely in the name of “relaxation.” But the effects of TV are usually the exact opposite, says Marc Berman, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. “People think it’s restful, because it’s so easy to do — you just sit on the couch.” But, rather than walking away refreshed, you could feel crankier and more tired with too much TV time.

“A lot of television is designed to keep you totally engaged,” says Berman, who researches, among other things, the effect of different environments on memory and focus. So, while you may be hoping to give your mind a rest after a long day at work, you’re simply engaging in a different activity that still requires all of your attention resources.

To actually unwind, consider an activity that really is restorative — one that allows your focus to soften. Meditation or exercise can help you ease your mind, or get outside for a walk and admire the view — being in nature has a restorative effect, and even looking at pictures of trees and other natural elements can be calming. “Nature gives you opportunities to reflect that other stimulating activities like watching TV don’t,” Berman says.

Be Selfish to Boost Your Benevolence

When a friend is going through a rough time or a sibling asks for guidance, you’re always there. It’s true that helping others provides you with a feel-good surge, but over time, constant generosity can actually wear you out and benevolent acts can become draining. The best way to really recharge is by taking time for yourself, says Linda Lantieri, director of The Inner Resilience Program, an organization focused on building emotional strength in school teachers. By taking a break, you’ll keep compassion fatigue from setting in.

“Self-care — taking the time to replenish your emotional resources — allows you to fine-tune your own instrument, the way you relate to the world,” Lantieri says. “Your generosity can’t come from an empty vessel.” To refill your reserves, make time for the activities you enjoy, particularly ones that leave you feeling elevated and calm. Yoga and meditation work for some people, while others turn to gardening, cooking or creative writing. “To be compassionate toward others, you need to be compassionate toward yourself first,” Lantieri says. Give yourself the space to de-stress and recharge, and you’ll be better able to offer support.

Ease Shoulder Tension in Two Minutes

When you’re feeling stressed, your neck and shoulders may start to ache. This sort of soreness can be avoided. “Shoulder tension is often due to head placement,” says Joan Arnold, a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique in New York City. As you lift your shoulders from stress, your head starts to fall back, taking your body out of alignment. By relaxing and lengthening the neck, you’ll be able to soften the shoulders and bring the head back to a more comfortable position.

When you start to feel tense, close your eyes for two minutes and think about your neck as an open channel for breath, Arnold suggests. This helps your head move into a place where it’s balanced atop your spine with a slight tilt forward — a position that allows your neck and shoulders to relax and air to pass through with ease. Keep this position in mind throughout your day; make time for a quick posture check each time you start to feel tense.

Plant Your Way to Peace of Mind

Gardening can boost the curbside appeal of your home, but tilling soil and trimming plants can also bring a major dose of stress relief. Take, for example, one study from the Netherlands: Thirty test subjects were asked to either garden or read after a stressful situation. Both tasks reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, but the weeders and planters saw greater drops. What’s more, when the test subjects were asked how they felt, the gardeners reported feeling fully recovered from the stress, while the people who had read actually reported feeling worse.

So, the next time you need to blow off steam, reach for a trowel. Working the soil, planting seeds and tending to fully grown plants can help you to bury your stress almost instantly. Also, because both viewing the color green and being in green space have been shown to have positive effects on anxiety, you’ll be rewarded by simply being in your garden as well as by the act of gardening itself.

Reprinted with permission from Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You, published by Chronicle Books, 2011.