How many times have you read or been told that stress is good for you? Yeah, that's a lie.
It's a convenient "truth" told to keep us all working to the bone every week with just enough energy left to cry "TGIF!!" before gulping down a beer or six, then go shopping the next day to make us feel better, collapse for a day of semi-rest + house and yard work on Sunday, then back to the grind the next day.
Work hard and spend money. Rinse and repeat...week in, week out.
Don't get me wrong, actions and behaviors that lead to stress (and anxiety) can be good for you. Work ethic, productivity, solid goals and aspirations, resourcefulness, flexibility, competitiveness, and motivation (just to name a few) are vital for self-improvement and success.
The key here is balance.
In the United States we're inundated with messages like:
- if you want to achieve your dreams you have to work harder than everyone else
- pull up your bootstraps and get to work
- work hard, play hard
Yet, there's nothing offered to counterbalance this go, go, go mentality every day aside from spending money on a product for a quick fix or maybe going to church once a week.
What we need is a shift toward the radical notion of self-care and rest. It's time to prioritize relaxation and downtime, and incorporate habits into our lives that nurture our minds and bodies.
Then, when we have to deal with stressful or anxiety-inducing situations (a reality of life), we'll have the mental and physical fortitude to easily withstand them. Sound good to you? Keep reading, friend!
Why I'm Discussing Stress & Anxiety Today
I've had several people approach me recently wondering how to address occasional stress and anxiety in a healthy way that doesn't involve self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
On top of this, I also dealt with an intense amount of anxiety in October, so it's important to me to share what helped me cope while I felt overwhelmed.
I'm an extremely private person in real life (I mostly stick to recipes and DIY crafts here on the blog), so my decision to open up about my personal issues here where thousands of people can see it is totally out of character.
However, I'm trying to break out of my shell because 1) it's cathartic to discuss my issues, especially since I tend to internalize things and 2) my experience may help others, so I feel obligated to share.
What Stresses You Out And Makes You Want to Crawl Into a Hole?
Stress and anxiety affects all of us at some point. Everyone's "trigger" or "breaking point" is different. It could be emotional issues, relationship or family squabbles, financial troubles, exhaustion, specific health problems, pressure to fit in, poor health (i.e. lack of nutrition and sleep), major life changes, physical trauma...the list goes on.
In my case, it's personal health issues. Most problems thrown at me will either roll off my back or manifest as regular stress in the form of tense muscles and a tendency to reach for comfort food (fried chicken, ice cream, or cheez-its) and an extra glass of beer or wine.
However, when I have irregular sensations on/in my body it triggers anxiety (something I differentiate from stress) in the form of significantly reduced appetite, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Nothing debilitating, but still inconvenient, especially if it occurs for too long.
My problem is that once something weird happens (something I haven't experienced before) my mind goes into overdrive thinking of worse case scenarios and will not stop dwelling on it until I have an answer, usually from an expert (since it's health related) or it begins to dissipate. Can you relate? Maybe you experience the same physical reactions, but the trigger is different.
I recently dealt with this for about 8-10 days after I shocked myself pulling out a clothes dryer plug. I initially shrugged it off, then began freaking out, let it get worse, then finally saw my chiropractor and regular doctor, relaxed somewhat, still continued to have some anxiety, and then eventually began letting it go.
Long story short, the emotional aspects of our MIND have such a POWERFUL sway over our body. Our thoughts (intentional or not) can quickly cause physical reactions, especially when we're stressed or anxious. That's why it's important in stressful situations to stay in control of our thoughts (the best we can). Easier said than done, right?
What options do you have when you're feeling anxious or overly stressed once in a blue moon? What's the best way to calm yourself down and let the stress go?
There is no one "right way" that works for everyone, which is why I've compiled a list of 30+ different relaxation and calming techniques here today. If you're feeling stressed or anxious right now as you're reading this, I hope you can gain at least one practical method for calming yourself down and de-stressing from reading this post.
Several things on this list have worked well for me, and I intend to incorporate more of them into my life in the following months because (as I mentioned above) it's good to practice self-care and prioritize rest on a regular basis.
