When you’re stressed, it’s easy to get disconnected from your body’s best coping mechanisms: the senses. “In fight-or-flight mode, you can feel so overwhelmed that you forget to rely on your senses to guide you,” says Jennifer Bunzenmeyer, a Calgary-based naturopathic doctor. But new research shows that enlisting the powers of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste is the best way to beat stress. “Stress is here to stay, so we need every tool we have to help our bodies deal with it,” she says. Here’s our sense-by-sense guide.
Aromatherapy aficionados have long touted lavender’s relaxation benefits. Now it has company in the feel-goodscent department: A study published in Stress and Health reveals people who regularly breathe in peppermint essential oils are even less stressed (with lower cortisol levels) than those who use lavender. And don’t forget the uplifting scent of citrus. Japanese researchers discovered that inhaling the smell of lemon is an instant mood booster. Enhance the power of any fragrant stress fighter by inhaling very deeply. This technique contracts the muscles in your diaphragm and improves the flow of oxygen in your body. Take deep, slow breaths through your nose and visualize the air going into your lungs — you should see your belly inflating and deflating.
Ever found yourself at the bottom of a tub of Häagen-Dazs after an intense day? “People eat chocolate and candy during times of stress, but they don’t really pay attention to eating it,” says Bunzenmeyer. So, if you’re going to indulge, do it mindfully. “When you make an effort to taste the sweetness, you get a lot more satisfaction and will actually feel better.” And when you truly enjoy a treat, you’ll often find just a spoonful will do the trick.
Of course, there are foods that can help you manage stress without extra calories. Try combining complex carbs (fruits, veggies, whole grains), lean protein (beans, chicken, fish, eggs) and healthy fats (olive oil, grape-seed oil, avocado, seeds and nuts) for snacks and meals to balance out blood sugar and stabilize energy levels.
Even the simple act of chewing itself offers numerous therapeutic benefits. Researchers in Australia found gum chewers were less anxious and had lower cortisol levels than non-chewers as they completed a series of complicated computer problems.
Bunzenmeyer’s go-to snack for reducing stress is apple slices dipped in almond butter. For best results, try washing it all down with a cup of tea. A new study from University College London in the U.K. showed that a daily dose of black tea reduces stress hormones. It also found that tea drinkers recovered more quickly from stress than those who were given a steaming cup of placebo.
Proof that a little Coldplay after a hard day can take the edge off: Brain imaging shows certain music stimulates areas of the brain responsible for emotions. A U.K. sound therapist has used this information to develop — with the help of popular Manchester band Marconi Union — the most relaxing music ever recorded (it even slowed listeners’ heart rates). Keeping your iPod handy can also help relieve a pressure-packed situation. Researchers at the University of Montreal stressed people out (they had to do math in front of an audience), then sent some to a silent room while others got to listen to Enya. Only the music listeners didn’t experience a spike in cortisol levels.
Where you hang out may be adding to your stress. “Our environmental surroundings can definitely make a big difference to our stress levels,” says Bunzenmeyer. “A lot of clutter in your home or office can represent chaos.” But it’s not just about tidying up your room, she says. “If you love water, hang a picture of a waterfall or river on your wall. If your favourite colour is blue, try decorating with it.”
Even looking at something as small as a potted plant can help lower stress. When researchers at Washington State University put plants in a windowless workplace, they discovered people became more productive, had lower blood pressure and felt more focused than those working in a flora-free office. Another study tracked stress levels in London city workers before and after they went to an art gallery. After soaking up some Matisse and Picasso, the workers returned to their jobs and reported feeling less frazzled. Tests confirmed their cortisol levels had dropped.
There’s a good reason so many of us book time at the spa when our stress levels max out. “The touch of massage has definite relaxation benefits,” says Bunzenmeyer. “Plus, it helps that you’re actually taking a break and making some time for yourself too.” And while an hour at the spa would be bliss, in a pinch she recommends taking matters into your own hands — literally. While breathing deeply, knead your neck, shoulder and upper-back muscles. “That’s where we carry our stress,” she says. And you don’t have to do it for long: A mini self-massage while waiting at a red light can loosen you up. Even soothing textures can help. Got an important presentation today? Wear a soft, plush scarf — Bunzenmeyer says just the feel of it can have a calming effect.
Tell us in the comment section below: what is your go-to relaxation method?