More than two-thirds of Brits admit to feeling stressed – with one in 10 ranking themselves “very stressed” – so here are some simple, surprising, cheap and scientific ways to chill out.
Does the sound of a new email arriving fill you with panic when you’re already too busy? Is the sight of the postman clutching the gas bill enough to tighten your stomach?
Life can get pretty hectic and if you often find your stress levels rising, you are not alone.
More than two-thirds of Brits admit to feeling stressed, according to a recent survey by Green Flag – with a huge one in 10 ranking themselves in the “very stressed” category.
Transport delays, workload and bills were listed as the main causes. But while we’ve all come to accept a little bit stress is an unavoidable part of fast-paced modern life, it can trigger a whole host of health problems including depression, heart attacks, high blood pressure, infertility and IBS.
So to mark National Stress Awareness Day tomorrow, experts reveal their simple, surprising, cheap and scientific ways to alleviate stress (without resorting to comfort food, alcohol or fags!)
1. Count backwards from 20,000
“Take deep breaths in and out through the nose to promote relaxation and induce calm,” says Tony Wrighton, NLP expert and host of podcast Zestology ( tonywrighton.com/zestology ).“
Now count backwards from the number 20,000. The breaths don’t have to match the counting. Count for a minute and focus on your breathing. If you lose your place or get the numbers wrong, go back to 20,000 and start the minute again.
“It is surprisingly hard to focus on the numbers and get it right. The change in focus is important. It’s all about putting your attention in different place.”
2. Give yourself a belly rub
Our bodies have certain pressure points that alleviate stress when massaged. “One of the most powerful is the gastric point,” says Neil Shah of The Stress Management Society.
“It’s two or three finger widths down from your bottom rib, in line with your belly button. It’s quite sensitive. Using two fingers, gently massage it. The more you do it, the more stress you’ll relieve.”
3. Go a bit nutty
When you’re under stress, your body and brain use up certain vitamins faster. Charlotte Watts, author of The De-Stress Effect, says nuts are a great source of nutrients – ones like B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and omega oils, which are all quickly used when stress strikes.
Nuts also naturally balance blood sugar levels and have been shown to reduce sugar cravings, regulate appetite and support metabolism. Have a handful of almonds, walnuts or Brazil nuts mid-afternoon to keep stress-related cravings at bay.
4. Eat liquorice
Liquorice helps support the adrenals – the glands that release stress hormones, and these can become depleted from too much sugar and caffeine. Charlotte adds: “Liquorice is great if you suffer energy dips but want to keep away from chocolate”.
Panda Liquorice Bars (£2.45, Holland & Barrett) are sweetened with molasses which give you a slower energy hit.
5. Try colouring and origami
Colouring is said to calm the part of the brain related to the fear/stress response while stimulating the parts of the brain responsible for creativity and logic.
A 2005 study documented a reduction in anxiety in subjects after a short time of colouring geometric patterns. In fact, colouring therapy is being used for those with anxiety and stress-related disorders.
Origami – folding squares of paper into various shapes – is just as absorbing, relaxing and calming. See Step-by-Step Zen Doodle Origami by Caroline Scrace for inspiration.
6. Boil a kettle…
Or eat ice cream. These can both be effective and calming if done mindfully, say the authors of Mindfulness for Women, Vidyamala Burch and Claire Irvin.
The key here is to pay full attention to your actions. Use all your senses to concentrate on what you’re doing – for instance, try to smell the water pouring from the tap and close your eyes to listen to the kettle heating up.
Likewise, look at the texture and colours of the ice cream. Appreciate the sensations of the first mouthful.
7. Hum a tune
Studies suggest that the combination of vocalisation and vibration has a positive effect on our blood pressure , helps relax tense muscles, blocks out racing thoughts and makes sure we breathe more deeply and calmly.
“Singing and chanting can help our stress levels, but humming a catchy tune when you need some stress relief is a great emergency strategy,” says Charlotte.
8. List your good points
Studies indicate that listing things you’re grateful for decreases stress. The feeling of gratitude boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, both associated with happiness and calm.