(Note: Let me be clear that I'm discussing normal anxiety that happens to all of us occasionally, NOT crippling everyday anxiety that occurs day in and day out for six months to a year or longer. The latter falls in the realm of medical conditions, which I can't address since I am not a licensed professional. I'm just one person who's sharing her personal experiences and what's worked for her in hopes of helping others. However, if you are dealing with ongoing issues I recommend seeking out a doctor, psychologist, therapist, naturopath, chiropractor, holistic nutritionist, and/or spiritual advisor for advice going forward. Do your research and keep your options open!)
30+ Ways to Relax and Keep Calm When You're Feeling Stressed Or Anxious
1. Deep, Controlled Breathing
Mindful, steady breathing is the number one thing that helps me when I feel stressed, anxious, or panicky on occasion. Taking deep, slow breaths in through your nose and exhaling out your mouth ensures you're getting enough oxygen and helps keep you physically grounded & focused on your body. This is tremendously helpful when your mind is racing and you need to re-center yourself. You can learn more about the benefits of deep breathing exercises here. I've also shared a Youtube video with a popular breathing exercise below if you'd like to try it right now.
Edit (4/10/16): You can also download free breathing & meditation apps on your phone. My favorite is an app called "Calm". On the first screen (free version) it plays ambient rain music while showing a visual representation of a shrinking and growing circle to follow as your take deep breaths in and out.
2. Creative Visualization
Feeling super overwhelmed right now? Here's a mental trick for calming yourself down. Visualize your stress or anxiety in your mind as a transitional object that shows up and then disappears. For example, picture your stress as a leaf that floats down in front of you and then blows away in the wind. Do this over and over again until you are calm.
What feeling does the smell of freshly baked banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, or cornbread evoke for you? What about cut grass, a peeled orange, or a burning campfire? Scents have a powerful effect on us and the best and fastest way to reach the mood center of our brain is through our nose! When inhaled, essential oils (and other wonderful scents) travel up our nose to the limbic system and within seconds can transform our mood.
For me, the most powerful essential oils (in this case) are those with grounding properties that help calm my mind so I can refocus. When I take deep whiffs directly from the bottle they can quickly transform my mood.
My favorites single essential oils for occasional stress and anxiety are true Frankincense (Boswellia carterii), Royal Hawaiian Sandalwood (Santalum paniculatum), Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica), Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides), Idaho Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), and Idaho Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). I also love the following Young Living essential oil blends: Stress Away, Peace & Calming, Valor, and White Angelica.
I also like to make a custom calming essential oil blend called "Chill the Heck Out", which basically smells like Lavender + Chamomile, but has a few other essential oils in it to help you relax and calm down day or night.
4. Hot Tea with Calming Herbs
I love sipping on hot tea blends that have herbs and spices that will help calm me down. You benefit not only from drinking the infused teas, but also smelling them while you sip away. Some of my current favorites are Chamomile with Lavender, Cinnamon Stress Ease, Peppermint Tulsi, Cup of Calm, Chamomile Lemon, Ginger Chamomile, and Lemon Balm.
5. Detox Baths with Magnesium
Who doesn't like a hot bath? They are sooo relaxing. Well, you can make them even better by throwing in 1-4 cups of magnesium flakes (magnesium chloride) or Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) + a cup of sea salt or baking soda, and 5-10 drops of essential oils (like lavender or frankincense) for aromatherapy. Don't have any essential oils on hand? You can also throw dried herbs first steeped in hot water into your bath. Learn more about herbal bathing here and nab a recipe. No matter what you use for scent in your detox bath, the key ingredient here is the magnesium chloride or sulfate.
Why magnesium? "Every organ in the body, especially the heart, muscles, and kidneys, needs magnesium. This mineral also contributes to the makeup of teeth and bones. Magnesium activates enzymes, contributes to energy production, and helps regulate levels of calcium, copper, zinc, potassium, vitamin D, and other important nutrients in the body. You can get magnesium from many foods. However, most people in the U.S. probably do not get as much magnesium as they should from their diet." Interestingly, certain scenarios like prolonged stress can lead to deficiencies of magnesium, and "inadequate magnesium appears to reduce serotonin levels", which can lead to mood fluctuations (source).
You can learn more about the importance of magnesium here and visit these posts from my blogging friends for more detox bath recipes: detox baths - recipes to calm the inner beast and whiny children and how to take a detox bath a.k.a. why you should be taking more baths.
6. Meditate or Pray
This one is pretty self-explanatory (both help quiet the mind, reconnect you to yourself and relax your body) and pairs well with the deep breathing exercises from tip #1.
