Want to feel more calm? These science-backed tools will push back at stress in the here and now
Finding balance is a long-term game; a way of life that’s woven into the fabric of our sleep, diet and working habits. You can’t order relaxation on next-day delivery (amazing as that would be).
But when the going gets tough, there are techniques that you can use for short-time relief.
These simple and effective tools won’t vanish your angst altogether, Rather they’ll take it to a slightly separate space, so that you’re one step removed from the turmoil in your head.
Whether you’re stressing out at work or in life more generally, these quick-fix steps will ease the weight of the moment:
Go for a five-minute walk
Yep, just five minutes in nature is enough to significantly lift your mood. When you head outdoors – if only to the local park – you escape the mass of office stimuli, and give your overloaded mind a chance to dial down in the landscape it evolved from. As cognitive psychologist Eric Strayer puts it, “there is something profound going on”.
Multiple studies have shown that exposure to green space has a powerful effect on wellbeing. It’s a “relaxation jackpot”, say scientists, which calms the central nervous system and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Don’t have time to break free? Make like Aristotle, and suggest a walking meeting with your colleagues. Boom.
Dab lavender oil on your pulses
Lavender isn’t just for bubble baths – its calming qualities can also be medicinal. Lab experiments have found that linalool, the fragrant vapour found in lavender essence, can quell anxiety in a similar fashion to sedative drugs.
Other research has shown that the Mediterranean herb is particularly effective for “on-the-spot” anxiety reduction, e.g. when you’re about to take an exam, or do a presentation. So go ahead and dab a little lavender oil onto your pulses to inhale when the going gets tough.
Listen to this one super-relaxing song
What’s the most relaxing tune in the world? You might think it’s something by Mozart, perhaps, or a dash of mellow Jack Johnson. But you’d be wrong. The answer actually lies in Weightless by the musical trio Marconi Union.
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Neuroscientists have found that listening to this one track lowers anxiety by an astonishing 65% – the most relaxing of any song tested to date. The same song also elicits a strong physical response, lowering heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing among those who tune into it.
The group created the work in consultation with sound therapists, combining harmonies, bass lines and percussion effects known to promote a deep state of relaxation.
Chew some gum
No-one knows exactly why it is, but it’s worth remembering that our ancestors used to chew tree resin way back when, as a therapeutic remedy. So its lasting popularity could have an evolutionary impetus.
Researchers speculate that gum chewing improves cerebral blood flow, or promotes feelings of happiness due to improved alertness and intellectual performance (yes gum chomping does this, too).
Surround yourself with desk plants
They’re the go-to emblem of a modern work space, but office plants are far more than a statement of hipster intent. A 2015 study shows indoor plants can reduce both physiological and emotional symptoms of stress, via the promotion of “comfortable, soothed, and natural feelings”.
In fact, just hanging out with a cacti or a spider plant for a small amount of time is enough to lower blood pressure, release muscle tension and subdue the body’s nervous system. Being around soil is also beneficial, due to microbes that work as natural antidepressants to “flood your body and boost your mood”, according to this Forbes article.
Campaign for an office dog
Nearly half of us would like to work in a dog-friendly office – and the benefits are perhaps more deep-rooted than we know. A 2012 study concluded that bringing a four-legged friend to work created a a significant dip in stress levels among employees, as well as driving up job satisfaction.
Another paper showed that when stressed-out university students got to pet and chat to canine companions, they felt more supported and less negative as a result (likely to due to release of the anti-stress “cuddle hormone” oxytocin).
Refocus on your body and breathe
There’s been a huge body of research in recent years that shows how mindfulness can reduce the adverse effect of anxiety and chronic stress. The antidote of fight-or-flight, this fabled “relaxation response” has been shown to soothe muscles, lower blood pressure and slow breathing rates. It may even cause positive changes in the brain.
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There’s no short-cut to achieving mindfulness, and everyone experiences it slightly differently. But one of its most basic elements comes from staying in the present, and setting aside your mental distractions to be in the here and now.
One simple way of achieving this in an office environment is simply to become aware of your body. Spend a few minutes to notice where your “feet, seat and hands” lie. Then take some slow abdominal breaths, perhaps putting your hands on your belly to connect up that moment.
Bloc off your email throughout the day
Email anxiety is a major issue these days; a 2016 study found the average worker spends four hours a day responding to messages, and (unsurprisingly) views their inbox as a major source of stress. Each new ping that comes in represents a fresh demand on your already stretched time and energy levels.
Psychologists from the London-based Future Work Centre have labelled email a “toxic source of stress”.
The academics found people were most stressed when they left their email on all day by default, and suggest taking back control to combat this.
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“You may want to consider launching your email application when you want to use email and closing it down for periods when you don’t wish to be interrupted by incoming emails,” the authors say in their paper. “In other words, use email when you intend to, not just because it’s always running in the background.”
Imposing an email curfew in the early morning and late at night may also work to promote feelings of calm, they said.