When stress has us feeling overwhelmed, conflicted and even quite literally, lost for words, it can help to have some simple measures to hand to find a way to help ourselves come down from the ceiling.
Our bodies are designed to calm back down to rest after a shock, but we are no longer living with the more primal fight or flight circumstances they expect.
Living in the modern world, with more insidious and long-term emotional and psychological stressors – as well as money worries, job and family demands – can have us stuck in loops of constant alertness and struggling to relax.
Here are some unexpected and effective de-stress tricks to have up your sleeve:
- Wash your hands in warm water
There are many actions that we can feel drawn to naturally that help our body’s self-soothing mechanisms, the ability to come down the other side of the heightened stress response. Immersing any part of our bodies in warm water engages the calming parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
This can be done with regular baths (add Epsom salts for extra soothing) but in the moment of a stressful event, removing yourself to wash your hands can give you both the space and body connection to regain composure.
- Hum a tune
Ever noticed that happy people tend to hum? It’s no coincidence that humming is associated with being in an easy-going and laid-back mode. Studies suggest that the combination of vocalisation and vibration have a positive effect on our blood pressure, which is raised as part of the stress response.
Singing and chanting can help our stress levels, but humming a catchy tune in that moment you need some stress relief is a great emergency strategy.
- Make an ugly face
Stress creates a lock-down effect on the body with tense jaw, headaches and teeth grinding common stress-related symptoms. The frowning and pursing lips that can accompany the seriousness and concentration when we go into survival mode can get stuck, telling the whole body to keep in constant alert mode.
In yoga classes, I always start with face and jaw release to allow all muscles to get the signal that it is safe to release. Gurning – aka facial distortion – gives tense muscles a well-needed inner massage, makes us feel carefree and may even make you laugh if you do it with a friend. Get as ugly as you can!
- Chewing on celery
Research has shown that chewing helps to reduce cortisol levels, studies were done on gum, but there is a better way to not confuse the digestive system to expect food that doesn’t arrive. Chewing works probably partly because eating engages the calming side of the nervous system and also it unlocks a jaw that get clenched when stress hits.
Often this leads us to stress eat, but if we choose to munch on celery, we can also benefit from its calming chemical apigenin – the basis of its long traditional use as an anxiety and insomnia remedy.
Stress has us in conflict between our logical higher left brain and our primal emotional lower brain, leaving little room for reflection and creative thought. Choosing to switch the mode we’re in to one that engages the creative upper right brain can move us from the caught, constrictive state of the issue and give us the time and space to find room to calm down and a fresh perspective.
Keeping a doodle pad on your desk means you can shift gears to just draw and express whatever needs to come out. You don’t need to be ‘good’ at it, just to go with the focus on a different activity and feel some freedom. Move your fingers around before you start to free joints that might be locked in from computer work.
- Pinch your eye brows
The stress response involves a clenching of the jaw that is designed to increase blood flow around the brain to prepare us for quick responses, but we can get stuck in this furrowed brow phase. This can be one of the root causes of tension headaches around the temples or forehead and when muscle gets stuck in contraction, it can help to give it something to do. Massaging squeezes muscle to emulate contraction and prompt a following release.
A mini facial massage can create a ripple-effect through the whole body; start by pinching your eyebrows near your nose and progressively pinch out a line to their ends and out across the temples, focussing on whatever spots respond well and ask you for a little more kind attention.
You can even follow this out around the back of your ears, down the back sides of your neck and out across the tops of your shoulders. You may feel like you want to move your jaw around, roll your shoulders and even shake to discharge the energy from tension released after.
- Put on lip salve
You might find yourself wanting to eat or touch your mouth when you’re stressed. This is because touching our lips provokes that calming nervous system tone and helps us self-soothe.
Rather than turn to stress-grazing and mindless eating that can add to the stressful low self-esteem of weight gain, applying lip salve when we need that soothing touch can also help address the dry lips often caused by the mouth-breathing associated with stress. Choose one made from natural ingredients (I love Pure Potions) to ensure your habit doesn’t pile in the chemicals.
- Eat a salad
The stress response can send us in the impulsive direction of piling in the sugar, refined carbs and junk fats. Salad might seem the most attractive option at this point, but it can help to learn that lettuce has long been attributed with mild sedative qualities and was known as ‘sleepwort’ by the Anglo-Saxons.
This is due to a substance called lactucarium or ‘lettuce opium’ found in the latex of the stems. If you add in healthy fat and protein sources (fish, goat’s cheese, nuts) and chew thoroughly (see above) you have the recipe for your meal to be a soothing experience, rather than a quick fuel-up that reduces your ability to cope with stress.
- Take your shoes off
When we get lost up in our heads, it can help to feel into our feet and ground down into the earth. Stuffing our feet into shoes continually may constrict circulation and affect our musculo-skeletal system above your feet, adding to body tension.
This may be easier to do if you work from home, but getting naked ankle-down and wiggling your toes is the kind of small muscle activity that helps discharge tension out through the periphery. Wearing rubber soled shoes that don’t allow us to discharge electro-magnetic radiation (from electricity and technology) through the earth may create a stressing build-up of positive charge in the body.
If that last fact feels a little on the hippy side for you, you must admit it’s good to take off your shoes!
- Rub and hug yourself
We are pack mammals – warm-blooded creatures that have evolved to respond with reward to any action that secures the cohesion of the tribe. Many of us don’t get the level of touch, comfort and bodily heat that comes from continual close proximity to others.
Particularly if you’re single or feel you need more comfort than you receive from a partner, giving yourself a massaging hug, rubbing and kneading any part of your body that feels right, creates the same soothing oxytocin rush as getting a cuddle from someone else. Oxytocin is the hormone that we pump out when we’re in love or breastfeeding and it helps to make us feel that everything is ok.