7. Emotional Release
For folks like me who tend to internalize their feelings, a good cry is an excellent way to relax your whole body and mind. An impromptu cry is easier said than done, so you may need to seek out a sad movie or book, or maybe even a token from the past, to get the tears flowing.
8. Physical Release
For folks who aren't up for a good cry, physical release via exercise or any vigorous activity (like kickboxing, zumba, dancing, biking, or sex!) is excellent for a boost in endorphins. Personally, when I'm feeling stressed, I love to listen to the dance cardio station on Pandora and go for a short jog outside.
9. Talk with a Friend
Find your person--whoever that may be--and set up a time to see them or call them on the phone. Text, email, instant message & letters (yes, people still write these!) count, although these mediums won't have near the same impact as an exchange where you see or hear the person. Video chat is a good compromise if you have a long distance relationship. Talking with someone you care about helps to distract you from your worries so you can calm down!
10. Practice Gratitude
When you focus on what you're thankful for in your life, it puts things in perspective, improves your mood, and grounds you in reality. Try making a list of ten things you're grateful for right now. Bet you it's not hard! This works even better when you start your day intent on gratefulness and appreciating your surroundings.
11. Listen to Relaxing Music
Letting ourselves get lost in music can quickly improve our mood. Some folks prefer to listen to high energy music to boost their mood and let loose (their way of relaxing) while others prefer slow paced ambient music. I'm in the latter group. (Check out the video I posted below if you are, too!)
Whatever you enjoy, it's really easy to find something quickly by doing a search on Youtube or using a music app like Pandora or Spotify. Put on your favorite jams then try out tips #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 15!
12. Refocus Your Energy
One way to quiet and relax our mind is by distracting ourselves with a task that requires our full concentration or a lot of energy and movement (something repetitive or trance-like may help even more). Try deep cleaning, organizing, knitting, solving a puzzle (crosswords, logic, sudoku), doing math problems, playing cards, or taking apart and putting together something.
13. Go Outdoors and Meander About
Spending time outside (no matter the weather) helps to ground us in the physical, get fresh air, and gives us lots of stimuli to keep our mind busy when we're stressing about stuff. To ensure your time outdoors is well spent (not stressful), let yourself wander about without a destination or time limit. Give yourself a chance to slow down and explore your surroundings, even if that's simply the birds chirping away nearby or the cracks in the sidewalk as you're walking.
14. Acknowledge Your Feelings
Sometimes when we're feeling anxious and our mind is running a million miles an hour, the best thing to help us calm down is by acknowledging that we're experiencing anxiety. Give it a name and reassure yourself (multiple times over if need be) so you can identify it as a fleeting experience (happening as a result of our feelings) that will soon pass.
15. Massage Therapy
Since I tend to hold my stress in my neck, shoulders, and back, this is one of my favorite ways to relax (you'll feel great for days afterward), although I don't do it as often as I should. My favorite type of massage is deep tissue. It's a bit intense (so not for everyone); however, it's one of the best ways to work out the knots in my back! Just make sure you drink plenty of water before and after your massage so you can flush out all the built up toxins!
Don't have the funds to visit a massage therapist on a semi-regular basis? Grab some simple tools like a foam roller, massage therapy balls, or tennis balls and use the ground or a wall to work on yourself. Check out this tennis ball massage series to learn how to do simple trigger point massages at home (warning: it can be pretty painful, in a good way, so take it slow).
16. Get Adjusted
If you're too sedentary or active throughout the day, it's possible that you've pulled your spine out of alignment at some point. If you're experiencing discomfort or pain (especially due to stress), you may consider visiting a local (trustworthy) chiropractor to get adjusted.
17. Stretching and Yoga
Doing simple stretches once or twice a day is an easy and inexpensive way to help your body relax, give you more oxygen, and also boost your energy! As a blogger, I sit down way too much at a computer during the day, so I have to make a pointed effort to take breaks to stretch and get my body moving. Two of my current favorites are these quick desk stretches (you can do these sitting down) and these simple stretches and exercises to help undo the damage of sitting.
If you're looking for more in-depth stretching and breath work for relaxation, get yourself an inexpensive Yoga for Beginners DVD to do at home or attend a local class! Want to save a few bucks? Look for free yoga videos on Youtube (like the one I linked to below) or used yoga DVDs at your local library or thrift store; however, if you want a yoga mat, I recommend you buy one new. Used yoga mats = sweaty, dirty & gross.