Simply writing down five things you’re grateful for each day, can rewire your brain and have a dramatic effect on stress levels. Even small things like “fresh bed linen” or “enjoying a latte” are enough. Try a gratitude app:
9. Find Nemo
For years, dentists and doctors have installed fish tanks in waiting rooms in the hope of calming stressed patients. But a recent study from the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, has shown for the first time that staring at swimming fish really does lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate.
And, according to a survey by aquatic leaders Tetra, keeping fish in the home helps to create a calm, mindful atmosphere.
10. Take a salt bath
Epsom salts increase the water’s specific gravity, making you feel more lightweight while helping muscles relax. Your body also absorbs the salts which helps replenish magnesium stores, a mineral that is reduced with stress.
11. Chuck stuff out
Clutter causes people to feel oppressed, stressed and depressed , explains Dr Trisha MacNair, author of The Long Life Equation. It can raise your pulse, blood pressure and stress hormones, taking a negative toll on your health.
Be ruthless – sell, donate or chuck unnecessary possessions.
12. Blast out some classical music
Listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major three times led to a significant drop in stress-induced anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure concluded a recent scientific study. “There is a neurological reaction to listening to music,” says Dr Catriona Morrison, a psychology lecturer at the University of Leeds.
Classical music can quickly relax the nervous system but, rather than having it on the background, take five minutes to tune in when you feel stressed. Close your eyes and really immerse yourself in the sound.
13. Switch off
Turn off your phone and/or tablet for 30 minutes per day. Divide the time if you like but make sure each slot is at least 10 minutes long and your device must be off – not on silent. Do this for your commute home, when you’re preparing the evening meal or when you’re soaking in the bath to effectively turn down your stress dial.
14. Get physical
Try acting on the body’s fight or flight stress response by doing something physical, advises Neil.
“Give your body what it’s anticipating. It’s the quickest and easiest way to release stress. That doesn’t mean you have to hit the treadmill, it could be a brisk walk around the block,” he says.
15. Talk to others
Discuss how you’re feeling with family and friends who can help you devise coping strategies. Or check out Pencourage ( pencourage.com ), a new online journal that encourages people to get online and speak frankly, openly and honestly to relieve stress.
Not only does voicing your thoughts have huge psychological benefits, the escapism of reading other entries can relieve stress, says consultant psychologist Dr Michael Sinclair.
16. Chew celery
Research has shown chewing helps to reduce cortisol levels. Studies were done on gum, but celery seems to work as eating engages the calming side of the nervous system and it unlocks a clenched jaw, explains Charlotte.
And munching on celery means we can also benefit from its calming chemical apigenin – the basis of its long traditional use as an anxiety and insomnia remedy. Avoid chewing gum as it can confuse your digestive system into expecting food which doesn’t arrive.
17. Make an ugly face
Stress creates a lockdown effect on the body with a tense jaw, headaches and teeth grinding common stress-related symptoms, explains Charlotte.
“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 alert mode. In yoga classes, I start with face and jaw exercises to allow all muscles to get the signal that it is safe to release.
Gurning – aka facial distortion – gives tense muscles an inner massage, makes us feel carefree and may even make you laugh if you do it with a friend.”
18. Live in the moment
Stressed-out people always worry about what happens next in life, instead of enjoying the here and now, says Jerry Braza, author of Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness. Ask “What am I missing while I’m making other plans?” he says.
19. Pretend you’ve won the Grand Prix!
Take a can of fizzy drink into the garden, shake it up and open it, advises stress expert and author Liz Tucker. “It’s such a silly, childish thing to do that it instantly shuts down your stress response and gets you laughing which provides a release,” she says.
Or simply shout out loud. Sounds obvious but, says Neil, it’s a great way to let go of pent-up tension that causes stress. If you feel silly, cheer on your footie team for the same benefits.
20. Press to distress
The middle of your palm corresponds to the solar plexus reflex point, the prime area for unwinding and relieving tension – so try this hand reflexology.
Massage the inside of your right palm with your left thumb in circles. Repeat on the other hand. Now find the sensitive spot in the web between your thumb and index finger. Press deeply, hold for 10 seconds and release.