18. Alone Time
For most introverts, it's vital to have alone time in order to recharge our energy and mental health. Hanging around lots of people for long periods and engaging in small talk with strangers can be draining and lead to stress and anxiety over time. It's important to make time to retreat and recharge, even if that's only 10-minute mini-breaks in the bathroom listening to your favorite song or reading a book (if you're a parent, grandparent, or sibling of a small child I'm sure you can relate).
No phone. No computer. No portable gaming consoles. No TV. No frenetic, constantly updating information to keep up with or new emails to read. No pressure from the outside or endless, mindless distractions. Instead, pour positive energy into yourself and recharge by enjoying some quiet time unplugged. This pairs well with #4 and 13.
20. Do Something Creative
Working on a creative project or task helps you refocus mental energy toward something positive and productive. Some of my favorite ways to harness creative energy are crafting, writing, photographing, and cooking.
If you're looking for ideas, check out my DIY crafts index, follow my Crafty Ideas Pinterest board, or browse through the Craftsy site for a variety of free or discounted classes that will teach you new skills on topics like photography, knitting, cooking, jewelry making, quilting, cake decorating, and more!
21. Adult Coloring Books
Art therapy of any kind is helpful for relaxing and refocusing the mind, but my favorite right now is adult coloring books. It is so fun and carefree to color away while listening to music and sipping on a cup of hot tea of a glass of wine. I just bought the Color Me Calm coloring book last week (pictured below) and LOVE IT.
If you're looking to buy an adult coloring book for yourself, a friend, or family member (they make excellent gifts), The Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book is one of the most popular right now and this set of 150 colored pencils will keep them happy for hours!
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Once I'm feeling calmer from doing methods #1, 2 or 3, reading is one of my favorite ways to de-stress. Reading actively engages your brain and allows "the self" to disappear for hours at a time as you're transported through time and space via your imagination.
I usually buy new books locally to support brick & mortar bookstores (I don't want them to disappear), but you can also find good deals online via Amazon. For used or free books, check out Half Price Books, thrift stores, your local library or university, or the daily free Kindle ebooks on Amazon (make sure to download the free kindle reading app if you're not using your computer).
Need some recommendations? Here are a few of my all-time favorites + recent books I've read: Slaughterhouse-Five, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Harry Potter series, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Gone Girl, The Language of Flowers, The Devil in the White City (currently reading).
23. Declutter and Purge
Living or working in an environment that's cluttered with objects that don't have a purpose or give you joy (taking principles from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) can create a lot of stress. All these things are taking up precious space and energy! I like to go through one type of item every 1-2 months (clothes and books are the main offenders in my home), reevaluate their purpose, and then donate.
Edit: I completed the KonMari Method for "tidying" my home in early January and it totally changed my life & home for the better!
Need to recycle, donate, or throw away stuff, but not sure where to start? Check out this helpful Decluttering from A to Z series with lots of ideas for how to organize your home a little bit each day.
24. Make Sleep a Priority
One of the greatest factors in how well I can cope with stressful or anxiety-inducing situations is how much sleep I've had the night before. Sleep is vital for keeping your mind and body running properly.
Want good sleep and enough of it? Make it a priority.
- Invest in a good mattress + pillows that won't leave you tossing and turning all night.
- Start a nightly routine to ease yourself into sleep, so you can fall asleep more quickly once you're ready. Maybe that means turning off electronics and reading a book or working on a puzzle. I drink 1-2 cups of this nighty night herbal tea almost every night to help me get sleepy faster. The main ingredient is passionflower, which is amazing for relaxing you into zzzzzzz's.
- Sleep in every chance you get, even if that means saying no to early morning social obligations.
- Can't get enough sleep at night right now? Take naps! They're great for quieting your mind and resetting your body during the day when you're feeling frazzled. I like to take 30 or 90-minute naps (occasionally) so I don't wake up groggy.
Sometimes our bodies need a gentle detox (i.e. break) in order to get our digestive system back on track, especially if we've been dealing with stress or anxiety, both of which directly impact our digestion. If that's the case, I recommend checking out my 15 Ways to Detox Naturally Without Starving Yourself or Going Broke post for easy ideas.
26. Engage in Small Acts of Kindness
Need a break from your thoughts and worries? Step away from your problems by focusing on others and how you can help them. It could be something as simple as complimenting a stranger or holding open a door for a mom with an armful of kids when you're out and about, to putting together homeless care kits to give out during the holidays when you see someone in need.
27. Make a List and Plan
If you have a daunting task or goal that is causing you stress, tackle it on paper. Break the tasks down into small, actionable steps so you can feel accomplished by crossing off each thing. I have been known to frequently add "drink coffee" near the top of my daily to-do lists. Maybe it's super cheesy, but crossing something off immediately tells my brain "hey, you achieved something! Now keep going!"
Long term to-do lists are also great, but (in my opinion) they never seem to work unless accompanied by a solid, actionable plan to help set them in motion. Otherwise, they remain in the "I'll do that in the future" category, i.e. never going to happen. But, hey...that's what yearly planners are for, right?
28. Do a Brain Dump
This one is super helpful if you're a worry wart and/or have a lot of obligations on your plate. Grab a notebook and literally write down every single thing that comes to mind. Things that you need to do today, tomorrow, or the rest of the week. Long term goals you have, or events you need to plan for soon.
Write down everything that's been floating around your brain. Passwords, emails, to-do lists, conversations, weekly appointments, random ideas--dump it all on paper. Doing this gives your brain a break from trying to remember every single little thing 24/7, which creates an immense amount of stress.
29. Watch or Read Something That Makes You Laugh
No one knows better than you what makes you laugh. Go find it and amuse yourself for an instant endorphins boost! For me, that's usually cat videos!
The Sunny D meme below always makes me laugh. I can't believe I never noticed this about their logo until it was pointed out. I drank this stuff up until I was 15 probably (gross)!
These days I enjoy cat and dog videos, H3H3 Productions (they do parody & reaction videos), The Oatmeal, Hyperbole and a Half, Half in the Bag, and Whine About It for a good chuckle.
If you're in a situation that's causing you major stress or anxiety, step away, even if it's just the next room over. Can't separate yourself physically? For example, maybe you're in the backseat of a car and the two people in the front are arguing (teenagers might relate). Distance yourself mentally by putting on some headphones and cranking up the music until it's barely loud enough to cover the source of the noise or help you immense yourself.
31. Just Say No
Are you a people pleaser? You know, the type of person who always says YES to everything just so you can be seen as the "nice one" while also avoiding conflict? This is exhausting! Not only that but when your plate is already piled high with obligations and you keep blindly accepting more of them, it only leads to a ton more stress. In the long run, this can cause a weakened immune system and all sorts of other potential problems. When you're already taxed, you need to learn to say "NO" politely and firmly so you can take care of yourself!
Not sure how to do that? Check out this post for six simple tips to say no without being an a-hole.
32. Focus on the Present
One of the best and fastest tricks when you're feeling stressed or anxious (on occasion) is to focus on something happening in the present. Forget memories from the past that you always linger on and potential what ifs in the future you keep worrying about, and instead focus on something tangible here and now.
For example, place your hand on your chest and feel the rhythm of your heart beat. Or put a few fingers along your neck to do the same with your pulse. Feel the steady sensation and count the beats. Relax and know you are alive. Quick exercises like these where you focus on and acknowledge your fives senses help to bring you out of your thoughts and ground you in the physical.
33. EFT Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique)
I was recently introduced to tapping by my sister after her acupuncturist recommended she try it for migraines. The basic principle behind this technique is that all negative emotion is caused by a disruption in the body's energy systems. Our mind and body are intricately connected and any unbalance on either side affects the other.
Tapping can help restore the body's energy systems and let you move past emotional issues by focusing (tapping) on specific meridian points on the body. While doing this you openly acknowledge your issues (whether physical or emotional) and then focus on the positive side by saying positive affirmations. You can read more about tapping here, here, and here.
My sister begged me for weeks to try this and I finally did. At first, I felt a little silly, but within two minutes I was feeling really GOOD! It's totally worth a try! What do you have to lose? Nothing!
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I'd like to hear from YOU!
What are your favorite ways to relax and calm down with you're feeling stressed or anxious? Is this list missing any good tips? Please leave a comment letting me know your thoughts! :)
P.S. Ready to Read More? Check Out These Other Posts From The Rising Spoon: